In recent years, the South has become a coveted destination for filming, with Georgia battling New York and California as the state hosting the country’s most feature film productions. The state’s liberal tax incentives for filmmakers have successfully lured many production teams from the West and Northeast, but they haven’t necessarily been paralleled by support for local, independent filmmakers. South Arts, a regional arts organization sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, seeks to remedy that gap with the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers. By bringing documentary filmmakers and their work to local audiences across the South, the tour hopes to connect storytellers with new communities and get people talking.
The tour, which started in early September, will travel to cities in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with events hosted at independent theaters, community cinema houses, and universities. Viewings of each film will be accompanied by the presence of members of the production team and people featured in the film. Many of the films on tour explore contemporary political and social issues in the South, ranging from refugee experiences in communities wrestling with deep-seated xenophobia to Black gospel music.
Refuge (2021), directed by Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship, which first premiered at DOC NYC, follows Chris Buckley, a veteran and former leader of the KKK, who lives in rural Georgia. Although he repudiates the KKK at the beginning of the film, he continues to harbor a virulent hatred toward Muslims that he has not let go of since the September 11 attacks. “I started hating Muslims when I watched that footage on 9/11,” Buckley says in the documentary. At the urging of his wife, he sees an extremist group interventionist — “I said, ‘it’s me and these kids or it’s the Klan,’” but he is still not able to counter his prejudice. Refuge tracks the efforts of Heval Mohamed Kelli, a Kurdish refugee and doctor in Atlanta, to bridge differences between himself and Buckley. Kelli’s mission is to meet as many Trump supporters as he can and act as “an ambassador for Islam,” and the documentary catalogues the trajectory of that project through his relationship with Buckley.
Another documentary on tour, Stay Prayed Up (2021), directed by D.L. Anderson and Matthew Durning, spotlights Lena Mae Perry, bandleader of The Branchettes, a Black gospel group from North Carolina, who is spearheading the charge to record their first full live album. By showing archival footage and photographs from earlier in her career, the film brings Perry’s lively spirit and presence to audiences who haven’t had the good luck of seeing her in church, her energy radiating on screen. “People might not express it, but there’s going to be a change in somebody’s life. That’s what I’m working for,” Perry says in the film.
Byron Hurt’s Hazing (2022), which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in the spring and played just last week on PBS, explores hazing rituals through interviews with survivors, victims’ families, and members who continue to believe in their value. Hurt, who himself is a member of a Greek fraternity, said in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, “I have worked to address male violence for three decades, and I’ve been on both sides of this issue — as a hazing victim, and as a perpetrator. My social location as a member of a fraternity makes my voice a credible one.”
Other films on tour include Bhawin Suchak and Ira Mckinley’s Outta the Muck (2022), a film about “Black achievement” and intergenerational history; Geoff O’Gara’s Home From School: The Children of Carlisle (2021), a film about Northern Arapaho tribal members’ 2017 efforts to seek the repatriation of the remains of three children who died at Carlisle Indian Industrial School; and Daresha Kyi’s Mama Bears (2022), a film about conservative, Christian mothers who nonetheless unconditionally support their LGBTQ+ children.