Keeping things local is something of a mantra these days. Eat locally. Buy locally. Act locally. For several years now, video producer and documentary filmmaker Neal Hutcheson has been exploring a variation on the theme: Make movies locally.
In particular, Hutcheson has been working with the North Carolina Language and Life Project, an offshoot of N.C. State’s Linguistics program, to make documentaries about various communities and language traditions around the state, from the mountains to the coast. Working with N.C. State linguistics professor and NCLLP director Walt Wolfram, Hutcheson has produced a half dozen documentaries for PBS, in addition to several other projects under his own production company, Sucker Punch Pictures.
This weekend, Hutcheson and co-producer Danica Cullinan will premiere the NCLLP’s latest project, “First Language: The Race to Save Cherokee,” at the North Carolina Museum of History. Part of the museum’s 19th annual American Indian Heritage Celebration, the one-hour documentary film follows efforts to preserve the Cherokee language in schools in the western part of the state.
Hutcheson and Cullinan spent more than a year making the film, starting in spring 2013, and it’s a fascinating chronicle of what it takes to keep a language alive. Because of historical “integration” programs in the public schools, entire generations of Cherokee lost fluency in their native language. “First Language” details the efforts being made, in summer programs and in one dedicated immersion school, to have kids learn Cherokee directly from the community’s dwindling group of older fluent speakers.
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Hutcheson said telling the story properly required learning about the history of the issue and earning the trust of the people. “It’s long-time community engagement and spending time in the field,” he said. “Putting yourself out there and getting to know people.”
It’s an approach that results in scenes of surprising intimacy. The educators and community leaders profiled in the film – even the kids – seem totally at ease in front of the cameras. Several Cherokee elders speak emotionally about what preservation of the language means to them.
Cullinan, a video producer with NCLLP, said getting people to that comfort level requires time. “We want to get to know the people first, before we have them sit with a camera and lights on them,” she said.
“An elder in the community, at one of the first screenings, said that she felt it could be useful to get people involved in preserving the language and the culture,” Cullinan said. “That’s what we intend with the North Carolina Language and Life Project, so that was just the ultimate compliment.”
Hutcheson said that he’s particularly proud of a specific aspect of the film.
“One of the things that makes the movie unique is that I doubt there’s been another movie made with this amount of spoken Cherokee language in it,” he said. “We worked hard to make sure we could get in as much as we could, by doing interviews in Cherokee, transcribing them with a couple of Cherokee speakers who worked with us.”
Indeed, the film has several extended interview segments conducted in Cherokee, for which the filmmakers used translators from the community. “A lot of the older speakers don’t want to be interviewed by me or anybody,” Hutcheson said. “I can’t expect them to follow my agenda. We’re pleased that we were able to put as much Cherokee in the movie as we were.”
Hutcheson’s skill with putting people at ease in front of the camera is evident his other major project being released this month. The feature-length documentary film “Popcorn Sutton: A Hell of a Life” profiles the infamous Appalachian outlaw and bootlegger who became an underground legend for his highly potent – and highly illegal – moonshine operation.
Hutcheson first made the acquaintance of the estimable Mr. Sutton, who died in 2009, in the earlier NCLLP documentary “Mountain Talk,” about the music and language of southern Appalachia. After filming, Hutcheson made a rough cut of the footage featuring Sutton’s moonshine operation and gave it to Sutton to sell at his junk shop.
Titled “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make,” that movie became something of a bootleg sensation itself, making the rounds on VHS tape throughout the Southeast. “It just went everywhere, so fast,” Hutcheson said.
The footage was eventually reworked into the PBS documentary “The Last One,” which received a Southeast Emmy Award in 2008.
With the new film, Hutcheson has cut together the old footage with additional scenes from the last years of Sutton’s life. The movie features some incredible footage on the specifics of Sutton’s moonshine operation, along with his late-in-life wedding. Sutton – a character for who the term “ornery” was apparently invented – clearly trusted Hutcheson and gave him access to a world very few have ever seen.
“Popcorn Sutton: A Hell of a Life” is now available on DVD, online at suckerpunchpictures.com and also at various retail locations regionally, including Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.
Closing the local loop
Hutcheson said that screening films locally – as with the museum premiere of “First Language” this weekend – or selling them locally in independent shops, is a way to close the loop of telling local stories through his documentary projects.
“I really like to push it through the local vendors, even though I make more money though the web site,” he said. “I like the idea of community partners. I go in there to bring them the DVDs and chat. They know me and the movie in a way that Barnes & Noble or whatever won’t be able to.”
Hutcheson’s focus on place is reflected in the images of his work, as well. “First Language” and “A Hell of a Life” tell entirely different stories, but each film features beautiful interstitial images of North Carolina landscapes.
The inclusion of the landscape images is deliberate, Hutcheson said, although he never specifically maps out what he’s going to shoot. “It’s something that’s always just a natural part of the process,” Hutcheson said.
“With the subject and the people we’re documenting, there’s just naturally a profound sense of place.”