Tuesday, April 17, 2012

SAHKANAGA - Days 6 thru 9

#6 CLEMSON - The Greenville, SC, airport is a strangely soothing place. The approach is beautifully landscaped, reminiscent of the entrance to the Biltmore Estate. (I'm not kidding.) The road softly winds past flowers and greenery, ending at a dramatic display of spraying water. Inside, the dining room basks in daylight that filters through lush trees and a wall of windows that stretch upwards of 30 feet. There's also a lovely lunch counter with a killer short-order cook. Poached eggs, bacon and grits - all perfectly cooked. And the best cup of coffee I've had on the entire trip.

This bucolic surprise extends to the Clemson University campus where shiny, happy students traverse wide lawns, tossing footballs while dreaming up a cure for cancer. WHERE AM I?

I met my host, Amy, and some students for a sandwich before the screening. The questions from the students, over sandwiches and during the Q&A, revealed a student body that is curious, discerning and articulate. I tried to convey the importance of recognizing their academic and social privilege so that they can accept the responsibility of using it for positive social, cultural and political change. I could sense a lot of hope and ambition in that room. I even met a woman from the community who asked if she could adopt me, and a gentleman who had traveled to Tanzania where he encountered the burial ritual of leaving a corpse out in the open for hyenas to eat.

The best part is that the car rental company asked if I would prefer a mini-van or pickup truck. They gave me the biggest truck I've ever seen (besides a U-Haul or the equipment truck we drove during filming). The Dodge Ram. I almost returned it because it was too much truck for me, but I tamed that beast over twisting mountain roads to my Uncle David's cabin in the DuPont State Forest.

#7 MONTGOMERY - Uncle David is the Forest Supervisor at one of North Carolina's crown jewels - the DuPont State Forest. Over 10,000 acres of mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and trails. Unfortunately, I was only able to spend the night because I had to leave before sunrise to catch a flight to Montgomery.

The Capri is an old theatre in the Cloverdale neighborhood, and a rarity among smaller American cities - a bleeding heart indie/art house cinema.

Next time you find yourself in Montgomery, please catch a flick at the Capri, and grab a drink at a phenomenal new bar behind the theatre - Leroy.

This leg of the journey was made extra special by my longtime friends Janet & Jason driving down from Birmingham to spend the afternoon with me. I met Janet at summer camp when we were 14-years-old, and besides being an amazing friend and musician, Janet put her life on hold to assist our Production Designer, Kay Lee, during the shoot. She was my bunkmate, my unofficial on-set therapist, and I love her to pieces.

They're also the type of friends who can spend the afternoon relaxing in a park, talking or not talking, bare feet on warm grass, enjoying the effortless comfort that is the reward after years of friendship and shared experience.

I definitely hit a wall of exhaustion in Montgomery. After the screening, we returned to Janet's parents' house and I literally felt like gravity was pulling me forward. I couldn't even stay up to chat. Southern Circuit Zombified!

#8 ALEXANDRIA - I cannot, under any circumstances, recommend the Econo-Lodge in Alexandria, LA. By far the most disastrous Hotwire reservation ever, I entered the Econo-Lodge (inexplicably awarded two stars on Hotwire) parking lot which was completely deserted except for a white mini-van with no hubcaps and two blown-out tires, and a little girl standing outside the entrance with her back to me. Across the parking lot at the neighboring hotel I saw three men escort a woman in a tiny yellow dress into one of the rooms upstairs. The little girl had a blonde ponytail and she wore jean shorts with a rainbow-striped tube top. She seemed to be absorbed in an iPhone or something. When I approached the door she turned around revealing about 8-months of pregnancy. I don't know how she stayed balanced since her stomach was equal in size to her entire person. I checked in and drove around back to find my room. Shirtless dudes congregated in back of the hotel, sitting on the curb, waiting for... the woman in the yellow dress?

The door to my room wouldn't open so I gave it a little kick and it snapped forward, the light from the hall spilling into darkness as a roach scurried across the wall and an oppressive stale smokiness pushed itself out, as though the air was trying to flee the confines of that sad room. The baseboard had been ripped from the wall, plaster and all. Tiny specks of daylight blazed through the holes. I decided to take a quick shower and head to the venue, taking all of my belongings because it just didn't feel safe.

Alexandria is a mid-sized city in the center of Louisiana, and it reminded me a lot of Chattanooga, TN, in the '80s, before the revitalization efforts of the '90s which transformed Chattanooga into a vibrant tourist destination. Positioned along the Red River, Alexandria has great potential, and most astonishingly it's home to a gorgeous, state-of-the-art, huuuuuuuge arts complex - the Coughlin-Saunders Performing Arts Center. By far the most pristine projection on the entire tour, the film looked and sounded great, though it was surreal to watch the movie in a 615-seat theatre with 30 people.

Afterwards I met my saviors, David & Nicole Holcombe. Transplants from San Francisco and Brussels, they have lived in Alexandria for over 25 years. They found out I was staying in the Econo-Lodge, and since David works for the Department of Public Health he's privy to the hotel's bedbug infestations, so they insisted that I check out and stay with them for the night. Passionate art collectors, their house is filled with funky, colorful pieces from all over. The next morning we got to share a relaxed breakfast al fresco with greek yogurt and local strawberries before I returned to the airport. I love the Holcombes. They quite possibly saved my life.

#9 THOMASVILLE - On this trip I've been spending a lot of time in the Atlanta airport, and I've been surprised by the number of people I've seen in tears. At one gate I sat next to a large man in a white suit who broke down while talking on the phone to someone he loved but felt manipulated by. At another gate a tan woman in tight jeans and a sequined Harley-Davidson t-shirt sat across from me and revealed, through multiple phone conversations with her son, mother & lover, that she had applied for a domestic violence grant in Miami so that she could qualify for a free trip to an undisclosed rehab center in the Appalachians. She had acquired too many "jail points" as a prostitute, so she needed to go away for 30-90 days and get clean. She asked her son not to forget her. She asked him not to get married until she was able to come home.

Thomasville, on the other hand, is a charming town in south Georgia, where people seem pretty darn happy. The Thomasville Center for the Arts  is housed in an old school that has been beautifully restored, on par with any renovation/repurposing I've seen in New York. They decided to pair the SAHKANAGA screening with an art opening featuring the works of Carol Christie and Karl Zerbe.

The evening began with a wine & beer reception (amazing homemade poppy bleu cheese thumbprints with raspberry preserves!) and live upright bass from a young Tallahassee musician who plays with the Zach Bartholomew Trio. I really enjoyed chatting with everyone, and afterwards at the dessert & coffee reception I met a teacher who brought his class to view the Karl Zerbe exhibit, which features a series of paintings inspired by the Civil Rights movement in Albany, GA, and one of his black students pulled him aside and asked, "Does this museum ever show paintings by black artists?"

This tour has me thinking a lot about the lack of integration in the arts, which should be one of its greatest advantages - the ability to communicate diverse cultural experiences and bridge social gaps through exchange and understanding. But that is not often the case.

As a filmmaker I'm hoping to tell stories about communities that are not represented often or well in movies, but beyond that, I'm interested in figuring out ways to bring independent film to communities with little or no access to the art form. This is the goal of the Southern Circuit Tour, certainly, but there's a lot more work to be done if we're going to cross boundaries within each town. The New Orleans Film Society recently raised money to purchase a projector that they can take directly into neighborhoods. If the audiences won't come to us, we should go to them. Unconventional, forward-thinking models. An aspiration. A possibility.