Virginia Film Festival screens 'Truth Tellers'

Oct 28, 2021

Artist Robert Shetterly at work on his 'Americans Who Tell The Truth' series.
Credit Truth Tellers

The Virginia Film Festival runs through Sunday, when the film Truth Tellers will be screened.  It's a documentary about a painter-turned-activist who memorializes iconic Americans, including some remarkable Virginians.  WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Surrealist artist Robert Shetterly started painting portraits as a personal therapy project in the early 2000s.

Credit Robert Shetterly

ROBERT SHETTERLY: It was the propaganda and prevarication that the Bush administration -- this is George W. Bush administration -- used to enlist support for the war against Iraq. I was so distraught about that that I realized I needed to do something radical in the way I worked and thought and behaved in order to bring myself back into line with this country, to feel like I lived in a country that I could actually respect.

And thus, the "Americans Who Tell the Truth" series was born. Two decades and 260 paintings later, and he still isn't done. His portrait subjects rise from monochromatic backgrounds with delicately rendered, life-like faces -- their own quotes inscribed into the paint. Shetterly and his subjects are featured in the documentary Truth Tellers, which plays at the Paramount Theater at 1:15 p.m. this Sunday.

RICHARD KANE: I started in, I think it was 2003, to follow Rob in his meetings with what he calls his 'models of courageous citizenship.'

The portrait subjects span the whole of U.S. history, from John Muir to Stacey Abrams. Filmmaker Richard Kane finds the portraits healing -- a guide to embodying moral courage.

Director Richard Kane
Credit Truth Tellers

KANE: From my perspective, this country is really experiencing an identity crisis. Are we a country that embraces our founding ideals, as Rob talked about, our founding ideals of liberty, equality, and justice for all? Are we a country that seeks a sustainable existence for all of us? Or are we a country that stacks the cards against the poor, the marginalized, the people of color -- further enriching the wealthy? And that says to hell with climate change?

One of the subjects featured in the film is Zyahna Bryant. Now a UVA student and community organizer, she led the charge to have Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue removed when she was just 15. Unfortunately, WMRA was not able to reach Bryant for an interview.

SHETTERLY: What I often do, when I'm invited to a place … I ask them, you know, if I were to paint somebody from your community, who would it be?

Zyahna Bryant and Rob Shetterly, in front of Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue, which the city finally removed in July.
Credit Truth Tellers

KANE: She walked past the statue of Robert E. Lee in Robert E. Lee Park for many years as a child walking to school. And then, when she came of age, she realized that this was a man who stood for enslaving her people. So she had the courage to start a movement, to write a letter to the city council, asking for the statue to be removed. This takes a great deal of courage.

Another Virginian featured in the portrait series is Barbara Johns, the Black high school student who organized the walkout at Moton High School in Farmville in 1951.

SHETTERLY: A young person, again, she was only 16, you know, decides to lead a walkout at her school to demand -- and she wasn't even demanding integration. She was just demanding a separate but actually equal school. And, you know, it led to a case about integration and led to being a primary case of Brown versus Board of Education.

One of the points Shetterly hopes to get across is that voting is not the only way to foster change in the world.

SHETTERLY: Well in fact, of course many great changes in this country have come about from children, or from women when they couldn't vote. You know, people who could not vote in this country, or many Black people who could not vote. They forced the country to behave by its own ideals.

Kane hopes that Sunday's viewers leave the theater inspired --

KANE: … to become active citizens, and to speak their minds, and to act to change the way things are today.

Kane and Shetterly will be joined by another model featured in the film, singer-songwriter and activist Reggie Harris, for a discussion after the screening.