A Southern Exposure: Indie Dox in Dixie
In May 2004, I was one of six filmmakers selected to show my work as part of the Southern Circuit Independent Film Tour. We were invited to appear with our films in seven cities around the South. The other filmmakers in the 2004-2005 Circuit were Andrew Bujalski, Nina Davenport, Steve Gentile, Richard Gordon, and Barbara Hammer. Barbara Hammer, Nina Davenport, Richard Gordon, Andrew Bujalski and Steve Gentile. Although we never met during the tour, we followed identical itineraries and traveled a month apart. My February tour was fourth in the line-up.
Sponsored by the South Carolina Arts Commission, the Southern Circuit was created in 1975 with the goal of exposing Southern audiences to the work of independent filmmakers. An ancillary objective is to give the filmmakers an opportunity to present their films to a regional audience and establish connections with local filmmakers. Susan Leonard, the Southern Circuit director since 1983, coordinates the judging. A call for entries is announced in various publications and through the website of the Southern Circuit. The open solicitation is followed by a pre-selection screening in Columbia, South Carolina. In late May, representatives from the seven sites convene to consider the work of 40 finalists before selecting six filmmakers for the annual tour. The site representatives choose films that they think will be both provocative and accessible to their audiences. The 2004-2005 line-up included four documentaries, one narrative film and a compilation of animated shorts.
Filmmakers are asked to submit work with a combined running time of at least 60 minutes. In 2004, I completed Big Enough, a 53-minute film about dwarfism that I sent to Southern Circuit along with Mirror Mirror, an earlier film about women and body image (17 minutes, 1990). Although some of the venues had 35mm projection, none could accommodate 16mm (my preferred format for both films), so I projected DVD at every screening. Before embarking on the tour, I had screened Big Enough to several festival audiences and at the national convention of Little People of America. The Southern Circuit presented an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about my work Big Enough with non-specialized community viewers, for whom the films were intended.
February 1: Sweet Briar, Virginia
I had selected Mirror Mirror as the short because I hoped that its focus on body image would provide a provocative context for Big Enough. Since this was the first screening of the pair, I would soon find out if my assumptions were correct. The audience in a classroom at Sweet Briar College was entirely female. The attendance was small (about 30 people), but the discussion was informed by insightful questions and observations. One student commented that Big Enough put an interesting spin on the laments of the "average" women featured in Mirror Mirror. Some of the students were interested in my career trajectory and were curious about how one becomes a documentary filmmaker.
February 2: Clemson, South Carolina
Several professors who teach film studies in the Clemson University English Department hosted a dinner before the screening. The DVD projection, in a brand new theater in the Student Union, was excellent. Despite competition from the televised State of the Union address, the theater was 75 percent full. Topics of discussion ranged from the issue of genetic testing to more form-driven questions that focused on specific aesthetic choices I made in Mirror Mirror. The crowd was more voluble than the previous night. They laughed in places that had elicited no audible response from the Sweet Briar group. I sometimes suspect that people inhibit their laughter when the filmmaker is present because they're not sure whether the levity is intentional.
February 3: Columbia, South Carolina
The screening was held at the Nickelodeon, a small art theater run by the Columbia Film Society. The venue's schedule of current art films seems to survive on the back of a loyal customer base. It was an intimate screening space and the theater was more than half full despite the rainy evening. Before the screening, I introduced myself to a dwarf woman and her average-sized mother in the audience and learned that they had seen Little People (1982), my earlier film about dwarfism. Like the Clemson audience, this group laughed a lot, even at some of the subtleties that had eluded other audiences. Everyone stayed for the duration of the post-screening discussion and participated in a lively dialogue that transcended the specific subject matter of the films. The comments of the dwarf woman amplified the viewing experience for everyone present.
February 4: Beaufort, South Carolina
Beaufort was a beautiful town and the sun finally emerged after several rainy days. The local arts council, the sponsoring organization of the tour, hosted dinner at a restaurant. Attendance at the screening was sparse because an inaccurate start time had been printed in the local newspaper. Despite the minimal audience, the discussion lasted 45 minutes and ultimately became an extended conversation among most of the people in the room. Towards the end of the session, a woman began talking about her youngest (grown) daughter, who is, a dwarf. Her daughter has had chosen to avoid interacting with other little people, and her parents shared their frustration about this with the audience. After the screening, my hosts invited me out for a drink and the parents of the dwarf daughter joined us. Several of us who wanted to continue talking about Big Enough. It was a perfect example of how a film shown in a community context can connect people who would otherwise have little opportunity to do so.
February 5: Beaufort
Saturday was the only day off during the tour, and I welcomed the opportunity to explore the area on my own. While driving through rural South Carolina, I happened upon an interview with Ross McElwee on the local NPR station. What an odd moment of synchronicity to hear him talk about his films Sherman's March and Bright Leaves and the plight of the independent filmmaker as I traveled through an area that looked much like the North Carolina landscape where those films were shot.
February 6: Culhowee, North Carolina
After a six-hour drive, I arrived in Culhowee, an hour west of Asheville. It was getting more difficult to watch the films each night. At every screening, I found myself making mental edits in Big Enough. The DVD projection in a state-of-the-art theater on the campus of Western Carolina University was terrific, but the audience was paltry due to competition from the Super Bowl. After the screening, I was confronted with a new question: "Do you consider yourself to be a documentary filmmaker?" It was only later that I learned that the man who asked it was a film professor on campus who was struggling with these issues about genre boundaries on behalf of his students.
February 7: Jackson, Mississippi
The crowd at Millsapps College was a mixture of student and community people who were attracted by a favorable review that had appeared in the alternative weekly newspaper. At the request of the host, I entertained questions after Mirror Mirror before screening Big Enough. That allowed students from a women's studies class to leave after the first film because they were required to see only Mirror Mirror. I thought it was a mistake to have a break between the two films because it disrupted the thematic flow of the program, but the decision had been made without my input. The questions had become predictable at this stage in the tour, with the inevitable queries about genesis of the idea, gaining access and issues related to genetic testing. It was the first audience in which I got a question For the first time in the tour, I was asked about shooting ratio--a predictable one common query in festival audiences. This question allowed me to talk further about the nature of documentary, the importance of film structure, and other issues related to research, pre-production and approach.
February 8: Montgomery, Alabama
The last stop. The Capri was a vast theater in a historic area of Montgomery. It was exciting to approach the theater at night and see BIG ENOUGH on the marquee. Unfortunately, I was traveling without a camera so I was not able to document the ephemeral scene. The screening went well, but at this point, I was ready to pack my bags and head home.
Post-Tour Observations: I often compare filmmaking to the proverbial tree falling in the forest; one never knows if anyone is listening. Touring with Big Enough and Mirror Mirror reassured me that the themes of these films were understood in the way that I had hoped. intended. The Southern Circuit provided a unique an invaluable opportunity to make a direct connection with that theoretical audience that hovers in the background during the process of making a film. the audience that exists only in my "mind's eye" during the many years that I am working on a film.
Big Enough will air on PBS' P.O.V. on June 28.
Jan Krawitz is a professor at Stanford University, where she teaches in the graduate program in documentary film and video. She has been an independent filmmaker for the past 30 years.