The power of the lens

by Sydney Cromwell

Southern Exposure Interview
Cleo Stubbs, director of the Wetland Environmental Learning Project, gives an interview for a Southern Exposure short documentary. Photo courtesy of Kelly Marshall, Alabama Rivers Alliance.

From toxic waste dumping to mercury levels in fish, the list of ecological threats to Alabama’s waterways is long. But it can be hard for groups like the Alabama Rivers Alliance to get people engaged with problems that might seem abstract.

Where words alone might fail, ARA Executive Director Cindy Lowry said film can present stories “in a way that connects the faces to the issues.”

“It’s not just about enjoying nature but also how much we rely and depend on clean water, clean air, forests, and all those things to support our species,” said Lowry, who grew up in Blount County on the Locust Fork River.

The Southern Exposure film fellowship program brings young filmmakers to Alabama to shine a light on some of those very issues through short documentaries.

“We think this is a really underreported region of the country,” Series Producer Michele Forman said. She noted that a lot of environmental filmmaking is concentrated on the West Coast, but Alabama has plenty of natural beauty.

“We’re pretty awesome here, too.”

“It’s all about lifting up the voices of community members and the species and the places that are so special about Alabama and the threats that are looming.”

Cindy Lowry, Alabama Rivers Alliance executive director

Southern Exposure was started by the Southern Environmental Law Center, but the fellowship has been run by the ARA for the past three summers. Lowry said the fellowship is important to the ARA’s mission because nearly every environmental issue somehow impacts Alabama’s rivers, lakes and coastal areas, even if indirectly.

“It’s all about lifting up the voices of community members and the species and the places that are so special about Alabama and the threats that are looming,” she said.

A number of other state environmental groups are also partners in the program.

“I think it has become one of the unifying events for the environmental community,” Forman said.

The four fellows chosen each year are typically from outside the state. Southern Exposure is a crash course both in the state of Alabama and in producing a documentary, and Forman said that’s by design.

“A lot of the environmental issues that we face here in the southeastern region are shared concerns,” she said.

By the time they leave Alabama, Forman said she hopes the fellows bring their new knowledge about the state back to their hometowns and “speak with some expertise about what’s actually happening in a part of the country that very often doesn’t get covered.”

“They get to experience Alabama when they get to come here. … They fell in love with their pieces of Alabama,” Lowry said.

Fellows are chosen based on their backgrounds in film and science, personal essays and their ability to handle the tight deadlines that Southern Exposure requires.

“Who’s a good match for that kind of craziness?” Forman said.

This year’s group of fellows were from Minnesota, Oklahoma and California. However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a pretty substantial change to the program. Rather than spending six weeks in Alabama shooting and editing a film, the fellows stayed at home and remotely directed two former fellows acting as the local camera crew.

Southern Exposure Film Crew
This year’s Southern Exposure film crew consisted of two former fellows, directed remotely by the 2020 fellows. Photo courtesy of Kelly Marshall, Alabama Rivers Alliance.

Six weeks is already a compressed timeline to produce a finished documentary. Doing it all by shared spreadsheets and video calls made the summer even crazier.

“It really was so much more of a game of telephone. So much of filmmaking is intuitive … [and] thinking on their feet with camera in hand,” Forman said.

Instead of that intuition, “everything had to be planned out in advance and written down.”

Forman said the preparations for Southern Exposure start long before the summer fellows start working. The ARA and its partner groups compile a list of about 60 environmental issues in the state and then slowly whittle it down to the stories that are most pressing, that haven’t gotten much attention or that make sense with each filmmaker’s background and interests.

The groups prepare the information and make connections with potential interview sources to help the fellows get a running start with their films. Then, it’s a mad dash to plan, shoot, re-shoot and edit four films.

“They are conducting their first interviews the end of Week 1,” Forman said.

By the end of Week 3, the fellows are beginning a rough edit. Forman said the partner groups come back in at this point to review the footage and ask questions: “Are you getting the story right? What’s being left out?”

This year’s films were:

  • “A Fisher’s Right to Know” — Covering the safe consumption of fish on the Coosa River, and the work of the Coosa Riverkeeper to inform people about levels of mercury and other chemicals in local fish. Directed by John Haley.
  • “Barriers to Bridges” — A look at Alabama organizations that focus on bringing minority and underrepresented communities into environmental conversations and making community science more inclusive. Directed by Robin Crane.
  • “From the Mountains to the Ocean: Turtles of Alabama” — An exploration of the many turtle species living across Alabama and the habitat threats they face, as well as researchers and organizations studying these animals. Directed by Joe Fairbanks.
  • “Soiled” — A look at the use of waste by-products being used as fertilizers and the lack of regulation to prevent harmful chemicals from being deposited in the soil and water. Directed by McKinleigh Lair.
Trapping turtles
Auburn University zoologist Jim Godwin (left) traps a snapping turtle while being filmed for the Southern Exposure short documentary “From the Mountains to the Ocean: Turtles of Alabama.” Photo courtesy of Kelly Marshall, Alabama Rivers Alliance.

At the end of the fellowship, all four Southern Exposure films are shown at screenings across the state — also hosted virtually this year. 

Lowry said the films then become an environmental education tool to help groups like the ARA “show the world and show the decision makers that it’s not just one community” affected by issues like coal ash pollution or urban encroachment on sources of drinking water.

After seeing the films, Lowry said she hopes more people will “get moved by the story and realize their voice is important.”

One of the 2019 films, “Conviction,” won an award at the 2020 Sidewalk film festival. “Conviction” covers decades of air and soil pollution in north Birmingham and how the community continues to feel the effects of “legacy pollution” even after some of those responsible for the environmental damage were convicted on bribery charges.

“Very little had actually changed for the lives of the residents, even though there had been a measure of justice,” Forman said.

She said it’s key for the public to understand some of these unseen, urgent threats to Alabama’s people and natural habitats.

“It’s incredible what we have, but we won’t have it forever,” Forman said.

Every Southern Exposure film is available to watch online at southernexposurefilms.org. Learn more about the Alabama Rivers Alliance at alabamarivers.org.

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