The South is teeming with stories begging to be told and interesting people needing to be discovered.
With the SCAD Savannah Film Festival’s Southern Voices competition, filmmakers are given a chance to tell their Southern-rooted stories.
This year’s Southern Voices showcase features six short documentary and narrative films that cover wide ranging topics from social issues to strange Southern locations to LGBTQIA experiences. One such film is "Graceland," directed by Bonnie Discepolo.
Discepolo is an actor and director who was a participant in Robert Rodriguez’s docu-series, "Rebel Without a Crew."
"Graceland" is a metaphor about gender identity, in which a mother named Prissy (Anna Camp) is worried to find that her daughter believes that she is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley. Discepolo drew upon their own personal childhood experiences when creating the story.
"The film is, in short, about love," Discepolo explained. "I think the underlying message I was trying to tell is, what is it if a mother or parent is raising a child who is not who they thought they were or who they expected the child to be?"
Discepolo grew up in South Carolina and shot the film in Charleston with assistance from the South Carolina Indie Grant. The stars of "Graceland," Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect) and Monique Coleman (High School Musical), grew up with Discepolo, and the film shoot was like a homecoming reunion, with much of the cast and crew filled out with local friends and family.
"I think ‘Graceland’ is deeply rooted in the South," said Discepolo. "The production design was incredibly important to me and I wanted to show in pictures what it feels like to live in the South. And for me, being a kid who was a little out of step with everyone else, I think this film represents that there is deep, beautiful, colorful history, but also that it can be hard if you don’t fit in precisely to what that is."
"The Cheap Seats," directed by Brittany Reeber, is a docu-narrative film about Cassadaga, Florida, a real life community of spiritualists and mediums that was founded in the late 1800’s. Reeber, who usually directs and produces music videos for acts like Protomartyr and Parquet Courts, was inspired by the Bright Eyes album, "Cassadaga," to visit the town.
"They’re still technically Christian but they have this element of spirituality and are very much about proving you can talk to the dead," said Reeber. "It was sort of a church group of ghost-talking people, but over time it evolved and attracted all kinds of interesting people."
Reeber used several locals from "the psychic capital of the world" to round out the cast and learned a lot about the dynamics of living in the community.
"There are people who have taken up shop who don’t get along with the actual church," Reeber explained. "Everyone has their own opinion about what is proper spiritual practice. There is a lot of political stuff there, too...I tried to walk this fine line, tonally, of not making fun of these people. I’m poking fun, but also opening the door for more curiosity and respect, rather than just making fun of someone for believing something."
Reeber grew up in Hollywood, Fla., and moved to Austin, Texas, to attend the University of Texas, when she was 18 years old. Her Florida and Texas experiences attest to the diversity of Southern experience.
"Being from South Florida, you don’t really feel like a Southerner," said Reeber.
"It’s such a different place from northern Florida. I feel like northern Florida is the South and southern Florida is some strange hybrid of Cuba and New York. Over time I’ve gravitated towards Florida’s stories, especially central and east coast Florida. Also, now I feel like an honorary Texan. If I was from Georgia I would say, ‘Yes, I’m from the South,’ but something about Florida feels like an anomaly...which is why I was so interested in Cassadaga."
Another film featured in the Southern Voices competition is the documentary "Huntsville Station," directed by Jaime Meltzer and Chris Filippone. "Huntsville Station" is an intimate look at the experiences of several recent parolees in Texas getting dropped off at a Greyhound Station before restarting their lives after years in prison.
"We were both really interested in exploring criminal justice from a different angle and then creating a piece that was more immersive and put the audience in a place of listening and watching, and a place of empathy for how the criminal justice system affects people," said Meltzer of the film.
"This place just seemed like the perfect vehicle to create a short immersive documentary because you’ve got all these parolees trapped in this bus station for a certain amount of hours everyday and they were neither in prison nor completely free—they were in this in-between state. We wanted to place the viewer with them in this place for this limited amount of time and just sit with them."
The directors didn’t have much time to prepare for their shoot. Meltzer and Filippone just showed up to the bus station with cameras for eight days and hoped that the parolees would be receptive.
"Interestingly, more often than not, the paroles were really open to being filmed," said Filippone. "I think in some ways the experience was so much bigger for them that our presence was a lot smaller. Some of them had been inside for so long, there was a lot of sensory things going on in their experience coming out. Alternatively, some of them were expressing vulnerability in front of us. I think our presence with the camera also invited a space for reflection and we were able to be present for those first real moments of people feeling the weight of what they were going through."
Meltzer and Filippone chose to focus on the Texas criminal justice system because in many ways it is more advanced and transparent than other states.
"I think Texas stands in a really strong way for the larger criminal justice system, both in the U.S. and internationally," said Meltzer. "It has an iconic quality to it that people might recognize all over the world."
The six films showcased in the Southern Voices competition will present audiences diverse glimpses of the Southern experience.