“Our logo, the Mississippi magnolia tree, symbolizes the renewal of deeply held values, passed down through generations. Through storytelling, we create more resilient, connected communities,” says Alison. She adds, “Our goal is to produce well-crafted stories, celebrate the people in them, and deliver them back to the communities from where they came.”
Today, we are pleased to share more about Blue Magnolia Films through the eyes of its brilliant founders, Alison and Chandler:
Tell us the history behind Blue Magnolia Films. What inspired you to start the company?
Alison: “We started Blue Magnolia Films in 2013 after ten years of teaching documentary filmmaking in the Mississippi Delta, in Clarksdale. We have 100 films and photo stories about that community, produced by our students through Barefoot Workshops. We wanted to expand our documentaries to other small towns, and do something special for Mississippi's Bicentennial in 2017. Natalie Irby of Corner To Corner Productions, immediately got on board with this vision, and together we are producing a series of films that will celebrate people who are modeling revitalization from a small town perspective across the state. Our goal is to produce 25 short films that we will tour back through 50 small towns and communities in 2017. These are personal stories of everyday people modeling a new culture of the South. Wherever we highlight challenges, we're also highlighting resilience and creative solutions.”
Tell us a little bit about both of your backgrounds! Are you both from Mississippi? Do you both have experience in the film industry?
Alison: “I have lived in Los Angeles for 15 years, and have a history producing documentaries for television. After working at MTV for three years, I directed my first film for NBC/Universal and won a Peabody Award. After meeting Chandler in 2006, we traveled full-time teaching internationally in the Middle East and Africa. We learned a lot about how to adapt media to different contexts, to empower people and their communities. We decided to bring all of that experience back to Mississippi, to tell a story here, about what is working, instead of what is not working. We want to make visible people in small towns who are connecting local assets in new ways, and showing us how to bring life to our communities. That's who we want to celebrate, the people who are rolling up their sleeves, making things happen, taking risks, and bringing their community with them.”
Chandler: “I was born and raised in Jackson, MS. I went to college in Savannah, GA, where I double majored in film and photography. I always assumed I’d be a cinematographer making feature length fiction films based in NYC. In school, my photography was definitely in the realm of fine art using a large format camera and alternative printing processes. My filmmaking focus was mastering the craft of ‘painting with light’ and shooting on 16mm film. For the most part, I was that guy who only shot with a 4x5 or 8x10 big wooden photo camera and I only shot with an Arri SRII 16mm film camera. I definitely felt that ‘real’ craft only came from using those traditional tools. My senior year, I was the cinematographer for a short film that ended up getting shortlisted for an Oscar nomination... so I figured my path was set. Two years later, I went to Zimbabwe and that totally shifted my attention to the power and importance of the documentary process. I don’t think I’ve looked back since. For the most part, I’ve stayed away from the mainstream ‘film industry’ but I’ve shot for everything from PBS National to the Ford Foundation.”
Tell us about the subjects of your films!
Alison: “Whether our subjects are artists, craftspeople, entrepreneurs or community leaders, they are deeply engaged in learning by doing, and leading by example. We focus on people who are catalysts, who show us diverse ways to support economic and cultural revitalization. I've started to call people in our films ‘Yaysayers,’ in stark contrast to ‘Naysayers,’ because they don't take 'No' for an answer. They keep adapting until they get it right! And we admire this quality. There is no formula for revitalization. It looks different in every town. Some of our stories focus on health and wellness and farm-to-table, others on racial reconciliation, arts and culture. The point is, we can all do something where we live, and we learn best from our neighbors, our peers. So, this series of films is meant to expand a circle of support, and working solutions, especially in rural areas.”
Tell us about the process of creating one of your documentaries - from finding the subject, to filming and editing the piece.
Alison: “Finding a subject. We are usually in conversation with someone, talking about this movement of creatives in small towns in Mississippi, and they will say, ‘Have you heard about X? He/She is related to Y’ and we make the connection. There is a natural intelligence to the stories we tell, and a handful of people in small towns who are key influences. We also consult statewide actors like Mississippi Main Street and Office of Creative Economy and Culture. We are also exploring a research and data based approach. We factor all of this into our decisions, along with other indicators: Is the story adaptable, affordable and accessible to people in small towns? How does it balance the other stories? There is no ‘right’ answer. We consider ourselves curators of a ‘living narrative’ that is unfolding in front of our eyes.”
What is your favorite thing about filming in Mississippi?
Alison: “The unpredictable magic of place. Mississippi leads. We listen.”
Chandler: “My stock story is that I left Mississippi for college and vowed to never return. Like most who feel this way, it’s because I didn’t really understand Mississippi. I had a VERY narrow view of the state and the people. The documentary process has given me the chance to start to understand where I come from and why I had those feelings of not wanting to be from Mississippi. When you meet people and really start to listen… it’s fascinating. You can’t NOT understand and start to love a place like Mississippi when you have the experience of story. The camera has become an excuse to listen and learn --- Ernest Herndon in his canoe on the Pascagoula River witnessing the beauty of place. Seeing his paddle dribble dots of water across a mirrored sunset surface and hearing him talk about the sacredness of place and how we should respect and take care of the river. Then filming a racially mixed group in Money, MS a few weeks ago, through the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, stand hand in hand to honor Emmett Till sixty years after his murder. Watching Johnson Benjamin, a twenty something entrepreneur in Corinth, start a new business of making hand crafted bags that are, well bags, but really they are crafted pieces of art that your grandchildren eventually inherit. Hearing how his father and grandfather both worked in the garment industry in Hill Country, Mississippi and how he is continuing a legacy of craft. Last year we filmed a Japanese woman, Reiko Yamada, living in Water Valley who took a broken accordion and used it as a way to interact with the community. On paper, it seems completely absurd but when you watch the film, it’s absolutely brilliant to witness this outsider become a part of the fabric that holds a community together. It becomes an emotional process to see the diversity in Mississippi. We have example after example of those stories and those people and experiences start to shift and change how you see everything.”
How do you think your films can change people's perspective on Mississippi and the South?
Alison: “A lot of news and documentaries reinforce negative stereotypes about the South. We can ‘flip’ the story by telling a new story, and engaging communities in reclaiming their narrative. Sometimes, our most valuable ‘assets’ are in our backyard, and we just need to learn to see them in new ways.”
Thank you, Alison and Chandler, for sharing your incredible photos and videos with us. We cannot wait to view your powerful documentaries in 2017! For more information on Blue Magnolia Films, please visit their Facebook page here. You can also follow them on Instagram! @bluemagnoliafilms