Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Filmmaker Taylor Feltner, the oldest of four boys in a big family, left his small Arkansas town of Morrilton at age 17 while everyone else stayed. “So I always felt a bit like an outsider,” he says. “When I come home with a stranger’s curiosity, I look at the family that raised me and I wonder what their lives were like before I came along.”
That’s part of his opening narration in his 74-minute documentary, “Man Shot Dead,” which premiered recently at the Little Rock Film Festival. He states that he will talk to certain members of his family and ask them about a certain incident that resulted in the murder of his grandfather. In some way, it has affected everyone in the family, and he is going to find out how. He comes home to Morrilton, AR, with his documentary crew and equipment, and aspires to gain insight about what happened, why it happened, and what happened after.
The main focus of “Man Shot Dead” is not the subjected incident itself but the reactions to it in present-day, as we learn through the dialogues of Feltner’s grandmother (Bernie), mother (Karen), and aunts (Glenna and Wanda). We’re first introduced to Bernie, who talks about how she first met her husband, Glen Dickson, and what he was like and how they related with each other through marriage. (“We never called each other by our first name,” she says at one point. “It was just ‘Honey.’”) Their daughters, Glenna, Wanda, and Karen, loved him and have fond memories of him.
It’s after that nostalgic opening that the documentary steadily decides to talk about the incident that cost Glen’s life on the night of July 25, 1966. Feltner and his brother, Grant (who we see often in the film), haven’t been told much about it; Grant has only heard little things about it. Feltner wants to know the full story, but because there are no reliable witnesses available and an inconsistent police report, he asks Karen, Bernie, Glenna, and Wanda to tell what they know about it. The only things that are most absolutely certain are that he was on another person’s property and he was shot with a rifle. It was ruled as justifiable homicide.
Why Glen was there to begin with is anyone’s guess. No one knows for sure, save for the only living witness, whose father was the one that shot him. Unfortunately, it seems she is unreliable. Later on, we see Feltner send her a handwritten letter, only to receive a response from presumably her lawyer. He sends another; no response. There are no clear answers to the reasoning behind Glen Dickson’s death, and to Karen, Bernie, Glenna, and Wanda, it seems that while there’s hardly a way to forget about it, it doesn’t hurt to at least try and let it be after all this time.
The main story being told in “Man Shot Dead” is how this family, the surviving mother and three daughters, continued on with their lives after Glen, the sole provider for the family, was killed. Understandably, they were all devastated at first (though Karen was probably better at hiding it, since according to Glenna, she didn’t cry the night they all heard the news). They stayed at a relative’s house for a while in Morrilton before Bernie knew they had to have a home of their own and bought a house. Bernie admits that raising and providing for three kids was rough at first, but through time they all managed to get by. They’ve grown very close together, always taking care of each other.
Now, some things may be kept inside that neither person wants to talk about, and they even joke about counseling and how they all might need it, particularly Karen who says she has more to say about herself that she won’t on film. Midway through, she sums up her life, and her family’s life: “Whether it just be that one night or things that happened before that, it set the stage for our lives. Our life has been great. We have a wonderful mother that took care of us. But it also robbed us of the things that we’ll never know about.” All the more heartbreaking is that she hardly had a chance to know her father, as she was only eight years old when he died. In probably the most poignant moment of the film, she states while holding back a tear, “I think every girl needs her daddy.”
The film is also a story of a man really getting to know his family in ways he hadn’t before. With his family’s history and the important event that changed their lives suddenly revealed to him, through this documentary project, Feltner can see these people not just as his mother, his grandmother, and his aunts; he understands what they’ve been through, knows what kind of people they were and how they became who they are now, and now sees them, particularly his mother, as stronger than he may have originally conceived.
And we do too, as a result of the finished product. I felt like I knew these people while I was watching this documentary and listening to them talk about what they knew, what they discover, how things were then, how they are now, and how they’ll go on living. And I understood them and was interested in everything they had to say. Karen Feltner, in particular, is one of the most fascinating people I’ve come across in a documentary—you don’t see characters in narrative fiction as compeling as this woman.
I should also praise “Man Shot Dead” on a technical level as well. Using old photographs, written documents, home-video footage, and even sound effects in the chilling sequence in which we’re told, according to the police report, what happened that fateful night, the film’s editing, by Jessica Schilling, is top-notch and makes the film even more captivating. It’s also shot gorgeously, by Feltner, Jennifer Braddock, Gabe Mayhan, and Andy Featherston—the sequence I think of in particular is where we see the brother, Grant, walking through a rural countryside and fishing in a nearby river.
“Man Shot Dead” is one of the very best films I’ve seen so far this year. I hope that after its world premiere at the Little Rock festival, it receives more audiences and recognition any way it can. It’s worth seeing to meet this family.