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Shooting the Good Guy in Black

Filmmaker Sophie Hamacher - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Filmmaker Sophie Hamacher - Photo by Arianne Teeple
The 73-year-old cowboy standing at the scribbled-on whiteboard seems a little out of place in a classroom— not because he doesn't command the attention of his students (which he does), but because he's dressed from head to toe in black, donning boots and a large, silver belt buckle with his cowboy hat sitting on the conference table while he speaks. You might confuse his Civil Liberties class for a college course at a university if the students around the room weren't so suspiciously fresh-faced and adolescent looking. Even though this class is the last thing standing between them and the freedom that comes with 2 p.m. on a sunny April day, the students enthusiastically chime in on the debate on freedom of religion. Apparently, someone's opinion on the issue is missing. "Is Joey here?" the cowboy asks. "Yeah," the hesitant Joey replies. "Speak," says the cowboy. "Shit," Joey mutters.

It's a typical day in John Roemer's class at the Park School in Brooklandville. And, after today, there won't be many of those left—after a teaching career totaling 35 years, Roemer is hanging up his cowboy hat.
Off to the side of the room, Sophie Hamacher films the class discussion for her documentary, Directing Dissent, which is set to premiere in Baltimore this year. The statuesque 30-year-old filmmaker, working in post-production mode as of this month, has high aspirations for the film and recently wrapped up an extensive promotional tour after raising over $10,000 in support of the film. Her protagonist is John Roemer himself, and the documentary is a fitting tribute to Roemer's colorful and varied career which spans over six decades. A self-proclaimed activist, pacifist, Quaker, rebel, teacher, and, of course, cowboy all rolled into one, Roemer taught Hamacher just over 12 years ago at the very school he stands in today. The two have developed a friendship over the past two years, during which Hamacher has been traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Berlin, where she permanently resides.
"I'm commuting quite a bit," Hamacher deadpans. A few days prior to the classroom filming, she's sipping on Italian wine in Belvedere Square. She's only in town until the end of the week before making the trek overseas—again. "But I still consider myself a half-Baltimorean."

Hamacher seems to have roots everywhere. While she grew up in Baltimore for much of her childhood, she completed her undergraduate studies at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Bard College, and Pratt Institute, studying art and visual and critical studies before completing the Whitney Independent Study Program through the Whitney Museum, and she eventually earned the equivalent of a Masters in Fine Art and Art Education at the University of Arts in Berlin. In short, she's an educated nomad. Yet Baltimore keeps her coming back and is serving as the backdrop of her latest and most ambitious project yet.

Roemer, on the other hand, has never left the country—he doesn't even have a passport. Instead, he's been an important figure right here in Baltimore as part of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland during the 1960s and '70s. Roemer was one of many who helped Maryland become fully and legally integrated within just a couple of years—no easy feat when, at the time, even part of the Atlantic was off-limits to African Americans for the majority of the year in Ocean City. Sit-ins and other peaceful forms of protest were Roemer's methods of making a point. Which is admirable, if not ironic, considering the good-guy-in-black's extensive gun collection.

"I actually shot a gun for the first time the other day," Hamacher says. She's been spending a lot of time at Roemer's home in Hereford and has even become close with his wife and adult children after some extensive and intimate interviews. While gun-toting isn't exactly something you'd expect to learn from your former high school teacher, nothing about Roemer is what you'd expect from a high school teacher. One of Hamacher's favorite stories to tell is one of Roemer's protests in the early '60s when he sat down in a segregated restaurant with a couple of African Americans. The waitress told him the restaurant didn't serve blacks. Roemer simply replied, "And we don't eat them."

Hamacher pauses to collect her thoughts and smiles at herself. "There are so many other stories that I don't want to give away because John is such a good storyteller— unlike myself." She rolls her eyes in self-deprecation. "I'm better at filming."

She might not think much of her own storytelling (and maybe she's just being modest), but Hamacher sure knows how to pick her characters. With a non-celebrity like Roemer, the story unfolds well enough on its own. Between her use of old footage of Baltimore and the sensitivity and humor with which the film is presented, it's clear that Hamacher does, in fact, earn credit as a storyteller.

While class has since dismissed for good for Roemer, the group of articulate 16- and 17-year-olds eager to debate issues in history and politics is perhaps one the best indicators of Roemer's success. The retirement event that took place in his honor earlier this month was attended by countless friends, colleagues, family members, admirers, and students of Roemer's there to send him off into the sunset. What are his plans post-retirement? "He hasn't lost his edge by any means, but," Hamacher stops. "He wants to walk his dogs."

As Roemer packs up his disorganized box of papers and Hamacher disassembles her camera at the end of class, Roemer puts on his hat and says to his student-turned-friend with a smirk, "Justice: the worst teacher you ever had will get you into a film festival."

To watch the trailer and find out more about Directing Dissent, visit www.directingdissent.com.

Cassie Paton is a freelance writer and recent college grad who is not quite interesting enough to be featured in a documentary. That said, she blogs at www.wittytitlehere.com and tweets @WittyCassieHere.

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Photos by Arianne Teeple:

- Filmmaker Sophie Hamacher
- Baltimore resident, teacher, and activist John Roemer speaks at his retirement event at the Park School
- Filmmaker Sophie Hamacher shoots during John Roemer's retirement event at the Park School
- Baltimore resident, teacher, and activist John Roemer speaks at his retirement event at the Park School
- The crowd applauds after John Roemer speaks
- John Roemer receives a hug from one of many who attended his retirement event at the Park School

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