Monday, November 22, 2010

Cambria Matlow - Burning In Birmingham

I drove the whole way from Auburn to Birmingham along country roads and through the Talladega National Forest, and realized why the state has it’s moniker ‘Alabama the Beautiful.’ This is what roadtripping should always be like.

Birmingham too was surprisingly beautiful, surrounded by low hills full of red foliage on almost all sides. I had a full day in the city before my screening there, so took the opportunity to head to the Civil Rights Institute downtown. Across the street from the Institute in one direction was Kelly Ingram Park, a major staging ground for civil rights demonstrations in the 1960’s. This is where demonstrators were sprayed with water hoses and intimadated by police attack dogs, and where children were arrested for participating in civil rights demonstrations.

Across the street in another direction was the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the bombing that, less than a month after the 1966 March on Washington, killed four young girls. Needless to say, the setting gave the Institute a whole lot of immediate resonance.

The exhibits also featured a ton of rarely-seen archival documentary footage, which as a filmmaker I appreciated greatly. I found it particularly interesting that, in response to the plain old racism and wrongness of local city and state officials from Birmingham and Alabama, civil rights activists time and time again would turn to the U.S. federal government for support. This would often come in the form of legal rulings from the Supreme Court, and sometimes protection from the National Guard, ordered by the President. There seemed to be a conscience in the national governement, and in the national courts, where there was none locally. Where is our government’s conscience now? It seems to have gone down the drain of politics. It’s sad. I know this predicament is nothing new, but this was a powerful reminder of the immediate difference a government with a soul can make.

I walked back toward the University of Alabama, Birmingham via downtown, and passed the Alabama Theatre. I love old theaters so I snapped a picture. It’s been designated the State Theater of Alabama, and seats something like 3500 people.

The screening took place at the Alys Robinson Stephens Center for Performing Arts, affiliated with the university. Grand and gorgeous it was! This was our largest ‘official’ attendance to date, with a good mix of students and community members asking informed questions at what turned into a rather lengthy Q & A. Thanks to Lannie, Jessica and Jerry for making it happen — to Lannie for putting together my very first green room(!), to Jessica for programming the Southern Circuit at the Center for the first time, and to Jerry for providing me with a humorous education in Southern accent regionalism. I headed out that night to catch some blues/folk/punk music from Austin guitarist Scott Hiram at the Bottletree CafĂ©, good finds on both counts. Breakfast the next morning was another double treat, as I was able to spend some time with Artist Coordinator Eric Essix, an accomplished jazz musician in his own right, who couldn’t make it to the screening the night before because of a gig in Atlanta. He took me to the Original Pancake House on Birmingham’s southside, which set me off right for another lengthy drive, the last push of the tour, back down to the Gulf of Mexico for a couple more screenings.