AU professor Chris Halsne revisits a racing controversy in ‘The Hit’
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2022 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
Surrounded by applause in a small theater, American University professor Chris Halsne looked triumphant and grateful that so many viewers attended the premiere of his new documentary, “The Hit.” Halsne wrote and directed the film, which premiered at the D.C. Independent Film Forum. The film investigates the fatal collision between Kevin Ward Jr., a young, talented sprint car racer, and the vehicle of veteran motorsport racer Tony Stewart.
Halsne, an investigative journalist for over three decades, spent three years reinvestigating a case which initially occurred in 2014.
During the sprint car race, Stewart bumped Ward Jr., causing him to spin out. After exiting his car and running onto the track, Ward Jr. gestured to Stewart to show his anger but was then suddenly hit by Stewart’s car, fatally injuring him. Stewart was not charged on any counts of manslaughter or homicide, but Halsne’s investigation questions Stewart’s innocence.
With a plethora of multimedia credits that range from podcasts to news broadcasts, Halsne sees all of his projects as malleable in form. “The Hit” wasn’t initially conceptualized as a full-length documentary, but after three years of gathering so much material, he said he felt it was necessary.
“It was me morphing with the material that I gathered and the amount of time I thought it was going to take for an audience to fully understand the story that I wanted to tell,” Halsne said.
A turning point in Halsne’s investigation came once he obtained the police report of the incident.
“We saw how shallow the police investigation was and it made us review everything again,” Halsne said. “The investigative segment was going to be bigger than we had originally planned.”
The film then uses videogrammetry — a measurement technology that uses video footage from different angles — to map out the paths of both Stewart’s vehicle and Ward Jr. The results are damning and lead to lingering questions about Stewart’s intent or lack thereof.
During the film’s production, Halsne initially struggled with whether his documentary should take an objective approach or lean into a specific narrative. Halsne said that he could not break his journalist habits and tried to show both sides of the story.
“I now have the creative freedom to tell just one side, but I just couldn't do it,” Halsne said. “That's why we worked so hard to go find what Tony Stewart said.”
But after not hearing from Stewart and his representatives for comments, Halsne’s film couldn’t reach the balance of fairness he was hoping for.
“I want to collect everything to be as fair as I possibly can,” Halsne said. “But if somebody doesn't talk to you, it's hard to give them equal time when they're not participating.”
While this may not Halsne’s last film, he isn’t bound to a certain type of media.
“The next project doesn't need to be a film,” Halsne said. “But if it turns into that, I thought this experience was a good one for me to expand my knowledge in an area that I wasn't a specialist in. I enjoyed growing as a professional, and I would like to do it again. That’s the short answer.”
“The Hit” premiered on March 3 at the DC Independent Film Forum.