By Rebecca Lauck Cleary

As a finale to the fall semester, the students in the MFA for Documentary Expression program showcased recently completed film and photography projects. John Rash, producer/director for the Southern Documentary Project, said the event was an impressive exhibition of the multiple talents of all of the MFA students and what they were able to accomplish in a single semester.

“Many of them were first time filmmakers and they impressively succeeded in the difficult task of completing short documentaries on their own in a very short period of time,” Rash said. “We look forward to hosting similar events every semester in an effort to share the impressive works of our MFA students with the Oxford community.”

This event provided an opportunity for students to gain experience presenting their films and photographs in a public exhibition to engage in dialogue with an audience. See below what some of the student documentarians said they learned along the way.

Jimmy Thomas chose the Mississippi Delta as his subject in Along the Blues Highway.

This is a non-narrative documentary film serving as a meditation on permanence, particularly within the Mississippi Delta along Highway 61, a road often called Mississippi’s “blues highway.” The Mississippi Delta landscape is as ancient as time, yet the structures that stand upon that landscape molder away, and its people and their machines pass through it and are gone, as quickly as if they had never existed.

“I’m from the Mississippi Delta, and when I’m there these days I’m usually traveling to or from someplace, rarely stopping to explore the landscape,” Thomas said. “Making this film gave me an opportunity to do expressly that: to take my time looking, seeing, and listening—paying good attention—to that familiar yet mysterious place.”

His work in Rash’s SST 605 class helped him build on skills he previously worked on in David Wharton’s classes; in particular, thinking about the message of the work and how to best convey that message.

“Like Dr. Wharton’s class, it pushed me out into the world to hone both those theoretical skills and the practical skills of audio recording, photographing, and filmmaking,” Thomas said.

Jonathan Smith’s Sweet Sorghum follows two sorghum syrup makers through cooking a batch of syrup.

Along the way they discuss the syrup, how it’s made, and why they became sorghum makers. Smith selected this topic because it’s something he grew up eating but in talking with other people, he realized it was not well known outside of the rural South, so he wanted to document not just the process, but why people go to the trouble to grow and make sorghum syrup, largely using antique and labor-intensive equipment.

Smith is in his third semester of the MFA program, and feels he learned about both the technical and storytelling aspects of creating a documentary work, enabling him to produce a film with a clear story focus.

“You must have multiple backup plans,” he said. “The weather this fall kept the sorghum makers out of the field, so I was rushed at the end, where I’d originally planned to have the filming done by the middle of October at the latest, it was early November before one of the makers in the film was able to get in the fields to harvest and have a cook. That really helped me see the importance of contingency plans and alternate ways to tell a story.”

Mary Knight’s film Singing Out focuses on the experience of two lesbian singer/songwriters as they work on their music careers while living in Mississippi.

Knight knew Morgan Pennington from being a fan of her band, And the Echo, and was interested in her reasons for staying in Mississippi. She met Mattie Thrasher through her performance along with And the Echo for Sarafest at Proud Larry’s.

“Since both are from Mississippi, I thought it would be great to get their different perspectives on what it is like to be openly gay in this state, but also an openly gay musician,” Knight said. “I was very interested in how their coming out stories mirrored their decisions to pursue music as a career in some ways. Both hesitated to tell their families about their sexual identities until they were in their twenties and both played music or wrote songs long before telling others about their passion.”
In the MFA program so far, Knight learned about focusing on the details when creating a film.

“I’ve also learned to give a film the space it needs to breathe and come alive—that may be holding a sound shot for a few seconds longer than I normally would, or letting a soundbite go for a few seconds longer than my first instinct to cut it. I’m from a background that demands a lot of information in a short period of time, so the MFA classes have thought me to slow down and let the film form itself more.”

Je’monda Roy focuses on the life of University of Mississippi employee Cory Blackmon in Beats on Demand

The film is about Cory Blackmon, the Ole Miss POD worker, which stands for Provisions On Demand. This film project stemmed from Dr. Wharton’s documentary photography class, and she knew she wanted to focus on black people and minority people in these white spaces.

“For my final project, I chose to document the staff and contract workers around the university,” Roy said. “Those included custodial workers, cafe workers, security guards, and landscape workers, including Cory.”

Her photo of him was an all-around favorite, and she decided to create a film about his presence on campus.

“Most importantly, like my documentary photography final project, I wanted to give representation of black people on this campus and their importance in this white space,” Roy said. “Many staff workers are overlooked by our faculty, students, and sports atmosphere on this campus that we forget they play a huge part in our college experiences. Cory is a major part of our college experience and I wanted to share that message.”

Zaire Love had two short films, “Trees” and “Scars.”

In “Scars,” a healthy woman lost her lung to a common disease in the South, and the film captures her journey of discovering her condition and her fight to defy her scars.

“I chose ‘Scars’ to honor my mother’s story of being diagnosed with a common disease that took her right lung and rib cage, and I chose ‘Trees’ to celebrate the brilliance of Southern black women,” Love said. “With “Trees,” Southern Trees are the griots of the South. They hold wisdom and knowledge of the godly and the terror in the region. Listen as the trees talk, chile.”

Love learned that she can make films that people enjoy.

“I’m a storyteller who is passionate about telling the stories of Southern black women at all costs,” she said. “I have the dopest community of peers and professors who are so willing to help me create, and I’m truly grateful.”

Ellie Campbell showed “Tupelo Pride,” which is about the first ever LGBTQ Pride event in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Campbell wanted to make the film because she saw many Pride events pop up around Mississippi in the past few years—Oxford started having a regular Pride parade three years ago, Starkville had their first last year—and there have been short films about each one, so she thought Tupelo deserved one too.

“After taking Dr. Wilkerson’s class on LGBTQ oral histories last spring, I’m interested in doing more work documenting LGBTQ organizing in Mississippi, so this was a great way to get started,” Campbell said.

The MFA class helped her shape the film, in particular learning about the editing software. “It was also helpful to watch a lot of other documentary films and think through the choices they made in terms of topic, narrative, sound editing, etc.,” Campbell said. “Plus, I got to see and be inspired by my classmates’ terrific work!”

View the sampler of films.