Traces of The Trade: A Story From The Deep North (2008) – Documentary Retroview

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traces posterTraces of The Trade: A Story From The Deep North is a deeply personal documentary made by seminarian-turned-filmmaker Katrina Browne, who sets out to investigate her forebears occupation as prominent New England slave traders and tries to identify what that fact of family history means to her living relatives and herself. The film is co-directed by Alla Kovgan and Jude Ray.

How to Find Out The Truth

Browne summoned nine of her relatives from across the U.S. to convene at their ancestral home in Bristol, Rhode Island, from which they would embark on a journey to retrace the Triangle Trade–the trafficking in human beings–that made their family rich, and had actually laid the foundation for America’s economic growth. Browne’s film lays bare some unpleasant facts that have been mostly left out of the telling of America’s socio-political economic history: that the slave trade was a northern enterprise and it provided most of the venture capital that built and ran most of America’s early industries, and built much of the nation‘s early infrastructure.

In her film, Browne says she realized she’d always known but never quite acknowledged her still-affluent and prominent family’s financial base. In much the same way, she suggests, America has known but not acknowledged that the slave trade funded national growth. This is part of the national psyche and it influences race relations in this country to this day.

In the film, Browne and her relatives, and others who are interviewed along the way, grapple with personal issues that arise out of the newfound knowledge–feelings of guilt and culpability, how to define the nature of retribution and forgiveness, determining whether reparations should be forthcoming and, if so, what they should be. Is it possible to overcome the ongoing racism in America? These questions that are put forth in what is essentially a family dialogue really lay the foundation for a more universal American debate, one that addresses our core values and evaluates our accomplishments. It’s a discussion that seems essential to our nation’s well being.

Technically, this film is a well-structured, beautifully photographed and finely edited cinema verite documentary. There are no special effects, no fancy graphics, no gimmicks. Browne is looking for the truth, and she goes about trying to keep her filming of it truthful. She is present in the film as one of the characters, but that’s as it should be. The film is definitely her story, but it’s always well balanced, never ego-centric. She neither dominates or drives the action. In fact, Browne, who approached this project as though it were a mission, is extraordinarily honest, brave and determined in her approach, and the result is a documentary that confronts you out of complacency and forces you to examine your own beliefs and behavior. That’s an exercise well worth pursuing. See this film!

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