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Whitman, Alabama

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall has spent the past two years travelling all around Alabama, collecting short video vignettes of people’s lives — “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?” — and now she’s posting the videos on the Whitman, Alabama site.

I believe in listening and I believe in creating spaces intimate enough for voices to be heard. I believe in Alabama and her people. So I wanted to try to amplify her voices. To do this, a patchwork team of us set out and began to make a 52-part documentary film.

We crisscrossed the state, made acquaintances with strangers and asked: “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?”

And people said yes! (This still surprises me every time.)

And then we said: “There’s a catch. Can we do it while you read some poetry?”

I have to say, you Alabamians stepped up to the plate. You said, “Yes, I believe that’d still be all right.”

Each of her 52 subjects recites a verse from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself. Why Whitman and not a poem by a southern poet?

I like the idea of cheekily co-opting the work of a dead white Yankee and re-envisioning it through contemporary Southern voices. I think we’ve found a neat way of mixing DNA here by joining these voices with Whitman’s. We’ve taken Whitman up on his offer to be co-creators, co-authors, of “Song of Myself.”

The Sullivan family read verse 16:

Some people just hit you in the heart. I was at Yen Restaurant in Mobile, looking for a hit of comfort food—Vietnamese food — and Cathy, Samantha and Brandon walked in.

Samantha reminded me of myself — half-Asian, half-white, sort of a tomboy. I approached them. Immediately they were open and warm. I asked Cathy if they might want to read for the project.

She said sure. No hesitation. She appreciated art and music. Samantha did, too. Cathy stenciled boats for a living. Samantha wanted to be an illustrator or graphic designer someday.

Sometimes if people think something isn’t going to look good to other people, they won’t let you see it, let alone film it. But Cathy threw open the doors in full welcome.

Spend some time with the project, meet some of your fellow Americans you might not know that well. (via @alainabrowne)

Update: Jia Tolentino interviewed Crandall about the project for the New Yorker.

The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”