Article by Cara Walker | Photos by Miranda Barrett, Ellen Johnson and Kelsey Daugherty
After hearing an account of his interracial friends’ awkward tour of a historic mansion in Jackson, Miss., graduate student Brett Shaw began to question how history – especially that of minorities – is addressed in Southern homes. He knew he had a chance to explore the subject further when he learned about The University of Alabama’s Documenting Justice film class, led by award-winning filmmaker Andy Grace.
The yearlong, multi-disciplinary course aims to teach students how to use film to document and analyze the many dimensions of culture and social experience involved in stories of justice or injustice.
“I think one of the greatest things about this class is it offers students an opportunity to engage with stories and characters they otherwise would not have any opportunity to engage with,” Grace says. “It also gives an audience access to lives and characters they don’t normally come into contact with.”
This is an experience students, many of whom are not film majors, come to appreciate and even treasure. Documenting Justice film topics have examined the impact of Alabama’s immigration laws on Hispanic residents, the transformation of a low-performing, high-poverty school into one of the state’s most outstanding in just three years and the internal struggle of recovering from sexual assault, among many others.
During the first semester of the course, Grace and co-instructor Rachel Morgan, lead programmer for Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival, teach documentary theory and history as well as the ethics of cinematic non-fiction.
The second semester of the course is dedicated to the production of seven- to 10-minute documentaries. Students work in pairs to produce, shoot and edit their films.
Shaw, who is pursuing a master of fine arts degree in creative writing, worked with his partner Abbie Wilson, a senior majoring in telecommunication and film, to produce “White Statues,” which focuses on how minority history is often circumvented at antebellum mansions serving as museums.
Their film features Mary Jones-Fitz, a board member for a new museum in Demopolis, Ala., that is trying to be inclusive despite some resistance. “We [Jones-Fitz and I] talked about how painful it can be for the non-white community when they go to those sorts of places and watch their history be snubbed,” Shaw says.
Shaw and Wilson’s project also explored the psychological effects that difficult history has on white museum visitors when the historical accounts don’t match the genteel Southern picture they envision. “You can admire the beauty and still feel the pain that’s there,” Shaw says.
Shaw says Documenting Justice gave him a new method of artistic expression. “Learning how to shoot film, edit it, see things artistically and spatially while moving through the world is a useful skill,” he says.
Rachel Hartley, a senior majoring in social work, and her partner, Annelise Moreau, a senior majoring in telecommunication and film, tackled a similarly tough subject in their documentary, “Maid in Dixie.” Hartley says the idea for the project, which explores how Southern women identify themselves in a culture steeped in tradition, came from their own struggles and from reading several books and articles about Southern identity.
The film examines the topic through the Azalea Trail Maid Program in Mobile, Ala. Each year, 50 high school seniors are selected to be part of the Azalea Trail Court and participate in fundraisers and events as ambassadors for the city of Mobile. They wear antebellum-style dresses and appeared, amid controversy, at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. Young women selected for the program are supposed to represent Southern culture, values and hospitality.
Hartley admits both she and Moreau saw the program as ridiculous and outdated, but after interviewing girls in it, their ideas began to evolve. “We began to see that it’s much more complicated than it seems, and that it’s unfair to totally assume one way or the other,” Hartley says. “Instead of always taking sides on issues, it’s beneficial to simply appreciate the fact that we can talk about it and openly discuss it.”
Hartley says she learned a lot about herself through the class and project. “It helped me critically reflect on my identity as a Southern woman, how it can possibly be problematic to embrace a culture that is so intertwined with classism and racism, and that there is no right or wrong when it comes to discussing a culture,” she says.
She adds that Documenting Justice provided her with better critical-thinking skills and an ability to personally reflect on anything, even topics that make her uncomfortable.
While Documenting Justice focuses on issues of justice and injustice within Alabama, International Documenting Justice, for those who plan to study abroad, gives students the opportunity to tell social-justice-themed stories from all corners of the globe.
Students enrolled in Documenting Justice International have explored topics including the relationship between history and culture in post-apartheid Johannesburg, South Africa, the work of Uruguay’s clasificadores, who make a living by digging through garbage to find recyclable materials and the power of friendship for two Kenyan girls who live in a home for children orphaned by AIDS.
Since the inception of Documenting Justice, a signature initiative of the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility, in 2006, 121 students have created 61 documentaries about life in Alabama. Fourteen students have filmed 12 documentaries in countries around the world since the launch of Documenting Justice International in 2009.
Many Documenting Justice students have been invited to screen their documentaries at film festivals, and the films have won numerous awards, including the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival’s Best Alabama Film and Best Student Film. All films premier at public screenings in Birmingham or Tuscaloosa.
Grace says the Documenting Justice program pushes students out of their comfort zones to listen to people who aren’t necessarily like them. “It’s human nature to surround yourself with people who look like you and who think like you,” Grace says. “But making a documentary and doing nonfiction work is a rare opportunity to really get outside your social world and hear stories you wouldn’t otherwise hear. I think that’s a vitally important part of being an engaged citizen.”
Katharine Buckley, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in studio art, says Documenting Justice had a dramatic impact on her life. “The class gave me an outlet to think about and discuss many issues and injustices that now I’m very passionate about,” she says. “Some of those issues we talked about in class, like education, are now fields that I’m working and volunteering in post-grad.”
As an Alabama native, Buckley says the class gave her a productive way to address concerns for her home state while not simply criticizing it. “[Documenting Justice] allowed me to grow and realize that I can be proud and love Alabama while still acknowledging problems, and I realized that a duality like that is what will push Alabama in a positive direction in the future,” she says.
Grace says he is continually proud of how much time and effort his students put into the filmmaking process. “We had some challenging films this year that required a lot of travel and a lot of time commitment from the students,” Grace says. “That we produce so many exceptional films is a testament to the hard work the students put in year after year.”
Watch Documenting Justice films at vimeo.com/documentingjustice. For more information, contact Andy Grace at 205-348-8245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.