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Jude Ray on Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep North

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On how the film affects audiences...

What’s remarkable about our film is that it’s really a Rorschach Test for everyone who sees it. Audiences of different races, classes, and backgrounds experience it very differently. The film opens the door and invites audiences to express their feelings about how they view the family’s undertaking and why it affects them, in very personal ways. Their reactions depend entirely on how sympathetic viewers are to the family’s struggle to understand their own complicity in racism today. Their level of sympathy for the characters in the film, in turn, reflects how they define themselves in terms of race, class, and even religion and gender.


Viewers' reactions to the film also depend on how much they support where the film ultimately goes in pushing for reparations for slavery in this country.


We showed early samples of the film to blacks who were bothered by the amount of guilt and self-flagellation that this family exhibits. Other African-Americans have responded to it with tears – profoundly moved by the implicit apology contained in the undertaking altogether.


We’ve also seen whites reacting to the same material who refuse to identify with it because they feel the family’s class privilege separates them so strongly from the everyday experience of white people, in terms of racial attitudes and otherwise. Then again, at the same time, many white people who come from privilege identify completely with this family—to the point where they’re moved to action.


On Traces of the Trade and the dialogue of race...


What the film highlights is how contested an area in the national discourse this is because everybody brings their own deeply held beliefs and projections about class, race, and whether they feel like insiders or outsiders to this issue.


From a psychological perspective, our film is extremely effective in its goal of promoting dialogue. But the dialogue has to happen with the understanding that these projections are taking place—that we are unpacking them first.


The most effective dialogue will happen if we understand that our attitudes about race are merely projections of qualities onto others that separate us from one another. Those projections are what we have to look at to heal the scars that slavery has left.


Traces of the Trade: Reality TV before reality TV existed...


Making this film with ten family members was the ultimate in reality programming before reality programming was even conceived of. My design was to take ten people; send them around the world; give them assignments along the way; ask them to talk about their feelings in the most revealing ways possible, and make them interact with each other whether they want to or not. Put them under a microscope, and see what happens. What made this film so fascinating as a filmmaker was corralling these people and helping move them through so many different experiences, then witnessing how their characters developed over time within the crucible of the filmmaking process itself.


On how Traces of the Trade affected the cast and crew...


Katrina and I took ten members of this family through a series of adventures where they experience this emotional catharsis in reaction to the material and to one another. After seven years, three countries, and much effort, you have an experience that looks very coherent. Yet, going through it, the drama of pulling it all together was very, very challenging. Every single person associated with this project grew both personally and professionally because of it.


This was an experience that changed all of us who worked on it forever. Everybody who was there stopped slipping back into the habits of their everyday lives, as one family member put it, and really became aware of their own attitudes and behaviors in fascinatingly varied ways that profoundly altered the group and the individuals in it.


On reparations and her background as the daughter of Holocaust survivors...


I think my perspective on this material and part of what allowed me to become an active ally and supporter of Katrina and her family’s journey grew out of the fact that I am the child of a Holocaust survivor who was actually a recipient of reparations. I really have a very different understanding of what it means to try to repair an extraordinarily destructive and tragic series of actions in the past and what it means to future generations when that kind of acknowledgement takes place.


I believe that, psychologically, reparations are more necessary for the oppressors and the offenders than the victims because it’s an acknowledgement of one’s responsibility. For that reason, I was really fascinated by Katrina’s investigation into what that might mean and what that might look like. There are people all over the world who violently hate one another based on arguments between clans from hundreds of years ago that continue to be unresolved. From the Jewish perspective, the meaning of, and the call for, reparations comes directly out of the Bible and the experience of slavery in Egypt. The Holocaust reparations in the 20th Century were a direct reflection of that earlier experience.


Essentially there are ways for people to take responsibility and ownership for the bad that has happened. They don’t undo or negate history but allow the parties to look together toward the future instead of living in the past.


In my family, I know that there has been a sense—not for me as a child of this history, which I’m somewhat disconnected from, but from my mother — that reparations were necessary to her feeling able to forgive the people who murdered her family. These were the discussions that I grew up having, and this was the past I was exposed to. I think it gave me a different perspective on the material that allowed me to pull the family in interviews through this experience, without necessarily having the same emotional response to it.


Of course, I feel that, as a first-generation Jewish-American, I didn’t participate or have anything to do with perpetrating this history. I fall into the spectrum of people who do not identify with the DeWolf family's self-definition as perpetrators. I belong to a mixed race family, which includes black stepbrothers and stepmother and an entire extended family of color. I also grew up with anti-Semitism and feel I was much more a recipient of our more oppressive history in this country. At the same time, by calling myself an American, I adopt wholly an American identity. I'm just as invested in claiming the American Revolution and the Civil War as part of my history as I am in what happens in the present. As Americans we all care and adopt as part of our identity, not only the values that make up our country, but its history as well. This means we also adopt the crimes of the past and thus must look to find ways to share one another's pain, as well as share in healing that pain.


When my mother came to this country, she adopted, not only the positive aspects of the American experience, but also the negatives. That motivated where I was coming from in wanting to support this journey and investigate what it meant to this family.


On filming in Cuba and a very significant scene in the film...


There was a significant scene that became a key set piece in the film. During the journey it becomes clear that there are some fissures that are starting to emerge from the group that have to do with different perspectives expressed by family members of different genders.


The women are feeling one way about the trip, about the language used to talk about it, and the feelings that are coming out around the material that’s being presented while the men appear to the women to be much more intellectual about the same material, more separate from it, and, in some cases, (according to the women) more shut down.


A group dialogue was scheduled to be filmed in an incredibly hot and sloppy, severely uncomfortable ruin in the middle of the jungle in Cuba, once slave dwellings.


The family is desperately uncomfortable. People are asking for chairs, calling for bug spray, and pouring sweat. No one wants to be working and some are feeling increasingly unsure about the meaning and worth of the entire undertaking. They’re tired and cranky, and they're all expressing this.


At some point, Katrina, who is right in the middle of things, and a consulting producer obviously wanted to alleviate the family’s discomfort—you know, "Let’s go get the chairs and some bug spray so we can sit down and have this talk." I say, "No! Absolutely not! Where do you think we are? How are they going to understand the meaning of this place? This is where slaves once lived. There was no air conditioning. There was no way for the slaves to find comfort. Let’s just make everybody stay here and confront what this reality would have meant for the people that were working for this family 200 years ago, rather than escape into our own comfort zones."


Shortly began a giant outburst on the part of one of the family members, all captured on film, about the privileged nature of the journey thus far: the beautiful hotels we’d stayed in, the delicious meals specially-prepared for the family along the way, and the leisure time to even take such  journey. She expresses how conflicted she is feeling because she's starting to understand that wasn’t the way things must have been. Everything blows up, and the family of ten finally delves into an extremely honest confrontation about their own doubts about the undertaking and their relationships with one another. This becomes one of the set pieces in the film.


This is a great example of the caretaking required for the family. On the one hand, I was watching for people’s emotions and needed to be psychologically astute. At the same time, I was compelled to look out for the needs of the film, always alert to what might become a key dramatic moment, one that you really have to push and construct or help facilitate, rather than allow people to constantly go to the places where they are most comfortable.


This is an incredibly articulate family who were perfectly able to talk about things in a way that was compelling, but at the same time, they often resisted really getting to the heart of things emotionally. After this scene, a lot of their discussions changed significantly and deepened in a way that was fascinating for me, as I think it will be for audiences.


On managing emotions on set...


When confrontations occurred, it was very important for me as a director to tune into where the family didn’t want to go. One family member in particular was horrified that I was pushing him as much as I was to expose his feelings of, at that time, being attacked by the women and being told that he wasn’t being sensitive to anyone in a way he was certain that he had been.


It was extremely embarrassing for him to be put on the spot like this. Yet, at the same time, the confrontation led to profound discussions and a deepening of the relationship between the group's men and the women that only I was privy to. Because this man wanted to get out of the situation and simply disappear, I saw that an intervention was called for—sort of a continual kind of work that we did privately in between shoots to keep the family cohesive. This kind of support was crucial for encouraging family members to meet head on the tough emotional realities they were coming up against. And this is what led to the possibility of personal transformation so moving in the film.


On what influenced her mission as a filmmaker...


Growing up in a close knit, rough and tumble family with four siblings – often left to our own devices – I think imagination and self-expression were highly valued in my family. We lived among the country clubs and mansions of Main Line, Philadelphia. So, along with that, I developed early on a very strong sense of outrage at injustice, coupled with a profound awareness of individual responsibility and the need to speak out against power wrongly used. This began with absorbing my parents’ and my grandparents’ refugee stories then not merely observing class exclusions but feeling the sole-searing effects of overt anti-Semitism in my elementary school.


I early on took it upon myself to work with and for the disenfranchised and the disempowered. This film was the flipside of that personal mission and at the same time completely complementary. For that reason, when Katrina approached me to help her conceptualize her story on film and work on really getting it off the ground, I jumped at the chance. I hope the film will continue to make an impact and stimulate constructive dialogue wherever racial polarization occurs because we live in what so often appears to me a tragically broken world.


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