History behind 1995 student documentary “Can We Talk?”

In the 1995-96 school year, the Multicultural Student Affairs group on St. Olaf’s campus worked with Associate Professor of Theater William Sonnega to create a documentary-style short film depicting an organic conversation among students about race relations on campus. Twenty-five years later, this piece continues to spark conversation and was re-released by the Political Awareness Committee (PAC) on Sept. 20, 2020 in response to protests surrounding race-based oppression at St. Olaf and in the larger United States.

In the fall of 1995, the Multicultural group came up with a loose idea to produce a movie of some kind to draw attention to issues of racism at St. Olaf. They invited Sonnega to help aid this effort. From there, the group, including Sonnega, met weekly for months in conversation. The final film, entitled “Can We Talk,” ended up becoming a yearlong project.

Sonnega credits the final product to the community that developed over time within the group. He looks back fondly on the relationships fostered throughout the year and valued that space to talk openly and honestly about what it truly means to be a minority student in a predominantly white institution.

“When I look back on it, my one regret is that we didn’t have cameras rolling the whole time because there were some really tremendous, deep, difficult conversations,” said Sonnega.

After many meetings, they chose one Saturday to take the raw footage for their film. In a format similar to that of the show “60 Minutes,” the film shows a group of students sitting on risers, passing around a microphone and conversing. They had prompting questions, but mostly the film is just free-flowing conversation and testimony. Sonnega described the different technology of the time and the challenges of editing the VHS tape, which ultimately took months to finalize.

The film brings up themes of representation and microaggressions and specifically calls out the oftentimes difficult, restricting and silencing experiences of being a person of color at St. Olaf. The movie shows students openly sharing stories, sometimes joking and other times being very vulnerable.

The original plan for the film was to hold a screening on campus as well as to show the film to specific classes and hold peer dialogues in response to viewing. The goal was to expand the conversation around race for the entire St. Olaf community. Before the release, however, the team decided to send a preliminary courtesy copy to the St. Olaf administration. This copy prompted initial discomfort and was deemed potentially too disruptive.

A few copies were shared, and Sonnega describes the film slowly being put on the backburner with original plans never being fulfilled. Of course, as it was 25 years ago, there were less immediate ways to share the content behind the back of the administration.

“When I really think about it today, I don’t know if we would have floated that courtesy copy,” Sonnega said.

Sonnega routinely showed the film to his classes, but other than that, it was forgotten about for a number of years. The next time it was actively brought up was in response to the 2017 protests on campus. Sonnega remembers a faculty member reaching out to him wondering where the footage had gone. At that point, it was converted to digital, reshared, and shown in Tomson 280 to a group of students.

Four years after those protests, the film has been brought up yet again. Since the re-release from PAC, there has been talk of doing another project similar to this one with current students or even bringing back original alumni shown in the video to comment 25 years later. Sonnega described current St.Olaf students being excited about finding ways to continue the project.

“I think that the students’ insight 25 years ago is still really fresh in that, in their video, they talk about failure and opportunity, what’s not working and what’s working, and moreover how it all feels on a day-to-day basis,” said Sonnega. “And I’m hopeful that we all at St. Olaf College can get to that place where we are having those conversations.”

You can watch the 17-minute film on the Instagram account for St. Olaf’s PAC @sgastolafpac.


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