A high profile battle erupts over images of African American slaves and Native Americans in New Deal-era murals at a San Francisco high school.
Directed by Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman
Produced by Snitow-Kaufman Productions
Executive Producer: Peggy Berryhill (Muscogee)
Writers: Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman
Editor: Gregory Scharpen
Original Music: Carla Khilstedt, Matthias Bossi
Cinematography: Ulli Bonnekamp, Vicente Franco, Phil Geyelin, Ashley James, Marsha Kahm, Alan Snitow
A Snitow-Kaufman Production
[Note: Community screenings of TOWN DESTROYER can be booked at Bullfrog Communities.]
"A fascinating documentary about the debate between free speech and social justice." Quelle Movies
TOWN DESTROYER explores the ways we look at art and history at a time of racial reckoning. The story focuses on a dispute over historic murals depicting the life of George Washington: slaveowner, general, land speculator, President, and a man Seneca leaders called "Town Destroyer" after he ordered their villages destroyed during the Revolutionary War.
The murals, at San Francisco's George Washington High School, were painted in 1936 by leftwing artist Victor Arnautoff, a student of Diego Rivera. The murals both praise Washington and—rare for the time—critically depict him overseeing his slaves and directing the bloody seizure of Native lands. Most controversial is a provocative image of a dead Indian—life-size, eye-level, and at the center of the school.
The film addresses current debates over trauma, student safety, and cancel culture: Do images trigger trauma in students? How should a changing society deal with controversial works of art? Do the intentions of the artist matter? Or just the impact on viewers? Is it censorship to destroy murals that show painful histories? What does our country owe people who have been historically wronged?
Other films by Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow are Secrets of Silicon Valley, Thirst, Between Two Worlds, Drones in My Backyard, and Company Town.
Grade Level: 8 - 12, College, Adults
US Release Date: 2023
Copyright Date: 2022
DVD ISBN: 1-948745-90-9
"Town Destroyer is a stunning film and a powerful pedagogical resource for stimulating dialogue on controversial issues because it makes the viewer engage with competing perspectives, the emotions tied to them, and wide-ranging issues that include controversial art, educational dilemmas, and the legacy of our traumatic national history. The discussions I've had with graduate students in my teacher education program, high school teachers, school district leaders, and university-based teacher educators have been so rich, nuanced, and generative - the kind of discussions we desperately need in this era of intense polarization."
Judy Pace, Professor of Teacher Education, University of San Francisco, Author, Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues
"The response was fantastic in my 1930s American cultural history class. I actually had another topic planned for the third hour of class, but we skipped that entirely so we could continue the conversation sparked by the film. These were art school students very attuned to social issues, but they had never learned much about Native American history, especially from a non-white supremacist standpoint."
Kara Heitz, Dept. of Liberal Arts, Kansas City Art Institute
"Victor Arnautoff's breathtaking masterpiece of muralism is illuminated in this thoughtful, balanced, and insightful film."
Susan Kelk Cervantes, Founding Director, Precita Eyes Muralists Association
"Town Destroyer prompts a critical examination of the role and limits of provocation in art, especially in regards to who provokes whom."
Jonathan Cordero, Exec. Director, Assn. of Ramaytush Ohlone, the original peoples of the San Francisco Peninsula
"An important contribution towards understanding contemporary generational perspective in relation to Native lived experiences, art, histories, and education."
John-Carlos Parea, Chair, American Indian Studies, San Francisco State University
"Town Destroyer stimulated one of the most engaging discussions we have had among the students in my course on modern American cultural history. The film helped them to articulate their own disparate views on controversial art and to respectfully discuss challenging issues of inclusion and diversity."
Kathy Peiss, Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History, University of Pennsylvania
"Snitow and Kaufman are splendid, deeply thoughtful documentary filmmakers, and their film Town Destroyer about San Francisco's Washington High School murals is a work of real importance. At the heart of the film about the high school controversy are issues as pertinent - and complex - as artistic freedom, the politics of trauma, and the wages of historical accuracy. The discussion it inspired was spirited, memorable, and wonderfully congenial."
Steven J. Zipperstein, Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, Stanford University
"This is an excellent film, sophisticated and rigorous in its attention to the multiple and deeply-felt perspectives on the Victor Arnautoff murals. With balance and sensitivity, it engages histories of erasure and brutality involving Indigenous, African American, and LatinX communities as well as of Left progressivism, past and present. It leaves viewers with no easy answers and should be of value to educators who seek to spotlight critical issues of art and social justice, public works and historical trauma."
Steven Garabedian, Associate Professor of History, Marist College, Author, A Sound History: Lawrence Gellert, Black Musical Protest, and White Denial
"Who is the 'public' for public art? How do we weigh the competing claims made by its viewers? Focusing on the controversies surrounding Victor Arnautoff's great murals for the George Washington High School in San Francisco, Town Destroyer delves thoughtfully into these and other key questions. It is both an analysis and a product of the debates brought about by challenging works of art and a terrific guide into some of the central issues about art made in the public's name."
Anthony Lee, Professor of Art History, Mt. Holyoke College, Author, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics and San Francisco's Public Murals
"Town Destroyer provides the context, nuance, and plural perspectives too often lacking in the us-them binaries that dominate media coverage of public art controversy and calls for removals. While their cameras capture the infamous emotional shouting matches at various hearings and meetings, Snitow and Kaufman spend most of the film with thoughtful interlocutors (particularly Indigenous and Black artists and scholars) who provide sensitive and researched depth and sensitivity to the issue. Highly recommended for any educator, practitioner, or administrator of public art."
Annie Dell'Aria, Associate Professor of Art History, Miami University
"Town Destroyer evenhandedly examines the controversies - both in the late 1960s and today - over representations of Native Americans and African-Americans in a complex New Deal mural. Numerous scholars, artists, historians, students and ordinary citizens weigh in on issues of censorship and reparation, education and eradication, trauma and history. This extraordinary film deftly demonstrates that there are not 'two sides' to a controversy, but multiple, nuanced perspectives."
Janet Catherine Berlo, Professor of Art History and Visual and Cultural Studies Emerita, University of Rochester, Author, Native North American Art
"Town Destroyer offers a rich exploration of an important episode in our current era of iconoclasm: the proposed destruction of Victor Arnautoff's The Life of Washington. Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman have brought together interviews with a range of stakeholders including students at the school where the mural resides, local Native activists and artists, scholars and members of San Francisco's school board to explore a range of responses to the painting's frank representation of slavery and Native genocide. Demonstrating that the decision to remove controversial monuments is never uncomplicated, this film is a powerful teaching tool."
Elizabeth Hutchinson, Associate Professor and Co-chair of Art History, Barnard College/Columbia University
"An intelligent and timely film documenting a fractious public debate about the presence of controversial monumental art in a bitterly divided American society critically questioning the patriotic fiction of a common history and skeptical about its future as a nation. Aptly titled Town Destroyer, it focuses on trenchant frescoes in a high school that depict George Washington, the republic's founding father, as a slave-owner, Indian fighter, and revolutionary war hero. It even-handedly raises the polemical question of whether whitewashing these murals will remove the stain of white supremacy. Enthusiastically recommended for vigorous classroom discussion."
Dr. Harald E.L. Prins, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Kansas State University
|DVDs include public performance rights.
Awards and Festivals
Special Jury Prize for Social Impact, Mendocino Film Festival
Best Documentary, ReadingFilmFEST
Mill Valley Film Festival
Salem Film Fest
Sebastopol Film Festival
Ouray International Film Festival
Race and Racism
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... more Reviews
"Town Destroyer makes you stop and think - which is a brave and even dangerous thing to do in today's America."
David Talbot, New York Times best-selling author of The Season of the Witch
"Fiery, Nuanced, Remarkable. Town Destroyer sheds new light on our first president. It also illuminates a work of art that roiled the city and the nation."
San Francisco Examiner
"Not to be missed."
San Francisco Chronicle
"A fascinating overview of a case that encapsulates many of the bitterest divisions of our era. After seeing the film, you will be jonesing to see Arnautoff's magnum opus in person because it looks quite stunning."
Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills
"A remarkable perceptive, insightful new documentary."
Kelly Vance, East Bay Express
"For a documentary to even-handedly and adroitly cover a complex, painful, and controversial subject 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."
C.J. Hirschfield, Eat, Drink, Films
"If you thought you could now talk calmly about Victor Arnautoff and his art, Americans Indians and George Washington, think again. Town Destroyer - an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist film - is likely to stir up all over again fundamental issues about censorship, trauma, genocide and ethnicity...Art can make viewers uncomfortable."
Jonah Raskin, Counterpunch
"A fascinating documentary about the debate between free speech and social justice through the lens of one controversial piece of art."
Raquel Stecher, Quelle Movies
"The fractious debate...is the foundation for a global discourse on what is art, what is history and what is no longer acceptable...[A] thorny and volatile issue."
Randy Myers, The Mercury News
"Town Destroyer effectively presents - without resolving - the controversy about whether the murals legitimate racism and are so hurtful that they should be painted over; or whether they represent an important early critique of genocide and slavery and should be kept as teaching resources. The film could be used to provoke conversation in professional development settings or in high school classrooms."
"Thoughtful and occasionally emotionally-charged interviews with artists, educators, community members, parents and students show all sides of a complex question...[The film provides] abundant topics for history, social studies, social justice and humanities classes, as well as obvious connections to art and art history. An excellent choice for high school collections."
Maggie Knapp, School Library Journal
"Enlightening...With recent talk of censorship and tearing down statues of Confederate heroes, this timely documentary invites discussions in U. S. history, American culture, and art classrooms and has earned a spot in school and public library collections beyond San Francisco. Recommended."
Sue-Ellen Beauregard, Video Librarian
"Town Destroyer thoughtfully examines these controversial and timely topics of art, American history, and social justice...This film delivers a well-balanced and considerate exploration of all aspects of the debate including trauma and its repetition, the artist's intent, and art preservation. It is highly recommended for courses in U.S. history or art history and will inspire reflection and discussion among viewers."
Kathleen H. Flynn, University at Albany, Educational Media Reviews Online