Saturday, February 12, 2011

Snow, Egypt, Oxford Film Festival Part One

So far my New Year's resolution to blog more has fallen on deaf fingers. They don't seem to want to take the time to let all my good friends know what's going on. However, the last couple days have been really exciting so I am making myself share.

First, we had another snow storm in Mississippi.
(Image from the local paper, The Oxford Eagle). Classes were canceled Wednesday at noon and then all day Thursday. I spent that day watching events unfold in Egypt, waiting for Murbarak to say he was going to resign. I was very worried that he hadn't but it appears that he is gone. I was so stuck to the TV and to the media that I actually signed up for Christiane Amanpour's Twitter feed (just love her). Now, I'm on Twitter but it remains to be seen if I do more than read what's up with others. Kate, you are the second person I'm following.

Now that world and weather events have settled for now, I also had the fantastic opportunity to attend Oxford's premier winter event -- the 8th annual Film Festival. I had to teach all day, but once I got to my first screening at 5:15, I stayed until 12:30am. Note to self -- popcorn makes a very poor dinner.

The festival is still going on, and I'm planning on attending a few more events before the end. But, here is the beginning of my review.

The first film I saw was a documentary feature called, Southern Belle, by filmmakers Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley (both of whom were in attendance). Though I saw the late night fright fest shorts later, I think this was the far scarier movie. It's a look at the Tennessee Athenaeum Rectory's "summer camp" for young women to play "southern belle" the eve of the Civil War. This place was a Girl's School beginning in 1852 and lasted for fifty years. As was typical of such schools, it taught the girls how to be a lady -- dancing, deportment, etiquette, and the "finer" skills.
(Promotional image from the film)

This summer camp aims to recreate that experience, complete with dress (hoops and all) and manners (you want to be like Melanie, not Scarlett, ladies). The sidestepping of the issue (or more accurately "whitewashing") that slavery allowed these women to live in this manner dives at the heart of "southern-ness." It's contradictory and tension-filled -- hey, Faulkner struggled with it a lot. The filmmakers decided to let the images "speak" for themselves but I think I would have liked some more critical perspective (maybe, I'm divided). I fear that some southerners will look at this as a preservation of values that are good to keep and that they will look at it uncritically (case in point, the young women behind me in the theater, starting singing Dixie and said "we never get to sing this anymore").

The earnest teachers who want to preserve this Southern viewpoint were probably the most scary. They were very nice, but completely deluded. For example, the leader of the camp who played the pastor, could not answer why they never talked about race (or why black girls would not want to attend). As part of a "history" lesson, he addressed the girls in character, informing them that Tennessee had just seceded from the Union and told them all the "good" reasons that the state had done so. (Tennessee was actually the last state to secede and there was a good deal of resistance about whether or not they should). The long speech he makes reminded me immediately about current debates about State's Rights and the far, far right's call that they are being unfairly pushed around by the Federal Government.

My dear Northern friends, this scene will in many ways confirm to you what you think about the South and that makes me a little sad.

Anyway, back to the film, the girls were fascinating characters and the filmmakers focused on compelling stories. But where there's race issues, there are also gender issues. And what happens to one girl in particular who returns the next year is a tragedy in my opinion.

The filmmakers said that the film will be shown on PBS this July. I'll let you know when it does.

More on the festival later....


K. A. Laity said...

I am proud to be the second person you follow on Twitter! And I look forward to seeing the film. It sounds riveting! And we always have you as our best ambassador of Southern-ness, showing its wit, intelligence and good humour. No part of this nation (or most any nation I suspect) is without its bloody past and romanticism.

llamalover said...

What happened to the girl that was a tragedy?

Wendy said...

Dear llamalover:

Sorry it took me so long to reply. I've been thinking of what to say since I mostly think of my audience as my friends who know me IRL.

Anyway, well, there was no real "tragedy" per se. The young woman in question was one of the many featured in the film, and I have to say I thought they were all very interesting and wonderful young ladies. This one, in particular, was having a difficult time at the camp. She always seemed to get into trouble by not acting "lady like," because she was a goofy, outspoken, funny kid. I liked her for that reason because I think girls should be that way (and she reminded me of friends I had at that age).

In the next summer, we meet her again, and she is much subdued, acknowledging that she had made many mistakes. She had "learned" to be "lady like," and it really broke my heart. I felt like something had been squashed in her, something precious. She looked like a very pale version of herself. Actually, she ceased to be an individual with a personality. For that reason, I call it a tragedy.

From looking at your site, it appears that you have some connection to this camp so I hope that I haven't tread on unwelcome territory. I think it was fun to watch the girls dress up, and I can appreciate the time and effort that it goes into making the clothing and into being historically accurate. I also believe in good manners and treating people with kindness.

However, I don't think that being an outspoken woman is bad in any way. Quite the contrary, being quiet and "lady like" all the days of your life can be very damaging.

I hope this answers your questions. I wish you the best.