After a recent episode of Antiques Roadshow on UNC-TV, Alamance County dairy farmer Randy Lewis sat in front of his television with friends and local filmmakers Jason Arthurs and Ted Richardson to watch scenes from his life in The Last Barn Dance. The 26-minute documentary, cut down from 32 minutes for television, follows Lewis' struggle to preserve his family's dairy farm and its traditions.
"Randy was flabbergasted to see himself on TV," says Arthurs, co-producer of the film, which kicked off the new Reel South series on Monday, Jan. 4. "He watches a lot of TV, so to see himself on his own television set where he watches TV shows was an experience for him."
Reel South is a collaboration between UNC-TV, the Southern Documentary Fund and South Carolina Educational Television. Six half-hour or hour-long documentaries about the American South—exploring the environmental art of Patrick Dougherty (Bending Sticks, Jan. 25) or cotton's journey from South Carolina farms to Chinese factories (Cotton Road, Jan. 11), for instance—are airing at 9 or 9:30 p.m. every Monday in January.
This Monday's lineup features Can't Stop the Water, a film about Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, and the Native American community trying to save its culture as the land washes away. It's followed by Counter Histories: Rock Hill, which takes a look back at the nine college men who dared to stage a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in 1961 Rock Hill, South Carolina.
In the first episode, The Last Barn Dance was paired with Tommy! The Dreams I Keep Inside Me, a film by Durham resident Rodrigo Dorfman about Tommy Onorato, a 60-year-old Raleigh man with autism who dreams of singing in a big band. Dorfman's first film aired in 1998 as part of North Carolina Visions, a UNC-TV program that showed almost 300 local films, from full-length documentaries to experimental shorts, in the course of a decade or so.
After a change in leadership in 2014, UNC-TV asked Rachel Raney and the Southern Documentary Fund to organize a series of listening sessions with independent media-makers around North Carolina between late 2014 and early 2015, exploring ways to develop and acquire original content from local producers. Many expressed a desire for a new version of North Carolina Visions to showcase work by local filmmakers and highlight local issues. UNC-TV answered with Reel South.
"It's exciting to have a renaissance of amazing creativity in North Carolina, and in the South in general, that is homegrown, and to see that reflected in our public institution," Dorfman says. "That's very important because for many years I felt fairly alienated from my local public television station."
Integral to the creation of Reel South was Rachel Raney, former director of the Southern Documentary Fund and soon-to-be director of independent productions at UNC-TV. Raney believes Reel South will be more sustainable than North Carolina Visions because it covers the entire Southeast region, rather than just North Carolina, so there are even more films to choose from. There is also the shared commitment and resource pool of three producing partners.
"I think that the lineup we have for this pilot season is as good as anything you can see across the country on public television," Raney says. "And if you look at a lot of the national documentary series, which I love, there are very few Southern films that get picked up. Not only are we letting people around the South see films from their backyard about their communities, but we're also introducing the rest of the country to great, authentic Southern stories—a real counterbalance to a lot of what gets out there about the South."
In addition to UNC-TV, the films will air on the South Carolina-based SCETV, more than a dozen public channels around the Southeast, and any other stations in the country that choose to pick up the series through the National Educational Telecommunications Association. Many of the films are also viewable at UNC-TV's website. Raney says a second season of Reel South is already being discussed, though nothing is official yet.
"This first season was very much bootstrapped," she says. "But I think people are already looking forward to a Season Two, and we've been getting numerous inquiries from filmmakers around the South about how to submit."
Dorfman and Arthurs agree that an ongoing series broadcasting Southern documentaries to a wide audience could change the game for independent producers. Right now, much of their work isn't seen outside of film festivals and local screenings.
"It's very time-consuming and it takes a lot of work to connect with the audience that's going to be moved by your film," Arthurs says. "I think what Reel South does, and could do a lot more of in the future, is offer filmmakers a way to connect with those audiences very easily."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Candid camera"