Well it feels odd to try to write about anything other than the world pandemic that is upon us at this time. Not so much in Western North Carolina (yet) as other parts of the U.S. and the world. I've discovered NPR's Tiny desk concerts in my "shelter at home" time. Am listening to the soulful and soothing work of Max Richter as I write.
Funny the things that come into focus at a time like this. How I've been talking to people I haven't connected with in awhile- both family and friends. How much the bird song and spring wildflowers mean to me. How the sound of that cello and violin reaches into my body and offers me something that I didn't even know I needed.
I've been thinking a lot about our stories. Who is collecting the stories from this pandemic? Where is a vessel wide enough, deep enough to hold them all? The stories of loss, of grief, of rage, and fear. The stories of resilience and courage and community.
I suspect that we are the vessels my friends. That one of our jobs now is to open our hearts wide enough to let the stories in. Through our phone calls, our instagram posts, our long discussions on Facebook, our socially distanced greetings to the neighbors across the street. May we draw strength from the art and the stories that deeply connect us to each other and ourselves.
We aren't far past the first week of the year but already it feels like some of the shine is off of 2020. I’ve decided it’s not too late to look back at 2019 and reflect on what happened and where I want to go with Mountain Girl Media in this relatively new year.
My initial response to this question was a panicked - wait a minute, what did I do? I tried making a list of projects but that felt tired and uninspired. So I turned to one of my favorite creative tools- colored markers and brainstorming . And voila. A web of some of my favorite projects from 2019.
In fact it was a year filled with stories and art. Although traditional video production took a back seat to other ways of working with images and stories, I realize that it’s all fueled by my unshakeable belief in the power of storytelling.
Here are some highlights.
Video Design and Artist Residency with Asheville Creative Arts. I got the chance to work once again with Abby Felder of Asheville Creative Arts creating the video design for The Warp and The Weft. Blending puppetry,
video, archival photographs, music, and storytelling, this original production explores the history of child labor, the evolving concept of childhood and the power that comes from controlling one’s own narrative.
In addition to video design I worked with middle and high school youth from the community groups VAMOS and MANOS, to co- facilitate a storytelling workshop with Edwin Salas Acosta where youth told their own stories These stories about self identity were incorporated into the the show.
As has been true for many years now, much of my free time has been spent working on Blanket Town, the documentary film I am making about Swannanoa and the Beacon Blanket Mill. In 2019 I was invited to present excerpts of the film at the Frank and Jane Garboe folklife center and collaborate with the Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center on it’s exhibit about the Beacon blanket mill and its impact on the Swannanoa Valley. A sequence from the film depicting the devastating fire and residents responses to it, was featured in the exhibit.
I also gave a presentation bout the migration of the textile industry to the south. to a standing room only crowd at the museum's inaugural History Cafe in April.
But one of my favorite projects was working on a Digital Storytelling project with Norma Duran Brown, Mujer a Mujere, MANOS and VAMOS and Middle and High school youth at Erwin school district. Working after school for 2 months, the youth wrote, shot and edited personal digital stories on their laptops and phones. Although the youth's digital stories. centered on loss, change and resilience, are private, this short video (made on my phone) explains the project's process and outcomes.
Puppeteer Anthony Napoletano works before a projected image of a young textile mill worker from the early part of the 20th century. Photo by Silvia Forn
So happy to be working with Asheville Creative Arts' again, designing video for their new multi-media performance, The Warp & the Weft. ACA's director, Abby Felder told me about her efforts with this piece years ago. Big themes, dreamlike movement, oral history, puppets, and deep storytelling. What's not to love ?
Its been exciting to watch Warp & Weft evolve and dig into some of my textile town B-roll to create part of the video landscape for this play. Big thanks to Mountain Xpress for the terrific article about the upcoming production.
Asheville Creative Arts debuts its latest original production
Posted on March 21, 2019 by Thomas Calder
There is plenty to unpack in Asheville Creative Arts’ latest original production, The Warp & The Weft. The professional children’s theater group will debut the hourlong performance on Friday, April 19, at The Magnetic Theatre. Combining puppetry, live folk music, video and storytelling, the piece explores the history of child labor, the evolving concept of childhood and the power that comes from controlling one’s own narrative. It runs through Sunday, April 28.
Though the show’s development technically began two years ago, its director, Abby Felder, says the idea dates much further back. “The whole thing began when I was in the fourth grade,” she explains. At the time, her class was studying Lewis Hine, an early 20th-century investigative photographer, who documented child labor in America. Among Hine’s many subjects were those working in the textile mills in North Carolina.
The images of these children, says Felder, who was raised in Charlotte, led to an early epiphany. “They were my same age but clearly grew up in incredibly different circumstances,” she says. “I think that was the first moment, as a young person, where I started to think about the concept of childhood.”
The resulting multimedia production incorporates video of Hine’s images, as well as historical audio recordings of former child textile workers, originally gathered by UNC Chapel Hill. In juxtaposing Hine’s visual stories with the audio accounts, The Warp & The Weft seeks to show its young audience members how narratives are shaped, depending upon who is telling the story.
The piece also brings in excerpts from present-day interviews with local students from Hanger Hall School for Girls, as well as members of the Mentoring and Nurturing Our Students program, which works with newly immigrated Latinx students. Both groups provide perspectives on contemporary childhood, particularly as it pertains to recently displaced youths.
Too often, says Rebecca Williams, the show’s videographer, “there are lots of important voices that are missing from our narratives.” These absences, she notes, are evident in Hine’s historical work, which centered on predominantly white children.
A more inclusive production is not only a focus for The Warp & The Weft but ACA’s overall goal. In 2016, Daniele Martin came on as the theater group’s community outreach and engagement coordinator. Since that time, she’s been developing relationships with marginalized and rural communities.
In addition to her work offstage, Martin sought to enlist more performers and artists of color onstage. The group’s forthcoming production, she says, highlights this effort. Of The Warp & The Weft’s six cast members, four are people of color, including Martin.
Along with greater diversity, the upcoming production also embodies a larger trend in the theater group’s future direction. “We’re trying to shift more toward original work,” Felder explains. Moving forward, works by ACA’s regular contributing artists, as well as interested community members who participate in the organization’s incubator series, will take precedence.
In the meantime, the group continues to perform family classics, including this summer’s production of Charlotte’s Web. Set to run July 18-28, the familiar tale follows Wilbur the livestock pig and his friendship with the titular spider.
The popularity of the story, says Felder, makes it “really ripe for some magical reimagining in terms of presentation.” This will include audience participation as well as live bluegrass music. Further, Felder notes, the group is discussing the use of wooden and found-object puppetry for Wilbur and the story’s additional cast of barnyard animals.
Both The Warp & The Weft and Charlotte’s Web highlight ACA’s ongoing interest in expanding the boundaries of traditional storytelling and stage production methods. Throughout the organization’s seven-year history, Felder notes, “we’ve found that young people are an incredibly sophisticated audience … able to absorb and experience very complex things, and so we try and just push the envelope a little bit.”
The Warp & The Weft also makes explicit that in order to truly expand, multiple perspectives must be encouraged and invited to share in the experience, both onstage and off. This, says Felder and fellow cast members, makes ACA’s mission something that will hopefully resonate long after the curtain is drawn.
“I feel like theater is a very profound medium in terms of allowing young people to hold witness, but then to also experience, feel and practice things like empathy and critical thinking,” Felder says.
Williams agrees, adding that the group’s commitment to audience participation emphasizes the connection and importance of narrative. “I think there is a real value in people understanding that the act of telling their own story is a really empowering and affirming action,” she says. “It’s important to see how your story plugs into that larger story, the community story.”
WHAT: The Warp & The Weft
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., avl.mx/5sq
WHEN: Opening night is Friday, April 19, at 7 p.m. The show runs through Sunday, April 28. Times vary. Discounted school and camp matinee performances are also available. $23 adults/$12 students
About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.
I know its mid-August but I am stubbornly clinging to the illusion that there is still time to do some of those fun summer projects that have been on my to do list. And one of those has to do with kicking back and listening to stories. Whether you are taking one more road trip, hanging out in a hammock in your backyard, or just looking for something new to listen to during your daily commute, now is the perfect time to check out some new story offerings.
A great place to start is the California Foodways podcast, reported and produced by award winning public radio journalist, Lisa Morehouse. Reported from every county in the state, California Foodways is a fascinating dive into food as our common language “ that lets us explore culture, history, economics, the environment, and everything that goes into making the California story.” You can subscribe to the podcast here.
One of the joys of summer is the chance to do regular things outdoors- picnics, concerts, and...audio? Founded by graduates of Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, Audio Under the Stars, is summer-long outdoor audio festival, where hundreds of people come to lie on blankets, eat food and drink wine, and listen to a curated offering of audio stories. If you are in the Durham area, there is one more chance to hang out on the lawn under the twinkle lights this summer, on Friday August 24th. Or you could get some of your own friends together, sit outside and listen to some of the stories here.
Of course, if you want to watch as well as listen to stories you can hardly go wrong watching some of the digital stories from StoryCenter- an organization that uses storytelling and participatory media for reflection, education, and social change. A leader in the digital storytelling movement, StoryCenter, partners with organizations and individuals to create autobiographical digital stories based on people’s lived experience, which often include voices that are underrepresented in mainstream media. You can peruse many of their stories here.
May your last days of the season be anchored in sweet summer stories.
One of the most important questions that every film needs to answer is the one that is often neglected. Who are you making this for?
I recently went to the 5th Annual Southern Documentary Fund Convening in Durham, NC. Last year I walked away with insight into my story structure and a pack of new friends who dubbed themselves the Doc Chicks. This year I am inspired in a different way. Blanket Town, my full length documentary film, is in a very different place than it was last year, and while I am still finishing up some pick- up filming and editing, I am also aware that it’s time to activate my outreach/distribution plan. Which means thinking deeply, once again, about who I want to see this film. It’s a painful cliche to ask the question “So who is your target audience?" and hear the reply “Oh everyone.” Aghhh!
Of course we all want as many people as possible to see our films or watch our business’ video. But a target audience of everyone simply doesn’t exist. As one of this weekend’s speakers put it, imagine going down to the multiplex and buying a ticket to a movie, without specifying which film you want to see. I’d never do that. Would you? There is no such thing as a general audience.
It doesn’t matter if you are a doc filmmaker, a business owner or a non-profit with an explainer video on your Facebook page or website. You still have to answer this question. Who do you want to see your film? Who is your target audience? Where do they hang out, both on and offline? The more specifically you can answer these questions, the better your chances of getting your work in front of them.
I went to Durham last weekend for a day and a half at the Full Frame Film Festival. As always it was a great chance to see some amazing new work, but also to see less commercial offerings from around the world.
Last year quite a few of the films I watched garnered a good bit of acclaim, but this year I concentrated on films that may not end up on the Netflix list. Here are a few that stand out.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?- I missed the Mr. Rogers phenomena, learning more about him from Saturday Night Live parodies than through watching his show. I admit I thought Mr Rogers was a nerd in his cardigan sweater and soft soled shoes. This film, however helped me appreciate all the ways he shaped American educational television and the culture of programming for children. And a kindly soft-soled approach to the world is certainly a refreshing change of pace in this age of insults and tweets. There is nothing fancy or especially innovative about this intimate look at the man behind the land of make believe. The film combines historical footage of the show, with interviews of family, former cast members and cultural critics. And it throws in some animation for good measure. But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t need to be technically innovative to serve its story. An honest and emotional examination of the man himself, the transformative nature of the film is in the person being depicted.
Maj Doris - A visually striking film that depicts the life of the Sami artist and activist Maj Doris Rimpi, who lives alone near the Arctic Circle, I loved how the film played with time. If you believe in the principles of slow food and slow conversation, then this is the film for you. We watch as Maj harvests lichens, feeds reindeer, makes tea, smokes cigarettes, make art, and dreams about escaping to a warmer climate. Walking out of the theater I overheard some audience members complain that the film wasn’t “about” anything. But I think that is precisely what I enjoyed - the chance to sink into the daily rhythms of a 74 year old woman living through a long winter in Sweden.
Bisbee ‘17- I had been looking forward to seeing this because it depicts a shameful incident from 100 years ago, when the town of Bisbee AZ, deputized local residents before rounding up and deporting its striking copper workers, most of them immigrants. Director Robert Green’s unconventional take on handling historical material and the lush cinematography make for a gripping journey. Working with the town’s centennial celebration committee, Green persuades the residents to re-enact the events of the past as a way to not only understand the forgotten history that helped shape the town into what it is today, but also connect how the past resonates with the present. Although I question some of the ethics around “re-enacting” acts of violent racism, it does make for compelling viewing. A must see for anyone interested in historical docs.
West Virginia native and documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon has been nominated for an Oscar in the short documentary category for her new film Heroin(e). An examination of the heroin and opioid crisis in Huntington West Virginia, the film follows three women who are fighting against a public health crisis which threatens to engulf their town. Available for streaming on Netflix, you can watch the trailer here.
I had the pleasure of first meeting Sheldon at the Digging In Retreat at the Center for Documentary Studies in 2014. Fresh from her Peabody award and Emmy nomination for her work leading the interactive documentary website Hollow, Sheldon made several presentations about her work and that of other media makers who were documenting place. Discussions revolved around the issues of representation, trust, community engagement and history. She also offered feedback for scenes from Blanket Town, the documentary film I was working on.
Hollow, the interactive documentary that brought her work to national prominence, looks at the collapse of McDowell County, West Virginia. It’s a self navigated site that allows viewers to choose where to look, read or hear. The material is arranged thematically, so you can meet people through their portraits- short films and pictures where they talk about what is important to them. It might be starting up a new business in one of the town’s abandoned storefronts or going to the high school football game on Friday night.
I suspect the non-linear form of Hollow is an important way for an outsider like myself to navigate this Appalachian story. Sheldon is aware of how the story of places like McDowell County can get reduced to stereotypes- in the way that stories of Appalachia so often get reduced- only depicted as places of poverty and desperation. By refusing to offer a linear film, she challenges viewers to accept and deal with a more complex view. You can read here to learn more about Hollow.
I watched Heroin(e) last night. It offers a complex take that drills beneath the shocking statistics of the opioid crisis in the U.S. What we see in the midst of this ravaged landscape are survivors- not only the addicts and former addicts who have literally been brought back to life numerous times, but also the three heroines who have survived this crisis with their humanity intact. These flat footed, no-nonsense women each offer pragmatic help to addicts, with clear boundaries. More importantly they refuse to succumb to feelings of despair in the face of overwhelming odds. They don’t seem numbed by death, prostitution, or lies from the very people they are trying to help. Instead they continue to bring compassion into each encounter - treating whoever crosses their path as a person, not a statistic. Heroin(e) offers a nuanced view of some of the stories behind the headline news.
I have a confession to make. I’ve read the statistics about the importance of video content.
And yet I haven’t been using them.
Three days ago I posted a short archival video on my page for the documentary film I’m making, Blanket Town: The Rise and Fall of An American Mill Town and when I woke up it had 5,000 views. Not people reached. Over 5,000 views. No ads. Organic.
Wow. 5000 people cared enough about the content to click on and watch what I posted, tagging friends, reminiscing in the comments section, talking about their experience of working at this textile mill. They shared the video as a way of connecting with and celebrating community.
I make videos for a living and feel like I just figured out how potent that share button on Facebook can be with the right video content. It’s a lesson I’m not likely to forget. In this season of miracles, yes Virginia, I do believe.
Update: We've now reached 11,000 views! Watch it yourself at the Blanket Town Facebook page.
During the last week of September I had the pleasure of meeting and filming Robert Shetterly, the creator of the Americans Who Tell the Truth project. A painter, Rob has been creating large scale acrylic portraits of American “truth tellers” for the past 15 years. He started the project in 2002 in response to the United States’ buildup to the Gulf War, especially the falsehood about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In my interview with him, Shetterly talked about the need to shift his focus away from his anger at the Bush administration and channel it into something more positive. Researching and painting these intimate portraits of courageous citizens who raised their voices against injustice, did the trick.
The Americans Who tell the Truth exhibit at the YMI Center in downtown Asheville is part of a larger exhibit exploring themes of civic engagement, put on by the Asheville-based non-profit Education for Engaged Citizens. Prints of some of Shetterly’s 230 paintings, as well as portraits created by regional youth and posters of local activists are also on display through November 19th. Part of the exhibit features new paintings, including one of Bree Newsome, the activist/artist who climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse in 2015 to take down the confederate flag.
Hanging out and filming Shetterly, Newsome, and the youth artists who are addressing some of this country’s most pressing social problems made for an inspiring week. I am sure that if you take the time to visit the exhibit, you too will feel a sense of inspiration and renewal.
What: Americans Who Tell the Truth
Where: YMI Cultural Center -39 S Market St
When: Sept 30- Nov. 19, 2017
Tues- Sat- 11:00 am- 4:00 pm Sun. 1:00-4;00 pm
Check out the story below, from the Daily Kos that covered the events that I was filming about artist and activist Bree Newsome, who appeared in Asheville at the end of last month. She came as part of a series of events associated with the Asheville exhibit of Americans Who Tell the Truth, on display at the YMI through November 19th, and organized by Education for Engaged Citizens.
Stay tuned for links to the video of her September 29th conversation with Robert Shetterly of the Americans Who Tell the Truth project, as well as the short film I made about Bree and the act of civil disobedience that brought her into the national spotlight.