It’s routine for Aurora politicians and economic development boosters to take pride in the city’s ethnic and racial diversity. But a pair of documentaries seeing widespread attention draw starkly different conclusions about Aurora’s decades-long effort to create an inclusive place to live.
North Aurora’s Village Exchange Center is seeing the silver screen treatment — and international acclaim — in “My Father’s House.” The 15-minute film chronicles the final days of a former Lutheran church at 1609 Havana St. and its conversion into the multi-cultural space for refugees and immigrants.
And last weekend, activists painted a grim and bloody picture of Aurora in “In Defense of Justice in Denver.”
The 30-minute watch chronicles the Aug. 2019 fatal encounter between Elijah McClain and three APD officers, police violence against Black residents and the plight of four socialist activists facing long prison sentences for their roles leading mostly peaceful protests.
While “In Defense in Denver” is garnering attention from prominent American activists, “My Father’s House” won an Emerging Documentary award last weekend from the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. The piece originally debuted in a private Telluride film festival screening last year.
The short film, directed by Rob Shearer, documents the successful efforts of former Pastor Marcel Narucki to embrace the ethnic diversity on his doorstep after his longtime faith community, St. Matthew Lutheran Church, lost members.
By 2017, Narucki had seen his north Aurora neighborhood evolve from a largely white community to a tapestry of refugees and immigrants from across the world in the prior decades. About 80% of Colorado’s refugees are resettled within one mile of the former church, according to the documentary. Many Hispanic immigrants from Mexico and Central America also made their way to the neighborhood.
Of those newcomers, “Most people have strong religious ties, and they are not Lutheran,” said VEC Executive Director Amanda Blaurock.
Facing a dwindling flock and grief as his community dried up, Narucki led the effort to transition the church’s mission. He’s now a coordinator for Congolese Pentacostalists, Nepalese Buddhists and other communities who take turns worshipping there. Before COVID-19 struck, Aurorans from all over the world would pack into the space’s basement for cookouts and trainings. Volunteers continue to hand out food for hungry families and dole out grants for undocumented workers left out of pandemic-era safety nets.
It’s a mission fueled by a core faith in diversity and multiculturalism that’s at odds with the Trump administration’s efforts to stop accepting refugees, Blaurock noted.
“These are divisive times,” Narucki says in the film. “We can see the other as an alien other, as someone that’s a problem, or we can see the other as someone to whom I belong.”
If “My Father’s House” embodies the best of Aurora’s reputation — a place of racial and ethnic harmony — “In Defense of Justice in Denver” embodies the worst.
The half-hour film documents McClain’s death and the protest movement it spawned.
Viewers can watch, once again, as the Aurora Police Department cemented its national reputation for brutality this year amid a flurry of scandals: officers detained a Black family, including children, at gunpoint after they incorrectly identified their vehicle; a cop pointed a gun at the head of a prominent doctor; and another officer, since fired, hobbled a Black woman in the backseat of a cruiser where she lay contorted and struggling to breathe for 20 minutes.
APD also earned condemnation on national TV for its aggressive response to a violin vigil for McClain. Like most of the major racial justice protest events in Aurora last year, the vigil was organized in part by the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
The protests and marches are front-and-center in the 30-minute film, which was directed by William Whiteman.
The film is another call to action.
Whiteman opens the film with four activist leaders — Lillian House, Terrance Roberts, Joel Northam and Eliza Lucero — describing a coordinated police round-up on Sept. 17, 2020. The four said they were arrested at their homes or while running errands and surprised to learn prosecutors would levy a slew of charges that could bring decades in prison.
They include accusations of kidnapping attempts, inciting riots, theft and more. Northam, 32, faces 11 felonies and 12 misdemeanors after he helped lead largely peaceful protests and marches over the summer.
“Now, that is among the highest charges that we have ever seen for peaceful political protest in recent years,” civil rights attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard said in the documentary.
The four activists and civil rights lawyers, including McClain family attorney Mari Newman, resolve to fight the charges and make Aurora a safe city for Black residents facing police violence. They’re calling for supporters to sign a petition at www.DenverDefense.org and see the charges dropped. Prominent activists have already done so.
The charged activists released the documentary before they’re due in various courts beginning next month, and an APD officer will soon appeal his termination related to the McClain case.
The city’s Community Police Task Force is also likely to release some police reform recommendations to the city council, and ongoing city, state and federal investigations still hold the possibility of criminal charges against the three cops who subdued McClain.