This article is from the Fall 2013 edition of The Southern Register
by Rebecca Lauck Cleary
Joe York is accustomed to traveling the country making documentary films, but in September he was able to tour six cities in nine days as the recipient of a South Arts grant. His film, Pride & Joy, a feature-length documentary about Southern food in all its regional variations—from beef barbecue in Texas to wild honey in Florida—offers an introduction to how foodways offer insights on the region’s complex history and bright future.
The South Arts Southern Circuit brings the best of independent film to communities across the South. Audiences have seen more than 200 films and have engaged filmmakers in post-screening discussions in more than 50 communities across the Southern U.S. The tour offers the audience a way to connect them with independent filmmakers.
York’s circuit included three cities in Georgia (Suwannee, Hapeville, and Madison) and three cities in Louisiana (Lake Charles, Alexandria, and Lafayette). “Whether we had 40 people or we had 150 people, the thing that was impressive was the amount of planning that went into it. It was perfectly coordinated,” says York, a senior producer at SouthDocs, formerly Media and Documentary Projects. “I don’t know if I have ever been a part of something that was so unbelievably well organized.”
After the film was shown, the audiences enthusiastically participated in the question-and-answer session. “A normal question-and-answer session is maybe 10 or 15 minutes, but we were having question-and-answer sessions for almost an hour,” York says. “Really long, good, discussions about what was in the film, and what did this mean, and how did we do this. Everything from philosophical questions to technical questions. So as a filmmaker, it’s really fun to engage with audiences that are as engaged as the Southern Circuit audiences were.”
South Arts has coordinated the circuit since 2006, and more than 100 films and filmmakers toured the circuit since it has been a part of South Arts programming. Previously, it was a program of the South Carolina Arts Commission. “Southern Circuit received hundreds of submissions for the 2013–14 Circuit Tour. Pride & Joy was a great fit for circuit audiences,” says senior program director Teresa Hollingsworth. “It’s incredibly relatable and a wonderful celebration of Southern food traditions.”
This season, 18 filmmakers and their films went on tour to 23 communities for a total of 138 screenings, which are funded in part by participation fees and the National Endowment for the Arts. “Colleges and universities, arts centers, indie-film presenters, museums, etc., apply to participate as screening partners,” Hollingsworth says. “Organizations are selected based on community interest in independent film and their commitment to developing indie film audiences.”
While at first York wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, he quickly got the hang of it. Not only was he screening Pride & Joy, but he was performing community outreach, and he even spoke to the 4-H club at the high school in Madison, Georgia. “I also spoke to a group of freshman from the University of Georgia who were doing a class about Southern culture and history. Their professor lived in Madison, and so we had the whole class over to his house before the screening,” York says. “He and his wife put out this incredible spread, and we sat around his antebellum home talking about food for an hour and a half before the screening.”
Each location provided receptions and food for the audience, and some places even had bands. “I had my birthday in Hapeville, and they made me a cake and had the band sing me “Happy Birthday,” so it was an incredibly cool experience to be in these small towns. Everyone was so welcoming and open, and I would love to do it again.”
York knew it would be an interesting, whirlwind trip, and he enjoyed the cultural outreach aspect, as he represented the Center, the SFA and SouthDocs. “We are really interested in sharing these films in communities where people are hungry for this kind of material, even if they aren’t on the beaten path,” York says. “It’s wonderful for us to make films and put on symposia and write encyclopedias and do the wonderful things that we do here, but it’s just as important to make sure that we get out on the road and share it with people, and the Southern Circuit was one of the best venues for doing that that I have ever seen.”
York was named Food Filmmaker of the Year at the New York Food Film Fest in 2009 and has also won awards at the Oxford Film Festival, the Chicago Food Film Fest, and the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson, Mississippi.