I have not spent much time in the South, and nearly no time in the Deep South. This is partly due to the physics of family (sister in Italy, wife from England) and partly due to interest (mountains, cold oceans, dry air, no snakes).
What we learn of a place too comes to us through the tools of the modern world — movies, TV, news, Snapchat. I certainly bear a bias because of that. The Deep South felt farther away to me than New Zealand. No more.
I traveled recently to Birmingham, Ala., and it did not play to bias. I had been in Birmingham only once before, in 1993. Jackie and I drove through and did not linger.
My sense in 1993 was the city had folded up into itself. Maybe the civil rights movement exposed the rawness of a segregated and racist South and the city then pulled back. I remembered Birmingham as a shuttered and drawn-in place.
I was invited to Birmingham this summer to run a story lab for emerging screenwriters and filmmakers. Our nonprofit collaborative — Stowe Story Labs — partnered with Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival to put on a program in Alabama. In its two decades, Sidewalk has grown into an important regional festival, drawing 15,000 or so film lovers to Birmingham’s downtown each August. Sidewalk showcases emerging and established talents and takes on the themes haunting the South and the nation.
We take our cultural cues from the news and pop culture, and neither of those tools do nuance well. I took up the Sidewalk invitation in part to see for myself what was new in Birmingham and to get a sliver of a personal view on the South.
In 2019, Alabama is again in the news with deeply conservative politics. Its history and racist past loom large from away. Being invited to Birmingham to run a story lab was an opportunity to cross a divide and learn through being, not watching.
The trip was well worth it.
The physicality of downtown Birmingham remains so set in the past, it serves as backdrops for films needing the look of a mid-20th- century city. But the place is moving forward. The biggest indication of the move is the volunteers working the festival. Brummies of all stripes come together to make the festival happen, and they do it with joy.
One day we were driven around by a Sidewalk volunteer who in real life is a cardiac-care nurse. She has been volunteering for a decade. She sees all the films of the festival, loves meeting new people every day, and loves getting to know the filmmakers.
The festival was far from her day-to-day world in the hospital, and it was clear the chance to be part of such an event gave her energy. (She also saved us from walking the streets during crazy thunderstorms. Rain doesn’t simply fall in Birmingham; it is hurled at you. I swear to God, each raindrop in those summer storms is as effective as a water balloon.)
Beyond the streetscapes and the people, and focusing on the most important thing, the food is incredible. Whether sampling morning biscuits and eggs or finishing the day with shrimp and grits and good local beer, the cooks are in your corner and not afraid of salt or butter.
On top of the food, you cannot walk down the street without saying hello to everyone. Conversations start as easily as an Alabamian thunderstorm. There is a sweetness that goes with the humidity and heat.
We ran our story lab in a new workshare space called The Forge. The same cool energy pours out of the conferences and workstations as you would feel in New York or Boston or Montreal.
The ghosts of the South’s past walk around town with you, and race relations still shadow Alabama’s world, but the corner of Birmingham we sampled was a place focused on an inclusive, open and positive future. Beyond the city itself, the Film Festival presented a powerful collection of top new films from emerging talents. The themes of the festival gave chances to see the world through different lenses.
Story can bend the world. The ability to turn a meaningful thought or idea or feeling into something that will resonate with audiences is powerful wizardry (and very hard work). Story can help people empathize, start dialogue, open the world up a bit.
Film helps us see things maybe with new eyes. Now is a critical time to focus on themes of hope, community, openness and inclusion. Now is a critical time to open dialogue. It is worthy work to try to pull the collective soul away from the edges.
Just as we will go back next summer to run another lab in Birmingham, we plan to partner with Sidewalk to bring films from Birmingham to our northern, mountain land (probably next June). Cross-pollination is good for the soul, and the more connectivity between tribes in this world the better.
Other than the people being absurdly polite, and the biscuits being out of this world, the city did not play to expectations. Being there opened up my view of the South, and I believe this North-South access will get people talking across divides. Only good will come of that.
David M. Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe. Email letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.