12/4/2009 - Berkeley Grad students film Perry County Documentary
By Chelsea Barton
University of California-Berkeley graduate student N'Jeri Eaton came across an article last summer in "GQ" magazine dealing with the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn. After some research, she and her classmate Matt Durning learned that the coal ash was coming to Perry County, Ala. Once the two realized that the local community was against the coal ash coming into their town, they knew they'd found a topic for their senior exit documentary film.
The film will focus on the debate accompanying the coal ash dumping at the Uniontown landfill. The film will look at the companies, the politicians and the conditions that allowed the coal ash to be brought here against the will of the local community.
"We see this as an environmental story, a political story and a civil rights story all wrapped into one," Durning said.
The Berkeley duo asked fellow classmate Christina Salerno to join them as sound technician. The team made their first five-day visit to Perry County in October, meeting with as many of the individuals from each side of the story as possible and asking local residents their opinions.
The documentary crew returned to Perry County in November, this time for ten days to conduct and film numerous interviews with the Perry County Concerned Citizens, several residents living near the landfill, members of the Perry County Commission, a local historian and local journalists.
The crew attempted to speak to the owners of the landfill, but they refused to be interviewed on camera or even in person. The owners also denied the crew's request to let them visit the landfill, with camera or without camera. The only permitted communication was through writing.
In Marion, the students covered all of the "Obama Day" events and continued to interview residents. They also attended church services, sat in on a radio program at WJUS and even attended a livestock auction. These measures were taken to not only get an understanding of the landfill issue, but also to add substance to the film and to get a sense of what Perry County is like.
"In some ways the Obama events surpassed our expectations and in other ways were a disappointment," Durning said. "We were really excited about the EPA session on 'Environmental Justice' but unfortunately, no one came to the event. However, the Obama Day Parade was really exciting. The bands were really amazing to see perform."
Each member of the documentary crew noted how the community supported their project. This was the crew's greatest surprise.
"Their encouragement has meant the world to us," they said.
Mr. and Mrs. Jim Sealy of Uniontown graciously opened up their home to the documentary crew.
"They have been wonderful and shown us what true southern hospitality is all about," exclaimed the students.
Primary shooting for the film has to be completed by the first day of spring semester, Jan. 19. Durning and Eaton then have the entire semester to edit the film.
That may sound like a lot of time but, according to Durning, "Watching all of our footage, transcribing interviews, structuring the story, selecting music, photos, etc. is a big task. The hardest part of putting a documentary film together is taking the time to tell the story accurately and completely and give the people and issues the respect and consideration they deserve."
The Berkeley crew plans to return to Perry County sometime in early summer to screen the film for the local community. As soon as the official date, time and location are established they will send word.
"Having never previously visited this area, the only thing we knew about Perry County is what we read in national press coverage," Durning said.
In his opinion, those articles did not do Perry County justice.
"We have found this community to be resilient but the problems here are complicated and without easy solutions," agreed the crew.
"This experience has made me realize that there is a real lack of coverage in the national media about what happens in the South, particularly in the Black Belt," Durning said. "We have really enjoyed our time here and it has influenced the types of stories we want to tell in the future."
Both Eaton and Durning have talked about possibly coming back to Alabama to work on more projects.
When asked what their favorite aspect of their experience was, the crew agreed that, "the amazing meals were probably the most memorable. The people have also been incredibly gracious and welcoming. We want to take some of that same warm spirit back with us to California."
*Article courtesy of the Judson College Public Relations Department.