During the five weeks in 1991 that I served as a college-age intern in the Washington, D.C., office of Sen. Terry Sanford, the most frequent question I heard from other interns outside North Carolina was a variation of the following: "How can the same state elect both Jesse Helms and Terry Sanford as its two U.S. senators?"
Such is the political and cultural paradox of the Tar Heel State that has intrigued and confounded even its residents for generations. For filmmaker Tim Kirkman, a gay man who grew up harboring both love and an element of loathing for the state, the catharsis came only with perspective—"I didn't know my home state until I left," he says—and in making his debut film, the 1998 documentary Dear Jesse, which is now being released to DVD.
Part political travelogue, part personal diary, Dear Jesse is structured as Kirkman's self-styled "letter" to the renowned anti-gay Helms, with whom he shares a home town—Monroe. For the film, Kirkman mined his own upbringing for parallels to Helms' and traversed the state to interview Helms' fans and foes alike. Kirkman utilizes a distinctive first-person narrative that he readily admits was "totally stolen" from Ross McElwee. "He's my hero," Kirkman says. "He reframed the way I saw movies, especially for a filmmaker embarking on a journey of self-discovery."
Some may question the film's relevance four years after Helms left the Senate and began an inextricable drift into the dustbin of history, but the passage of time has allowed the film's cogent message to become clearer. "When I first made the film, the media's questions all revolved around Helms and way the film treated him," recalls Kirkman. "The issue of gay marriage, and other related issues, was just starting to emerge.
"Today, Helms remains emblematic of problems that still exist: gender, racial and sexual," Kirkman says. "That is the film's enduring lesson, one of prejudice and the continuing hope for tolerance." To that point, the doc includes a brief interview with Matthew Shepard, then a student at Catawba College, who was later brutally murdered in Wyoming due to his homosexuality.
After the auspicious beginning of his personal documentary, Kirkman went on to direct his 2005 narrative feature debut and indie hit Loggerheads, and he now has several projects in development. Pre-production continues for an adaptation of Hillsborough writer Lee Smith's novel Family Linen, which Kirkman hopes to film around Asheville, and casting will soon begin for a buddy comedy set in New Orleans with the working title Froggy Style. Moreover, he recently completed writing a script for a Wright Brothers biopic entitled Kitty Hawk, which he plans to make with Gill Holland, his Dear Jesse and Loggerheads producer. "It's a story that no one has fully brought to film," says Kirkman. "Orville and Wilbur were the ultimate 'geek-squad'—brilliant but fearful and suspicious of the world. What intrigues me is that they sacrificed so much to do something so special in such an isolated place."
The Dear Jesse DVD, which also contains deleted scenes, Kirkman's running audio commentary and a catalogue of provocative quotations from Helms, will be released Oct. 30.
One element of Tar Heel life that has changed dramatically since the heyday of Sen. Helms is the emergence of a Latino population, one that is complicating our understanding of Southern culture. Director Rodrigo Dorfman's latest film, Los Sueños de Angélica (Angelica's Dreams), is vibrant evidence of this.
The movie, which premieres Sunday, Oct. 21, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, is the first Latino feature-length independent film produced in North Carolina and was shot entirely on location within Durham's Latino community. The plot concerns an immigrant couple from Latin America who are coping with the struggle of a new life in the U.S. and the decision of whether to return to their home country. The film dramatizes the difficult, often heart-wrenching choices Latino immigrant families must make in their effort to realize the American dream.
Los Sueños de Angélica was originally proposed as an educational film on financial literacy sponsored by the Latino Community Credit Union (LCCU). Dorfman spun this opportunity into a multilayered feature-length film with an aesthetic inspired by filmmakers as varied as John Cassavetes and Pedro Almodóvar. All but four actors in the cast play themselves, and at least one-third of the dialogue is improvised. Dorfman states that the entire filmmaking process—writing, shooting and editing—was accomplished in three months.
"The beauty of the film is that it is multipurpose," says Dorfman. "Like all works of art, different people will see it different ways." Dorfman is most pleased with the manner in which his finished product portrays and breaks down pervasive views of Latinos. "So often, filmmakers portrays the Latino community in two ways: the gang stereotype or the Mi Familia stereotype. On the other hand, this film flows from the community itself, almost as a natural extension of documentary filmmaking put into a narrative form."
Los Sueños de Angélica is sponsored by the LCCU's Home Buyer Program, which will provide copies of the film nationwide to credit unions and community centers. Moreover, Duke University plans to distribute copies to various departments for use as a teaching aid in student workshops.
Los Sueños de Angélica screens at 4 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 21. Admission is free. The film will be followed by a reception with Mexican food and music by Carnavalito.