Welcome to American Gritland. As a film festival director and programmer for over 25 years, my greatest pleasures remain finding great films to show, working to attract and engage audiences across all communities, and provide greater exposure for deserving filmmakers. And having grown up outside Cincinnati, the country’s southernmost northern city and northernmost southern city (and coming from Kentucky family roots), I’ve always been especially interested in films originating from the America between the coasts.
Living in Nashville for eight years after spending time in the San Francisco Bay Area, and working with many southern-based filmmakers, reignited that interest. And it wasn’t just the films. Both Julie Alexander, born in Alabama and raised near San Francisco, and I became fascinated with the dynamics of southern life while living with them: the friendliness, the growing racial diversity (Hispanics, Muslims, Somalis, Kurds, etc.), the beauty, the barbecue, the mud pies, lingering pre-Civil Rights era attitudes, the reach of the Bible Belt, the Civil War (still being fought), the old boy political network, the music roots of our country, religious rights vs. LGBT rights, NASCAR, football, Jack Daniels, and how all this mess influences everyone, natives and non-natives alike.
Mainly from this experience we are launching American Gritland. Originally conceived as Grits 'n' Gravy, a sidebar celebrating Southern culture that played to enthusiastic audiences at London’s East End Film Festival in 2010, 2013 and 2014, we feel that, given everything that has happened on these shores in the past few years, a package also encompassing various issues in these areas is essential. We program films that have played in various film festivals across the US but have received minimal or no exposure outside these borders.
So just what makes for a good “American Gritland" film? We seek documentaries from these regions where the land, the history, and/or local culture and mindset play a significant role alongside memorable characters: films such as Beth Harrington’s The Winding Stream, the passionate, enriching musical legacy of Virginia’s Carter Family (and, through marriage, Johnny Cash); Jon Watts’ AKA Blondie, an unforgettable portrait of legendary Atlantic exotic dancer Blondie Savage; and, on the fiction side, Craig Brewer’s landmark The Poor & Hungry, where the street and eccentric characters of Memphis play a role in the story of a car thief and the woman with whom he falls in love. Other favorites over the years include Malcolm Ingram’s small town gay bar, Les Blank’s films (Always For Pleasure especially), Marco Williams’ Banished, Debra Granik's Stray Dog, Tony Buba’s Lightning Over Braddock and Victor Nuñez’s Ruby in Paradise.
Whether or not your impressions of the South, Southwest and Midwest have been filtered through Hollywood or the news, these three stellar documentaries provide immersive icloseups of people wedded to the land and trying to make a difference. You may be surprised by the variety of accents, the diversity of attitudes, the ebbing and flowing of past history that never really went away.