LEF Program Manager Sara Archambault recently caught up with TURKEY CREEK director Leah Mahan to talk to her about the film and its outreach project.
TURKEY CREEK received a pre-production grant from the LEF Foundation Moving Image Fund in 2003, when Leah was based in Boston.
Sara: Can you give a brief synopsis of your project? The 10-year trajectory is pretty extraordinary.
Leah: I first started telling this story because I knew Derrick Evans, who was a teacher in Boston, and he told fascinating stories about the community Turkey Creek, where he was from, and it always sounded very intriguing to me.
In 2001, he asked me to visit there with him because he wanted to try to document the oral history of his family and neighbors. The city of Gulf Port had grown up around [Turkey Creek] and it looked like it might not exist much longer. His ancestors settled the place after the Civil War. They bought 8 forty-acre parcels in the late 1860s and for generations it had been their home. It was really kind of an isolated rural area, but in the 1990s, with legalized gaming on the Gulf Coast, Gulf Port grew rapidly and became a modern city and now this place is surrounded by an airport, Walmart, and 2 highways and there’s also an industrial canal right next to it. That was the original reason for going there. We were telling a story that was a very local story with a lot of interesting characters and the story was very much about local politics and this one community. And then I thought I was wrapping up that story in 2005, just before Katrina. But with Katrina, I just had to keep following it. Then after Katrina, Derrick became a regional spokesperson and a nationally-known activist around issues of sustainable development and recovery on the Gulf Coast.
Sara: His story is pretty remarkable, particularly the sacrifices he’s made to give back to this community. It feels like you are trying to strike a balance between a real character-driven story and a story about issues of sustainable development.
Leah: It’s a balance we’re constantly struggling with and will until the final edit. I do feel that, in the end, it will be a character-driven film because that is the real strength of the story. I wouldn’t have even been there to tell the story except for my connection to Derrick. In a way I feel like this film is about the making of an activist and the kind of personal choices that people make to dedicate themselves to something like this. I think what’s interesting about Derrick is that he’s really conflicted. There are a lot of ways in which he is not cut out for this role and it’s hard for him. At the same time he feels really committed to it and it’s clear that once he set out on this path, he couldn’t turn back. And then, of course, events just kept happening and are happening as we speak.
Today in Mississippi there is a meeting called the Gulf of Mexico Alliance and it’s the 5 governors meeting to talk about water issues. And so Derrick and the Turkey Creek Watershed team are getting an award at this event. At the same time Derrick has been involved in organizing a group of fishermen who are very dissatisfied with the 5 governors and are making a statement about how they think the way the clean up and recovery of the disaster should happen. So he is both on the inside and outside of things.
Sara: Thinking about your experience as a filmmaker telling this story over time and distance, what would you say were the most challenging aspects of your production to date?
Leah: My children. In 2006, I had twins. It’s been hard because, as I said, in 2005, I had kind of a parallel track to Derrick in that he’s been anxious to resolve things and get back to his life. And I had the same experience, thinking I had a conclusion to the story and then Katrina making it obvious that this story needed to go much further. Having a family, it’s been really hard to work in another region and keep on top of the story. So partly I’ve had to do a lot of work with field producers working there and me going down there when it was critical for me to be there, but it has been hard. My next documentary will be local!
Sara: Tell me about your outreach plan.
Leah: We’re calling our outreach plan BRIDGE THE GULF (http://www.bridgethegulfproject.info/). It grew out of the TURKEY CREEK documentary because Derrick Evans, the main character that I’ve been following for almost a decade, became connected to a lot of grassroots organizations on the Gulf Coast facing issues similar to those he’s been addressing in his community. After Katrina, these communities found each other and started working together. The Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health is a primary partner in this effort. They are a unique organization because it’s a philanthropy where the decision-making comes from grassroots leaders who are working in communities and heading small organizations. So the people on the ground make decisions about where resources should go. We developed this idea of both a website and a training program to help these organizations to use video and use the web to tell their stories. Just about the time we were about to get the website underway and in production, the BP disaster happened and so we ramped up our efforts and we are just now launching this site that had in fact been in the works. Now we’re going to be focusing more on post-production but there’s a lot going on in the region so we can’t stop and need to keep being in touch with what’s happening there.
Sara: So you’re at this interesting point where you’re creating, recording and you’re responding all at the same time. It’s an interesting phenomenon that reflects the demands on media makers at this cultural moment.
Leah: Exactly. It’s a new world. Outreach has always been a big part of my interest. My past two films, I put a lot of time and effort into community engagement and outreach, but it’s evolved so much. I’m learning new things all the time.
Sara: I’m sure the recent Producer’s Institute you attended at the Bay Area Video Coalition was part of that learning experience. Tell me a little bit about the support you’ve been getting for the film.
Leah: Yes, we were at the Producers Institute through BAVC in San Francisco and that was just a really great experience where we were able to pull together our ideas for the outreach project and the website and work really closely with our partner organizations, the main one being the Gulf Coast Fund, to come up with a great web concept. And they have been a really great resource for the project.
The Kellogg Foundation funding was critical in 2009, which really allowed me to focus on the project and gather the creative team to move it forward. This happened right when I was ready to give up on fundraising. I was about to turn it into a web-based/webisode project, but it happened that program officers from Kellogg were visiting the Gulf Coast and found out about Turkey Creek. They ended up meeting with Derrick and seeing some of the footage and Derrick called me up and said, “some people from the Kellogg Foundation were here and you might want to call them.” So that came at a critical moment when I was thinking about going in a different direction.
And of course the LEF Foundation provided us a critical grant to keep the momentum going at a time when I thought the story was done.
Sara: How does this film fit into your documentary work over time?
Leah: I think that my first film HOLDING GROUND about the Dudley Street neighborhood initiative was very much an issue-driven film with strong characters. And then SWEET OLD SONG was much more character-driven film. (See info about Leah’s other projects here: http://www.turkeycreekproject.org/)
TURKEY CREEK ideally is going to combine the strengths of each of those. I’m trying to figure out how I’m building on both of those experiences and finding a way to tell a really important social justice story through the lens of one individual’s life. So I’m building on my storytelling skills. I think even just on the level of building my relationship with the community, because Derrick is a strong personality and some people have problems with him and therefore they have problems with me. So it has its strengths and weaknesses to have such a close relationship with one character because the bridges that they burn are also your bridges…But I do feel that Derrick’s story is the one to help tie all the pieces of this tale together.
Turkey Creek is the recipient of a 2010 Sundance Contemporary Issue Doc Grant – check out Leah’s website for further developments.