Children protest book banning — BIFF talk with filmmakers

A group of four or five girls sit casually in a classroom, all of them bright and decisive, and nine or 10 years old. They talk about the books they bring home to sink into at the end of the day. They read for pleasure and play, they say, and reassurance and excitement. They read to learn, to understand the world they’re growing into.

And they are acutely aware how empty the shelves of their school libraries have become. Books they love and have learned from have vanished. They find it hard even to find books at their reading level. ‘They’re leaving us with Junie B. Jones — that’s Second Grade.

When Sheila Nevins, former Executive Producer at MTV Networks, set out to make a film about book banning with co-directors Trish Adlesic and Naz Habtezghi, they talked with people the bans are affecting directly. The children.

Berkshire International Film Festival screened The ABCs of Book Banning at the heart of the festival, and Nevins came for a conversation with Academy awardwinning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, along with clips from Kopple’s films.

As Nevins talks with students, they make clear how bare and oversimplified their libraries have become, and from elementary school to high school, they know what they are missing.

In some conversations, the filmmakers gave them books to look through, when that they might not otherwise have been able to read them, and asked the students what they thought. They find the stories funny, playful, intriguing, moving. The books don’t worry them, but they push against the restrictions, one after another — When you take away these stories, people can’t be who they are.

Academy award-winning director Barbara Kopple will talk with Award-winning producer Sheila Nevins about the ABCs of Book Banning at the Berkshire International Film Festival. Press photo courtesy of BIFF
Barbara Kopple

Academy award-winning director Barbara Kopple will talk with Award-winning producer Sheila Nevins about the ABCs of Book Banning at the Berkshire International Film Festival. Press photo courtesy of BIFF

‘I go towards my fear’

In 1974, Barbara Kopple went to Harlan County, Kentucky, to see a miners’ strike on ghe ground. the miners working for the Eastover Mining Co. joined the United Mine Workers of America, and mine company’s corporate parent, Duke POWER, refused to sign the standard union contract.

Kopple spent a year with the 180-odd families involved in the strike, and she went on to win the 1976 Academy Award for Harlan County, USA.

‘At first no one trusted us,’ she told the crowd at the Mahaiwe.

She remembers the turning point. She was coming to join the picket line at 4 or 5 a.m., heading downhill on a slick road with no guardrails, and got into an accident, enough to bog down her car, and so she walked the rest of the way in the rain. From then on, people would help her.

In the clip reel, she had shown a moment when a man in a pickup challenged her presence, asking to see her ID. She asks to see his, and he moves on.

People on the picket line told her the last person to challenge him with a film camera had gotten shot, she said. ‘I learned what life-and-death was all about.’

The pressure has intensified sharply in recent years.

“There were 2000 books challenged,” Nevins said, in the year she began the film — “Now there are 10,000.”

According to the American Library Association, book challenges rose in 2023 to highest levels ever documented — more than doubling the number from 2022. Book titles targeted for censorship spiked by 65 percent in 2023, compared to 2022, the ALA says, with efforts to censor 4,240 unique book titles.

In the film, a procession of them cross the screen. The sound of a stamp slams down across a cover, and then another, showing a book challenged within the past few years, and red letters appear. Banned. Restricted. Removed.

When the stamp comes down on the illustrated Diary of Anne Frank, and on Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the crowd watching at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center falls completely still. In the screen a teenage girl tells us, I could have been Anne Frank. Banning the book, for her, is killing her history.

One of the voices in the film has lived through those years. Grace Lin, 100 years old at the time of the filming and still active today, walks up steep stairs to a school board meeting to protest their decisions.

“My husband was killed in action in World War II,” she tells them, “fighting for our freedom.”

‘My husband was killed in action in World War II, fighting for our freedom.’ — Grace Lin, activist for books and against bans

And one of the freedoms the Nazis stripped away, she says, was the freedom to read. And write. And think. Book banning comes from fear, she said — fear of knowledge. And fear is not freedom.

Writers and thinkers weave their thoughts into the conversation around her, so that the film holds their voices along with the children who are listening and responding.

I don’t want people to be silenced.’ — Barbara Kopple

“Words have to be free,” says internationally and warmly acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni. “We’re the ones who have to decide what to do with what we are hearing and what we are saying.”

A young Black girl who has read Nikki Giovanni’s book, Rosa, telling the story of Rosa Parks, and knows the book has been banned, looks into the camera with a direct challenge to anyone who would take this story away from her. Her voice lifts clear with strength and pain.

“No. Just — No. If you are one of the people who have banned this — why?”

The Berkshire International Film Festival brings four days of film to Western Mass. Press photo courtesy of BIFF
Photo by Kevin Sprague

The Berkshire International Film Festival brings four days of film to Western Mass. Press photo courtesy of BIFF

Gumbo Coalition

‘I don’t want people to be silenced, Barbara Kopple told the room at BIFF.

She taught herself filmmaking from the ground up, she said, learning as many parts of the process as she could.

‘I decided to learn everything I could,’ she said at the Mahaiwe — ‘ editing, sound, camera — I wanted to learn everything, so no one could tell me ‘you can’t do that.”

‘I decided to learn everything I could, so no one could tell me ‘you can’t do that.’

She has found a deep commuity to work with, as she describes the arc of her work, from studying with the New School and with Albert and David Maysles, the brothers who documented The Beatles’ first visit to the United States in 1964, to founding her own company, Cabin Creek Films in New York.

In her most recent film, she looks to two leaders for equal rights and social justice, Marc Morial, former Mayor of New Orleans and President of the National Urban League, and Janet Murguía, President of UnidosUS, an advocacy organization for the country’s Latino community — as they navigate the Trump presidency, a shooting motivated by racism in El Paso, the pandemic, and the death of George Floyd, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, elections, and the storming of the Capitol.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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