Dolly grip Tripp Pair has been handing out little stickers that say “Stop and Care” for several years now, and he’s been so very earnest about it. He has meant it with every fiber of his being and I saw him sharing #stopandcare on Facebook again this morning and was moved to write about something that’s been on my mind.
This past Thursday a young woman named Sarah Jones, a member of our local film community, died on the set of a movie shooting in south Georgia. She was hit by a train. We all hold the strong suspicion that she died due to some very bad decisions made by the people producing the film, but that suspicion has not been confirmed by criminal investigators (not yet, anyway). While the final assignment of blame is still under investigation, Atlanta crews have been mourning the loss of their friend and of a bright young woman whose lifetime of cinematic adventure ended far too soon.
So many people have written about Sarah and shared stories and photos and clippings about her. I appreciated the simplicity of this blog post by my friend D, whose blog on the art of the dolly grip is always educational and so very well written. I just needed to post something here to my blog to mark this week for myself, because as events are cast into memory they often become streamlined and simplified, and there’s nothing simple about the way any of us have felt over the past few days. People couldn’t stop talking about Sarah’s death at our afternoon IATSE meeting yesterday (Sunday) but we’re reaching a saturation point and the shock is wearing off and people are moving on toward the next step of trying to find meaning.
I didn’t know Sarah, but I worked with her. That may sound absurd to people outside the business, but that’s the reality of day-playing in a city blessed by so many projects that it’s impossible to walk onto a set and know the entire crew. Like me, several very experienced old-timers I’ve spoken with didn’t know Sarah personally but have worked with her on various projects. I crossed her path when I day-played on a popular television series shot east of downtown, and in the past few days I’ve seen friends from that show posting photos of themselves with Sarah and you can feel the love they shared and recognize how much fun they had together on and off set.
In a private Facebook conversation with camera operator Denise Bailie in the hours following the breaking news of the “accident” I was reminded of the dangers of film sets we’d worked together on in the past and she remarked about how crews typically assume that there are measures in place to ensure our safety; that the grownups have done their due diligence in ensuring that we work in a safe environment. Her point was of course that crews often operate on faith and don’t verify the safety of their working conditions, particularly on low budget shows.
And then Denise said something quite profound, something that explains why I couldn’t stop thinking about this 27 year old girl that I’d never really had the chance to know:
“She is any one of us.”
That one sentence explained everything in an instant, why this “accident” felt so personal to me. The events that led to Sarah’s death could have happened to any man or woman working in the film industry, in any state, in any country anywhere around the world.
What happened to Sarah happened to us all.
I trust that the party or parties responsible for this “accident” will be brought to justice, but in the meantime a lot of the experienced department keys around Georgia were left scratching their heads and wondering aloud (or in print) why their peers on the set of Midnight Rider didn’t question the sequence of events that placed this young woman in harm’s way and the answer to that question is this:
It was most likely a systemic failure.
The safety system that should have been in place that day failed. Or maybe it didn’t exist at all on that set.
People tend to be really good at making assumptions and really bad at communicating. Any number of department heads could have stepped forward to prevent this “accident” and so in some way we may have all failed Sarah (and her generation of filmmakers) by relaxing our vigilance on set and by making false assumptions like “Maybe someone else has taken care of this issue since nobody has raised a question about it so far”. Were you as safety conscious before Thursday’s news?
Last night I noted that a delightful prop assistant named Erin Santini had reposted an Instagram from a set in New York City where someone (I assume another 2nd AC) is holding a slate with Sarah’s name taped on the clapper as a sign of solidarity. I was unexpectedly moved by the image and by the idea that this sort of observance of Sarah’s death might spread around the country or around the world. I wish that every editor out there might see Sarah’s name on slates as they sit down to edit dailies and be reminded of the beautiful people out there working on set.
In life, Sarah was the embodiment of Atlanta’s vibrant next generation of filmmakers. In death, she is going to mean something very special.
She will certainly not be forgotten.
Sarah is going to save lives.
Sarah is going to challenge the idea of who decides what conditions are considered safe.
Sarah is going to encourage less-experienced crew members to speak up when they feel that they’ve been put in danger just to get a shot.
Sarah is going to inspire the movement to create a nationwide best-practices safety system for the IATSE, with required continuing education as happens with other professional crafts out there in the real world. I think they should name it after her, personally.
Sarah has reminded crews from around the country and around world that beyond our regional rivalries we’re all interconnected and that these avoidable “accidents” can happen anywhere in the world.
In the end I am Sarah, and you are Sarah.
She is any one of us.
My deepest condolences to any of Sarah’s friends who may run across this post some day. You knew her as more than just a name in a blog post about movie crews.
An hour or two after I’d posted this a Facebook page sprang up to display photos of slates to memorialize and honor Sarah – it’s beautiful (Facebook link: Slates for Sarah ) In less than 12 hours they’d been sent more than 45 photos… a terribly moving tribute and it’s probably going to grow. I’ve honestly become saturated by it all. I’m going to share some of the photos below for those of you not on Facebook.