As Nina Simone’s emotional rendition of “Strange Fruit” plays, the short film “Say Their Names” begins with an actress portraying Atatiana Jefferson playing with her young nephew. Jefferson was a Black 28-year-old woman who died after a white police officer, Aaron Dean, shot her through a window of her home in Fort Worth, Texas.
After Jefferson’s death in October 2019, Dean was charged with murder and resigned, according to the Associated Press. Fort Worth police were responding to a request for a welfare check, because of an open front door. Dean fatally shot Jefferson through a window without identifying himself as police, according to the AP.
The short film then shows a clip from a video of Jefferson where she demonstrated human anatomy with the help of a friend and a small plastic skeleton. Jefferson majored in biology at Xavier University in Louisiana.
The actress portraying Jefferson in “Say Their Names” is shown walking to the window. The film then shows a photo from Jefferson’s funeral Oct. 24.
Gainesville resident Christian Heiche said his silent short film sprung from an idea to focus on the people whose deaths have sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Each and every one of them,” Heiche wrote on Instagram when he posted his short film. “These names are not a statistic nor does this have to be a conversation over politics. You’ve heard this a million and one times, but I’ll say it again for the people in the back: Black Lives Matter.”
Heiche told InsideNoVa his film aims to raise awareness of the Black people whose deaths in police custody have sparked protests in support of Black Lives Matter across the nation.
Black lives matter is a humanitarian message, said Heiche, who is white. “In the end, it’s not say my name, it’s saying their name,” Heiche said. “It’s too many.”
Heiche’s silent film, which is about 3 minutes and 30 seconds, includes 10 actors, many of them friends or relatives, volunteering to recreate different scenes from the lives of victims of police brutality, including Jefferson, Floyd, Antwon Rose Jr., Botham Shem Jean, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. The film shows dozens of names at the end of the film.
In his film, Heiche contrasted the reenactments with footage of surviving family members sharing their story in the news and the many protests that were organized to support Black Lives Matter.
“All of these activities — Botham Jean was eating ice cream, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging, Atatiana Jefferson was caring for her nephew, Breonna Taylor was asleep,” Heiche said. “Sadly a white person can do any of these activities and they don’t fear this happening. But African Americans are worrying about this...We need to say Black lives matter. We never said only Black lives matter.”
Heiche said he started working on the film after George Floyd was killed by a police officer on May 25. A bystander filmed Floyd’s last moments as then-police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter; and former officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and K. Kueng were charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Heiche found it hard to describe how he felt after Floyd’s death, so he shared his idea for a short film with Haymarket resident Felicia Hamilton, who taught Heiche English at Northern Virginia Community College for dual credit.
Hamilton taught a unit on human experience where she asked students to focus on perspectives that were not their own, she told InsideNoVa.
“He asked about an idea,” Hamilton said. “He said ‘I want to do something to help the community’... We really wanted to show the individuals doing everyday activities, but they were senselessly murdered, because they’re different.”
The short film is hauntingly powerful, Hamilton said. “I was speechless,” she said.
Hamilton helped Heiche throughout the three-week process as the film’s product manager, he said.
The short film has received hundreds of thousands of views online after actress Viola Davis shared the short film on Instagram and Facebook on June 26. She quoted Heiche when she shared his film: "Racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth."
On May 26, Davis shared a photo of George Floyd on Facebook, saying “This is what it means to be Black in America. Tried. Convicted. Killed for being Black. We are dictated by hundreds of years of policies that have restricted our very existence and still have to continue to face modern day lynchings.”
Heiche graduated this year from Fairfax High School, where he studied television production for three years and made other short films.
Heiche recently moved from Fairfax to Gainesville and he wants to make another film on mass incarceration, he said. He plans on studying cinema at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond starting this fall.