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‘Spark’: Team of La Jollans hopes to ignite anti-racism with new documentary

Mary Wescott and Tom Gegax had the idea of a film on systemic racism after participating in the La Jolla Flower March.
Mary Wescott and Tom Gegax of La Jolla had the idea for a documentary on systemic racism after participating in the La Jolla Flower March on June 12.
(Courtesy)

Kindled by local support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a group of La Jolla friends and colleagues has produced a documentary exploring systemic racism, with plans to release it widely as a public service.

“Spark: A Systemic Racism Story” tells of “the roots and remedies of systemic racism,” said associate producer Julie Manriquez.

The film was made by executive producers Tom Gegax and Mary Wescott, production supervisor Joan Flagg and associate producers Manriquez, Mitzi Mayer and Stephanie Ramirez. All are La Jolla residents except Ramirez, who works in La Jolla for Gegax and Wescott.

“Spark” was funded by the Gegax Family Foundation and is planned for wide release Dec. 1. It has already been viewed 2,500 times on YouTube and Vimeo since its completion in early October.

"Spark: A Systemic Racism Story" was created by a team of people who live or work in La Jolla.
(Courtesy)

“Spark” is “designed to be a balanced, apolitical view of racism,” Gegax said. “I’ve seen outstanding documentaries on police brutality, criminal justice, Black history. This is designed to be a holistic look at all of it,” from coverage of the recent global protests to the 16th-century history of systemic racism, examining racism in society, police response and criminal justice.

The documentary also contains information on “Black leaders who haven’t been celebrated over time,” Gegax said. “We end with how to be an ally” through mentoring and anti-racist education, he said.

Laying out all this information in one 30-minute film gives viewers time to learn more about the terms and concepts presented, Gegax said, such as redlining or the 13th Amendment. “Our goal was to be walking that line between educational and compelling story. Usually, it’s one or the other,” he said.

“The message is, there’s work to be done,” Manriquez said. “There are conversations that still need to happen — many difficult, uncomfortable conversations that we all need to have.”

She said she hopes people who watch “Spark” will be inspired to “dig a little deeper.”

Tom Gegax, Curt Manriquez, Mary Wescott and Julie Manriquez (from left) attend the June 12 Flower March in La Jolla.
(Courtesy)

The message also is one of empathy, Gegax said. “Our film, we’ve learned, is moving people. Only when you’re able to do that are you able to grab someone.”

The film aims to “move people from not being racist to being anti-racist,” he said.

The documentary makes several suggestions for anti-racist action, such as reform and fund reallocation to address systemic police racism and finance community violence-prevention programs.

“Spark: A Systemic Racism Story” was first conceptualized by Gegax, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, and his wife, Wescott, who runs the Gegax Family Foundation. They were inspired after attending the June 12 Flower March in La Jolla in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Mitzi Mayer photographs one of the speakers at the La Jolla Recreation Center during the Flower March on June 12.
(Courtesy)

Gegax, Wescott, Mayer and Manriquez ran into one another at the Flower March. “We all had this moment,” Manriquez said.

“We’re all very close friends,” Gegax said, “and it was neat to see like-minded friends at the event.”

Production on the documentary began shortly afterward at Gegax and Wescott’s house with Ramirez, their personal assistant. Mayer, a photographer and filmmaker; Manriquez, a marketing and writing services provider; and Flagg joined the team, working late most nights on Gegax and Wescott’s sofa with production notes taped to the windows and Ramirez learning how to do much of the editing herself.

Gegax noted it normally takes 18 to 24 months to complete such a project, but “at 74 years old, I [didn’t] want to take two years,” he said. “We worked day and night, until 3 a.m.” to finish the film in four months.

The project has “been divinely driven,” Wescott said, adding that the team collaborated with “joyful camaraderie.”

“We quaran-teamed,” Gegax said.

Working on “Spark” resulted in the producers “waking up to unconscious bias,” Manriquez said. The concept is addressed a few times in the documentary.

A frame near the end reads, “The spark has given us the opportunity to realize we have been convincing ourselves we are not racist,” which Manriquez said is an edited comment from an early reviewer.

“We all learned something new every single time we got together,” Manriquez said. “You just realize that we all need to work together and do the uncomfortable stuff together. It’s the only way to get anywhere.”

The producers called in a wide, diverse team for oversight, management and coordination, incorporating feedback with extensive research and reviews from audiences of varying backgrounds.

“A lot of the remedies came from brainstorming” with family members, friends and acquaintances, Mayer said. “We pulled a lot from other people’s experiences.”

Gegax said the film is “an aggregator of voices that could say it better than we could say it.”

Producing “Spark” was “a very humbling experience,” Wescott said. “We are not experts, and we can never claim to have walked in those shoes.”

Manriquez said that “to live your life as an anti-racist is a whole different story; it’s understanding that you have unconscious bias and that you’re going to work daily … moving forward.”

“Spark” is intended “to get people thinking,” Mayer said. “I think so often we’re not sure how to do it. This is to let people know you don’t have to do anything humongous. If you can walk away from this film with one thing to do … those small things add up to be big things.”

“We’re not trying to tell this story as if we know it all,” Mayer added. “I am still to this day, to this moment, trying to figure out all of it. I don’t pretend for a minute to understand it all, but I’m trying to listen more.”

The team hopes the narrative will continue long after the documentary is viewed. Wescott noted that the film’s website contains information encouraging people to “continue their own education” on systemic racism.

“Hopefully anyone who watches this will commit to always be learning,” Manriquez said.

To watch “Spark: A Systemic Racism Story,” visit spark-doc.com.