Touring the South(s)

Ashley and I have been on the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers for a week now. As I type these notes, we are driving on I-55, heading from Memphis to a screening tonight in Jackson, Mississippi.

The program we are screening on this tour have been appropriately packaged together under the title “Southern Stories.” The two fictional films (Gina, An Actress, Age 29 and Quick Feet, Soft Hands) were shot in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the documentary (For Memories’ Sake) is a portrait of a woman who’s lived in a rural area outside Nashville all of her life. The cast and crew for these films is largely drawn from the areas in which they were shot.

Charleston Guest House

Guest house. Charleston, SC.

So, while there is a truth, and a convenience, in advertising the films as “Southern Stories”, I’m also ambivalent about labeling them this way. I have long believed that the South is not a monolithic place, except in American mythology, but that there are, instead, many Souths.

Visiting the three places we’ve screened so far — Johnson City, TN, Charleston, SC, and Memphis — has driven that home in dramatic fashion. I can’t remember touring three cities in such short succession that are more different in their cultural,¬†racial, economic, and geographic diversity.

So, calling our films “Southern Stories” tells a half-truth, in a way. Southern, yes. But which South?

And yet, while only our audience in Johnson City might have recognized the physical landscape represented in our films as their own, audiences in all three cities have responded to the films warmly, even with a sense of ownership. Many individuals at our post-screening conversations on the tour have told us how they felt connected to the regionalism of our work in ways that they normally don’t respond with films.

As just one example, film critic Jon Sparks (who moderated our Q+A in Memphis) began the conversation by warmly speaking of the “grit” and “texture” of our films as capturing some essential element of the South. We took this, of course, as an incredible compliment‚Ķ and yet as he said this I wondered, Is there anything that defines all of the South?

Upstairs at Ernestine & Hazel's. Memphis, TN

“Southern” is a complicated word, loaded with historical connotations and pervasive stereotypes. As anyone who’s spent time here knows, some are more true than others.

If pressed to name some unifying element of the South — that is, a thing that can tie together places as diverse as Johnson City, Charleston, and Memphis — I suppose I would say that these places, and the people that inhabit them, have a shared marginality. Regardless of race, class, or creed, everyone here is looked down upon by someone. There’s usually always someone above you, if you’re a Southerner.

I’ll probably change my mind tomorrow about these things. We’ve still got eight cities to go and many Souths to explore. Tonight, it’s Jackson.

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