Those attending next week’s Full Frame Festival will have an opportunity to see the first documentaries to emerge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. However, there is a locally produced documentary that, although not in Full Frame, is shedding important light on a disastrous hurricane much closer to home.
This film is called This Side of the River, and it concerns the historically black town of Princeville, N.C. Princeville, you may recall, entered the news in 1999 in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd. While the news was dominated by images of spilled hog waste and dead livestock, we also learned that the Edgecombe County town was essentially wiped off the map. Eventually the town’s residents would resist the buyout inducements of FEMA, opting instead to rebuild on their low-lying land, which had suffered severe floods previously in 1919 and 1958.
Located across the Tar River from Tarboro, Princeville was first settled by newly freed slaves who had flocked to the Union Army camp located in Tarboro. Initially, the settlement was called Freedom Hill, which was somewhat of a misnomer given the town’s later recurrent misfortunes. In 1885, Princeville became the first town in America to be incorporated by African Americans.
This film from Ryan Rowe and Drew Grimes, produced under the aegis of NCSU’s North Carolina Life and Language Project, is heartfelt, exhaustively researched and ably executed. It began circulating on Feb. 28, when it premiered before a capacity crowd at Durham’s Hayti Heritage Center. Several dozen Princeville residents attended the screening, which was preceded by a performance by Eastern N.C. bluesman George Higgs and followed by a panel discussion.
As we learn in the film, the town is named for one Turner Prince, an obscure figure who seems to have been born in the 1830s. As a skilled carpenter, he built most of the town’s lasting structures. Although the initial promises of emancipation soon gave way to a long century of legalized segregation and economic oppression, the citizens of Princeville held fast to their land. “Land is the basis of freedom,” Freddie Parker of North Carolina Central University says in the film. “It doesn’t make much sense to vote if there’s no place to rest your head.”
In truth, the land occupied by the freed blacks of Edgecombe County was of poor quality. “They couldn’t cultivate it very well,” Professor Joe Mobley says. “It was poor land, with disease and mosquitoes.” Indeed, it was an exceedingly unvarnished patch of the promised land. Running water, electricity and paved roads didn’t arrive until many decades after incorporation, and much of the agricultural economy was done under the sharecropping system. The principal crops were corn, peanuts, tobacco and cotton.
Ultimately, much of the film’s running time concerns the century of Princeville history prior to the flood, which only consumes the very beginning and end of the film. By placing the emphasis on the town’s history, however, the filmmakers make it plain why it’s so important for Princeville to survive, come hell or high water.
This Side of the River is a worthy film about an under-explored chapter in North Carolina history that demands further exposure. Here’s hoping that this hour-long film will find an outlet on public television as well as public screenings throughout the region. In the meantime, you can head over to the North Carolina State campus on Wednesday, March 29 to catch it in Caldwell Hall, G111, where it will play as part of fifth annual African Diaspora Film Festival. Showtime is 7 p.m.
Durham isn’t known as a hotbed of television production, but it has been home to an unusual television series, one that recently wrapped its first season of production.
A month ago, I visited the set of Nuestro Barrio on its next to last day of shooting. The location for this afternoon’s shoot was a house near Duke’s East Campus that doubles as the home of the show’s director and creative driving force, Dilsey Davis.
If Davis, who graduated from Duke as a premed student over a decade ago, ever had qualms about using her home as a set, it’s apparent that she quashed them long ago, as she maintains a calm equipoise on the set. A smoothly efficient crew of nearly a dozen set up a simple light arrangement and decorated a room to resemble the bedroom of one of the show’s characters, a 15-year-old Latina named Christina. Alton Chewning, the director of photography, seemed to require few words to communicate his needs with grip/gaffer Neal Sugg and lighting director Matt Hedt. At this late stage in a show that began production over a year ago, these guys know each other’s needs too well to make much of a fuss. Back in the kitchen, meanwhile, Kathy Wallace is doing makeup for the actress playing Christina, Gabriella Lopez, who has just been delivered from class at Jordan High School. Once the cameras roll, the crew dispenses with the short scene in about an hour, with almost none of the confusion and short tempers that one usually finds on movie sets.
For those who haven’t caught the show in its 1 p.m. Saturday slot on WB 22 (channel 10 on Time Warner, channel 22 or 8754 on Dish), Nuestro Barrio is a project that marries educational concerns with the popular Latino taste for soap opera. While the weekly series pursues various plotlines concerning the rival owners of a restaurant and a nightclub, each episode also includes financial tips of particular interest to Spanish-speaking newcomers, such as predatory lending and other useful credit-related information.
Nuestro Barrio is backed by the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina (CRA-NC, pronounced “crank”). In addition to Davis, another key creative force is Marcy Lowe. Lowe, who is married to CRA-NC executive director Peter Skillern, comes to the show with extensive writing experience and a gift for language (Spanish is one of five that she speaks). Despite the Spanish fluency of Lowe and co-writers Martina Guzman and Joyce Lema, the scripts are written in English before being translated into Spanish.
Since shooting began in late 2004, the production has lost one principal location, the now-defunct Latin Grill on Main Street in Durham. Undaunted, the art department recreated the space in an unused warehouse on Duke Street. Along the way, the show has provided work for an unusual group of actors, a mix of local Latinos and imports from south of the border.
The show is already on the air in seven markets around North and South Carolina, and about dozen other markets around the country have made verbal commitments.
Although the prospects of a future season were not always assured, it now appears likely that there will be a second season of Nuestro Barrio. I reached Davis by telephone last week, coincidentally on the day that the studio set on Duke Street was being struck. Davis is hopeful that the show will go back into production in September. “We’re deciding what issues we want to concentrate on and then we’ll try to match them with funders,” she says.
“Hopefully it won’t be as hard this time around,” she adds. “We’ve been getting a lot
of national attention and people have been calling us.”