TOWN DESTROYER: When Art Offends

By C.J. Hirschfield

October 8, 2022

For a documentary to even-handedly and adroitly cover a complex, painful and controversial subject in just 52 minutes requires not only talent, but a clarity of vision, and cinematic compassion.

Award-winning Bay Area filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman have accomplished just that in their timely Town Destroyer, with its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival Saturday, October 8.“Town Destroyer” is a translation of the name given to George Washington by the Iroquois nation after he demanded the total destruction of their settlement and crops in a 1779 attack against the tribe that was aligned with the British.

The event is depicted in a 1936 mural located in San Francisco’s George Washington High School, by acclaimed Communist artist Victor Arnautoff, who studied under Diego Rivera and was part of a movement that “hoped to inspire change through criticism of the present political system.”

The mural features a group of pioneers walking over the dead body of a Native American, and has been controversial for years, but things came to a very emotional and heated head in 2019.

Is the mural an unacceptable trauma trigger for Native Americans and other students of color, who express their disgust at hearing “I’ll meet you at the dead Indian,” or is it a piece of art that depicts an ugly history not typically taught in books, and that could be used as an opening for serious discussion?

Depends on who you talk to, and the filmmakers have done an admirable job identifying artists, professors and curators of color who provide passionate and articulate insights on the subject, as well as educating us about Arnautoff and other contemporary muralists of color who are depicting the painful –and ignored–history of their people.

“Trauma can become an easy way to justify erasure of things we just don’t like,” one featured speaker offers. “Another says about destroying the mural “Today is a good day, as hopeful as I am, to end white supremacy.”

The story was covered nationally, and locally, the San Francisco Chronicle headline read “Free Speech In Clash With Racial Justice.”

The scenes in which the San Francisco school board meets to consider the fate of the mural are at times truly frightening, as screaming and even violence is observed.

At the end of the day, a number of celebrities and concerned citizens weighed in on the side of the mural’s preservation, including Alice Walker, Danny Glover, Native elders, and the school’s Alumni Association.

“It’s not about choosing sides; there can be multiple perspectives,” says a Black history professor at UCLA. “No one person can tell the story; no one group can tell the story. Every story we tell is incomplete.”

And as the film informs us at the end: “The debate continues.”

Town Destroyer Official Website.

The Mill Valley Film Festival runs from October 6-16.

Town Destroyer shows October 8, 14 and 15.  The first screening will be followed by a panel discussion with the directors Deborah Kaufman, Alan Snitow and special guests to be announced. The filmmakers will appear at the other screenings. It also will be streaming onto your TV and devices through Sunday, October 16. Purchase tickets and more info here.


C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.

C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”


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