Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Marta Cunningham, Valentine Road - ETSU, Emory, & Auburn University

From Filmmaker Marta Cunningham of Valentine Road:

Southern Circuit Tour Part 2

Back to Atlanta, and then I jumped onto a quick flight to Johnson City to discuss filmmaking with students at East Tennessee State University, and a screening of Valentine Road. The drive in from the airport was beautiful. Watching the beginning of Fall come in with all the various colors of the autumn leaves changing was stunning. No more 90 degree weather; Fall had come to Tennessee. The Carnegie Hotel across the street from the University was straight out of a play or a movie from the 30s, like The Grand Hotel. Everything was beautifully done in period style. Even though the actual building was only 14 years old, the beautiful antiques, style, and design were not.

 The next morning I spoke with undergraduate students majoring in Radio, Television and Film. They were incredibly open and inquisitive. Vulnerable but not shy. We spoke about how technology has changed the game and it was no longer a necessity to have expensive cameras to shoot your film, or to spend thousands of dollars to end up in New York or LA. I have been traveling with the film for almost two years now. While visiting the many festival around the world, I have been lucky enough to meet many different filmmakers from all over, and the new trend is staying put. Telling stories about where you're from and developing a community of artist at home has been incredible to watch grow. One of the questions I posed to the students was, "Does your dream involve being extremely rich beyond your wildest dreams and hanging out with movie stars, or do you want to be an independent filmmakers and  tell stories?" I was very honest with them about the realities of being a filmmaker, and working anything you can get to pay the bills while pursuing your dreams. Luckily, they seemed unfazed and excited about the opportunity of not having to move to one of the coasts in order to pursue their passion. I left intrigued with where this class will end up.

That afternoon, I was back with another class watching a very talented director's documentary short on Mars 1. A well-done rough cut. The second time the class and I watched it together, I went through my notes with the director and the class, and discussed the story, pacing, and the length of a good short. I loved it. The class seemed excited as well. The director is passionate about her work and the craft of filmmaking, which is always great to witness.

The screening of Valentine Road that night was emotional. There were a lot of tears and anger about the state of our country, and the senselessness of the hate and violence that we discuss in the film. One woman who spoke to us shared her story, through tears, about living in Tennessee and coming out at 43 years old. She was destroyed by the hatred she witnessed in the film and vowed to make a difference in her community. She said it was difficult, because from her viewpoint, the LGBT community was not visible and she wanted more. I am hopeful that she is on a path to help change her community. Another young woman shared her story of her father and grandmother being homophobia, and growing up in a Baptist fundamentalist community. When she first came to ETSU, she didn't know how to act or what to say to someone who was in the LGBT community. However, over time she has learned to open up and become accepting, and is happy to say she now has gay and lesbian friends at school. She then went on to say she was going to buy the DVD on Amazon and show her family it on movie night! I told her to let me know how it goes. So inspired by our youth, really shaking it up!

Back to Atlanta Airport and off to Oxford, Georgia to meet with the students and professors of Emory for a screening, and a class of Gender and Violence. The lovely place they chose for me to stay in is in a picture-perfect town called Covington, and called the 12 Oaks Bed and Breakfast, after its namesake from Gone With The Wind, (a film I still have not seen). A few years ago, it was a house in foreclosure, completely rundown and in disarray. Now it's Scarlett's Tara. It really is unique and beautiful. The owner, Nicole, has put an incredible amount of love into each room. The screening of Valentine Road played to a packed house of Emory students, by far the most vocal, distraught, and active group yet. The Q&A lasted for over an hour, and then continued afterwards with a few students in the hallway until almost midnight. The students were a true embodiment of diversity - not just in ethnicity, but also in thought and in how they processed the film. I was truly impressed.  What a great opportunity to witness. I told them all that the kids in the film are now their age, and how they are the future and have the responsibility to help change the various ills in our society. They seemed to welcome it with open arms.

Next up, my last stop on this incredible tour, Auburn University in Alabama. When I drove up to the beautiful museum where Valentine Road will be screening this evening, I stumbled directly into a field of cotton across the parking lot. I was struck immediately by not only its proximity to this new beautiful Italian marble structure, but to the fact it is the first time I have ever seen a cotton field up close and personal. It’s a part of our legacy that some African Americans would like to forget. I took a moment as dusk was approaching to take pictures, and pay tribute to my own personal family sacrifices and the heritage of our ancestors. It felt very big just standing there by that cotton field, like an ending source of pain that has not been healed or discussed. A discussion our country has been avoiding for hundreds of years.

When I walked in the museum, I was so happy to see their new exhibition - Rembrandt and The Golden Age of Painting in Europe, which I toured while the film played. (I stopped watching my film over a year ago.) I also was lucky enough to witness the partial eclipse of the sun through a local star watcher's telescope he and his wife had set up. It was awe inspiring to say the least.

The documentary played to a full house and some of the students happened to also be film students at the University. The Q&A was very interesting. At the initial session, the students seemed overwhelmed and timid at first. I noticed that mostly the young men were asking the questions. Slowly, as they became more comfortable with idea of talking directly to the source, the questions became in-depth about filmmaking. After the session, a few of the female students said they cried during the entire film. I told them I understood and that it was one of the reasons I don't watch the film anymore. I always let the students know how well most of the youth in the film are doing at this point in their lives, since they relate to them on a very intimate level. I know it could have been something they witnessed, since they are a generation that grew up with school shootings. Sadly, it is an almost everyday occurrence in our nation.

Overall, the Southern Circuit Tour of Valentine Road has been a deeply impactful and successful event. I am so grateful to Teresa Hollingsworth, South Arts, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the professors and docents at all of the screenings who helped with the screenings, classes, and discussions that came out of their dedication to the arts.

Our youth are surprising us every day, and none more than the young men and women that I have met in my Southern Circuit Tour. Truly displaying unbelievable courage and commitment to the fight for equality for our all marginalized voices. I will be back!