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In TOWN DESTROYER 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.

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?

53 minutes
SDH Captioned

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

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"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
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