One of the reasons Rachel Raney and Amy Shumaker wanted to put together a series of documentary films about the South was to counter the stereotypes of the region seen on TV, particularly reality TV. You know, the whole hunting, fishing, shooting guns, good ole boy image pushed by shows like “Duck Dynasty” and “Swamp People.”
“We thought there was so much great Southern storytelling in the form of documentary films, it would be a shame not to gather them up and get them out nationally,” says Raney, who, along with Shumaker, is executive producer of “Reel South,” a 12-film documentary series hosted by Grammy-winning recording artist Darius Rucker, debuting Thursday, Jan. 5, on PBS.
“People around the country don’t really get Southerners a lot of times, and they think the stereotypes they have about us are true,” Rucker says in a promotional video for the series. “Then they watch a show like ‘Reel South’ and see them telling stories about everything. A lot of culture, a lot of understanding, a lot of people working together to do great things, and to show that on TV I think is awesome.”
The series, now in its second year, features a wide range of subject matter, from immigration to civil rights, eugenics to transgender issues. And fully half of the films have North Carolina settings. “We were open to everything from social issues to history and culture,” Shumaker says. “Our goal was to bring a diversity of voices.”
Both Raney and Shumaker had put together similar series in the past, Raney in California and Shumaker in South Carolina. But those were only shown regionally; trying to get a national series on PBS was a bigger challenge, especially since individual stations in the PBS system choose the majority of the productions they want to broadcast.
So in the series first year, says Raney, “the question was ‘Who would air it?’ And we found after the first season, 80 percent of the PBS stations picked it up. We were ‘Wow, there is incredible interest around Southern storytelling.’ I feel right now all eyes are on the South, and I think people are hungry to see authentic stories about the South.”
With that initial success behind them, the duo decided to expand “Reel South” from six to 12 films, and a public call for entries came up with about 50 films that were finished or almost finished. A selection panel winnowed that number down to the final dozen, which run in length from 30 to 60 minutes each.
“There weren’t subjects that were taboo,” says Raney. “We were interested in the approach, stories that are relevant, well told and artfully produced, and films that are authentic to their topic.”
Both women stress that documentary filmmaking is as precarious as ever, with funding always difficult to obtain. However, Shumaker says, there are some bright spots in the field. “Being an independent filmmaker always has its challenges,” she says, “but it’s more hopeful because of distribution outlets like Netflix. That was not the case 20 years ago. When it comes to PBS, there was a time when funding was more available, but documentary filmmakers have become more resourceful, and the equipment has become more DIY. But it’s still very challenging.”
“With the boom in technology, the tools of making films are in the hands of everybody, so there are more and more films being made,” adds Raney. “But our region is pretty under resourced, and we find that with some of the filmmakers who choose to stay here, they don’t always have the access to funders and wealthy benefactors you might have in some of the other, bigger arts hubs.”
Still, films keep getting made, the variety of subject matter seems endless, and outlets like “Reel South” keep showing them. “I think documentary films, when they are done really well, they let us walk in someone else’s shoes,” says Raney, “and that’s all we can ask from the viewers – to watch these films with an open mind.”
“Reel South” Details
When: 10 p.m. Thursdays from Jan. 5-March 2
Where: UNC-TV, Channel 4, on Time Warner Cable, Channel 65 on DirecTV
Of the 12 films, six are about North Carolina. They are:
▪ “Soul City,” about a group of civil rights activists attempting to build a multi-racial town in the heart of Klan country. Jan. 5.
▪ “Deep Run,” featuring a young transgendered man trying to fit in in a rural area of the state. Jan. 12.
▪ “The State of Eugenics,” detailing North Carolina’s eugenics program, which sterilized over 7,000 men, women and children. Jan. 26.
▪ “The Last Barn Dance,” in which a Piedmont dairy farmer struggles to save his family business. Feb. 2. (To read our May 2015 story about this film, go to nando.com/barndance)
▪ “120 Days,” featuring an undocumented Mexican who has 120 days to self-deport to his homeland, or disappear into the shadow world of the U.S. Feb. 9
▪ “Red Wolf Revival,” detailing the efforts to reintroduce the nearly extinct red wolf into the state. Feb. 23.