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Mural that helped ignite SF school board recall continues to inspire debate

Visitors at George Washington High School in San Francisco | Courtesy of Snitow-Kaufman Productions

Like the violence immortalized in paint on the walls of George Washington High School, some wounds never heal. 

Communist Victor Arnautoff painted the 13-panel mural “Life of Washington” in 1936 and its graphic depiction of violence and enslavement have fueled discussions around trauma, censorship and the role of art ever since. 

The mural’s controversy re-erupted in 2019, creating divisions within the community—and sparking a prolonged battle within the San Francisco Board of Education that ultimately helped ignite the recall of three commissioners.

Yet filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow seek to change the incendiary nature of the debate even as their documentary film, Town Destroyer, keeps a more productive conversation going. With the start of American Indian Heritage Month, it’s a perfect time to discuss Native history and present. 

 “We wanted to create a space where people could talk and not scream,” Kaufman said. 

As evidence of this coalition-building, the screenings at the Roxie, which kicked off Friday night, will benefit various stakeholders: Precita Eyes Muralists; the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone; the California Institute for Community, Arts and Nature; and the Living New Deal.

K Pontuti views signs outside The Roxie Theater on 16th Street in San Francisco Calif., on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. A few stores down the Little Roxie Theater screened Town Destroyer, a film about controversial murals at George Washington High School. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

The weeklong run is an unusual commitment for an independent theater to make for a documentary that’s under an hour long, and it demonstrates the debate’s continued relevance at a time when public art is coming under increased scrutiny. As society tries to determine how and who we remember, the San Francisco Arts Commission is conducting a citywide survey for the public’s feedback on its 98 monuments and memorials

At the heart of this larger conversation is a fundamental question over art’s function. Should it provoke conversations by depicting reality as it once was, with all its gory details? Or should it reflect our current mores, striving not to re-traumatize people who have already suffered? 

Sarita Lavin, a social studies teacher at George Washington High School, regularly incorporates the mural into her curriculum and insists it must be taught in historical context. 

While Kaufman and Snitow’s documentary film takes its name from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nickname for George Washington, the first president’s grandfather had the same nickname as his grandson.  

Filmmaker Alan Snitow stands in front of an audience after a screening of the film Town Destroyer at the Little Roxie Theater in San Francisco Calif., on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. The film highlights the debate about controversial murals at George Washington High School. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

“He [Washington] comes from a long line of stealing land and genocide,” Lavin said. 

While it’s widely reported that students at the school used to cynically quip, “meet me at the dead Indian,” that is no longer a phrase they use, and most don’t pay much attention to the mural, according to Lavin. However, this may speak more to desensitization than anything else: At one point, a cheerleading tryouts poster was hung underneath the depiction of the dead Native person.

But just because people have become numb to violent images, doesn’t mean they don’t continue to cause harm.

“There is measurable data to show what happens to Native children when they view inaccurate images of themselves,” Lavin said. “It’s the driving factor behind Native students having the highest suicide rates among youth.” 

The mural is not the only work by Artaunoff’s to stir questions and controversy—the artist was publicly derided for his leftist politics during his lifetime.  

“All art is propaganda,” Arnautoff said in response, quoting his own teacher, Diego Rivera. 

Like Arnautoff, the directors’ intent is to drive conversation, and so far, it’s working. Town Destroyer had its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, where it inspired plenty of respectful discussion.

 “We had to kick people out of the theater,” Kaufman said of the world premiere, “because people couldn’t stop talking.” And at its opening at the Roxie Friday night, there wasn’t enough time to take all the comments, which included a reminder of the recently appointed school board members and the upcoming election. 

“Our intent was to break the binary,” Kaufman said. “And I think we did.” 

Nearly every screening of the film at the Roxie benefits a different stakeholder: Saturday, Nov. 5, benefits Precita Eyes Muralists; Sunday, Nov. 6, the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone; Wednesday, Nov. 9, the California Institute for Community, Arts and Nature; Thursday, Nov. 10, the Living New Deal. All of these nights—as with Friday, Nov. 4, opening, will feature a discussion with the filmmakers. 

Town Destroyer

The Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., SF
Nov. 4-10, Various Times | $5-$14