Full Frame Documentaries Showcase The Good And The Bad Of Southern History

Apr 3, 2019

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega stands outside St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro where she lives in sanctuary. Her ordeal is featured in the film 'Santuario.'
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC

Nearly 100 documentary films from around the world will be shown this week and weekend in downtown Durham. It’s the 22nd annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, with this edition highlighting the stories of laid off autoworkers, the last male northern white rhino and musical greats like Miles Davis. But there are a small group of documentaries I have especially been waiting for. They are films born in the South, telling stories we don’t always like to hear, but shouldn’t forget.

One of those documentaries is “Always in Season.” Director Jacqueline Olive travels to Bladenboro, North Carolina to try and find out how 17-year-old Lennon Lacy died. Did the African American teen commit suicide or was he murdered, left hanging from a swing set. I have interviewed and spent time with Lacy’s mother, Claudia Lacy, who still lives in the mostly white town, and is convinced her son was lynched. It is easy to get emotional seeing her visit his gravesite.

"Always in Season" from filmmaker Jacqueline Olive explores the death of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy in Blandenboro, N.C. Lennon's brother Pierre and mother Claudia are pictured here.
Credit Courtesy of Phil Fonville

In Mossville, Louisiana, a black community struggles and then fights to try and save what’s left of their hometown that was founded by enslaved people. In “Mossville: When Great Trees Fall,” residents are outraged when yet another chemical company bulldozes its way into town. They are at an environmental justice crossroads: “whether to exist in a chemical war zone, or abandon land that has been in their families for generations,” as the film’s synopsis lays out.

Michelle Lanier is director of the North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites, and the executive producer of the Mossville documentary. “The stories change us as we create,” she said at a recent gathering at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. “You will be transformed.”

In Greensboro, North Carolina, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega continues to live in “Sanctuary.” For two years, this mother and grandmother who came to this state from Guatemala, has lived in a renovated office at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. The short film, “Santuario,” documents how she copes with spending most of her life separated from family and friends to ensure she is not arrested and deported by U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement before her case is heard.

When I interviewed Ortega in 2018, just before Mother’s Day, she was proud to show me her living quarters, her family photos and the two sewing machines donated by supporters. I asked Ortega: has she ever left the church, even for a doctor’s appointment? “No, never,” she said.
 

Bluegrass icon Alice Gerrard featured in the documentary film, 'You Gave Me a Song: The Life and Music of Alice Gerrard.'
Credit Courtesy of full Frame

Bluegrass icon Alice Gerrard, who lives in Durham, is considered a pioneer for women in that genre. In “You Gave Me a Song: The Life and Music of Alice Gerrard,” she says, “I never thought I couldn’t do something.” The film is full of archival photos, performances and rare field recordings. Her voice gives me chills and makes me smile. Gerrard is known to have stood her ground when it came to issues of race and gender.

My smile gets even bigger looking at the pictures taken by legendary photojournalist Burk Uzzle.  His work is featured in the documentary “F/11 and Be There.” Director Jethro Waters uses thumping music to bring Uzzle’s pictures to life – from photos of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in his casket, to current portraits of African Americans living in Eastern North Carolina. The documentary gives us a close up look at more than 60 years of Uzzle’s work.

In the documentary “Edgecombe,” residents in a rural stretch of Edgecombe County, North Carolina,” explore their past, present and future. Crystal Kayiza’s short film examines the lives of these African American residents, and how history repeats itself.

The young Ugandan filmmaker was able to produce “Edgecombe” with help from the Sundance Ignite Fellowship, for up and coming artists. Kayiza told Teen Vogue, “I think my interests, especially in African American stories and black African stories, is bridging those worlds and making that connection because I think our histories are really interconnected.”

The last film I plan on seeing is “The Changing Same.” The story is filmed in a community in the Florida panhandle, not far from where I grew up. The documentary follows Lamar Wilson as he runs the 13-mile path that a black man from Marianna, Florida took to his death in 1934.

“People started messaging me, are you crazy?” said Wilson, in the film. “You’re gonna get hurt.”

Wilson says it hurts to see no markers of “physical reminders” of the lynching of Claude Neal. “The Changing Same” was directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, co-directors of the award-winning documentary, “American Promise.”