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Kenan film series brings the New South to Duke

Haunted plantation homes. Cut-off communities. Family. Ignored disease. Tradition. These are a few of the themes covered in the Kenan Institute for Ethics' spring film series, entitled "The South: Navigating the Past, Carving out a Future."

The series is sponsored in collaboration with Duke’s Screen/Society, the Center for Documentary Studies and the Arts of the Moving Image Program. Conceptualized and organized by Kenan’s Bear Postgraduate Fellows in Ethics, Michaela Dwyer and Nathan Nye, the fellows were motivated by a “desire to figure the South out,” said Dwyer.

Both Dwyer and Nye are from North Carolina—Dwyer is from nearby Chapel Hill and Nye is from a rural area—giving them a unique perspective on this topic. Nye explained that they “wanted something a little more concrete” than previous years’ themes, which include “love and justice” and “community.”

While the New South is specific, it is hardly narrow. Both documentary and fiction work will be screened, covering issues ranging from plantation pasts to living with HIV. All highlight the connections between the South’s history, its recent economic invigoration and the overlooked issues that make people’s everyday lives challenging.

“[We wanted to] program films that speak to the multiplicity of Southern issues,” said Dwyer.

Nye and Dwyer were interested in starting a conversation on campus about what it means to be in the South and, specifically in this context, a citizen of Durham. Students tend to arrive at Duke scared of Durham and slowly start exploring the “hip locales” of the New South, said Dwyer. Nye explained that the fellows wanted to "accelerate that process." The screenings are open to the public and Nye and Dwyer hope the topic will be a draw for the broader community. Each screening is following by a discussion with faculty members and refreshments, creating a space for actual conversation.

The first film in the series is "Moving Midway," directed by Raleigh native Godfrey Cheshire. The film documents the process of moving his ancestral plantation house, now surrounded by strip malls and busy roads, to a new piece of land. Along the way, Cheshire connects with a previously unknown branch of his family—due to a relationship between Cheshire’s ancestor and a Midway slave.

In February, Phil Morrison’s "Junebug," a story of a sophisticated Chicago art dealer meeting her very Southern in-laws, who reside in North Carolina, will be screend.dfor the first time. March brings us "deepsouth," Lisa Biagiotti’s documentary, which is inspired by the HIV/AIDS research of Duke faculty member Kathryn Whetten. The film follows four individuals in their personal struggles and activist work with the often-ignored HIV epidemic in the Deep South. And finally, the series closes out with Benh Zeitlin’s "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a lush story about a six-year-old girl in an isolated bayou community. Cheshire and Biagiotti will be joining Kenan for the screenings of their respective films.

The films each explore and push against the “southern mystique,” said Dwyer, particularly highlighting "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Moving Midway." The former almost seems like a parable for Hurricane Katrina, or perhaps a dystopian future for coastal areas. The latter, "Moving Midway," includes the family’s worries that an ancestor’s ghost will be disturbed by moving the house (and the film is a documentary).

Cheshire, director of "Moving Midway," noted in an email that people from different regions of the U.S. have different perspectives on the film. Southerners tend to view it holistically, while Northerners “have tended to focus on one or more issues” explored in the film, such as race. However, he notes that Westerners seem to view “this same material from a big remove, as if it belongs to another country (or planet!).”

Nye is quick to point out that the films are not offering “a unified solution.” The films all have a point to make, and when they are collected into this series, they attempt to create a picture not only of the New South, but also of the many-lived experiences of the South.

“Sensitivity via art and via film is what this type of film series does really well,” noted Dwyer.

All films will begin at 7:00pm in the Griffith Film Theater in Duke University’s Bryan Center, followed by a post-film discussion with faculty. Refreshments and free parking passes provided. More information here.