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This report is taken from PN Review 238, Volume 44 Number 2, November - December 2017.Whitman, Alabama
As I have walk’d in Alabama my morning walk,
I have seen where the she-bird the mocking-bird sat on her
nest in the briers hatching her brood.
I have seen the he-bird also,
I have paus’d to hear him near at hand inflating his throat
and joyfully singing.
And while I paus’d it came to me that what he really sang for
was not there only,
Nor for his mate nor himself only, nor all sent back by the
But subtle, clandestine, away beyond,
A charge transmitted and gift occult for those being born.
Walt Whitman, ‘Starting Out from Paumanock’
The first time I met Jennifer Crandall, we were in a coffee shop in downtown San Francisco, surrounded by moustachioed baristas and twenty-year-old start-up founders; neither of us had given more than a passing thought in our lives to the deep red, deep south state of Alabama.
And yet, less than six months later, we’d both be living there – me running a media company, Jennifer falling in love with the voices and the people and the songs tumbling from the briars and the sidewalks and the farmhouses and the underpasses in the place still called the Heart of Dixie.
A year after that, ‘Whitman, Alabama’ would be in full swing, and I would stand beside her in a paupers’ graveyard, or on a coal boat, watching as she coaxed forth a twenty-first century Song of Myself from the southern ethers.
As a woman born in Ethiopia to a white American man and a Chinese woman from Vietnam, a lesbian raised in Pakistan, Haiti and Bangladesh, Crandall often has struggled to express her own self to others. And thus, her life’s mission – to introduce people to one another across labels and across time and space and the boundaries of assumed identity, beyond birthplace, beyond politics and education and sexual orientation – has become a hallmark of her professional life, most notably as the creator of the Washington Post’s acclaimed OnBeing series.
My question, ‘So what will you make here… in Birmingham, Alabama?’ was met with her singular vision – conjuring forth Whitman’s 1855 Song of Myself in fifty-two episodes from hundreds of regular people across the state of Alabama.
So I said yes, and she started on what was intended to be a one-year project. Looking back, it was an absurdly ambitious plan, so big that neither of us could see the size of it, as though we’d encountered an elephant’s knee and hadn’t bothered to keep looking up.
Because the labels and methods that we as journalists seek do not apply here, we created the first Artist-in-Residence program in an American newsroom to offer her the freedom she needed to bend form and convention, and she set out with her video camera, bringing back something I can best describe in Whitman’s own words – a ‘gift occult’ tumbling from the lips of the people of Alabama, transmitting a charge of democracy and universal joy, a barbaric yawp that vibrates from the screen.
Joined on location at times by the talented video journalists and filmmakers Bob Miller and Pierre Kattar, through much of this project she’s going it alone: she’s director, filmmaker, editor and scene shooter, colour corrector and sound designer. Her work is slow and painstaking, with deft attention to pacing and rhythm, and the interplay of light and shadow.
Sometimes there’s time to plan, and her subjects recite take after take until their throats are numb, navigating through the unfamiliar words of a nineteenth-century poet, and she edits the pieces with precision, piecing through reads and pauses, of moments where there’s a spark that ignites from the reader to the viewer, seeking not fluency but aliveness, a light that comes through her subjects’ eyes as if she were midwifing the work into the world, again.
Sometimes, unplanned filming sessions emerge from chance meetings – a few short stumble-be-damned takes, like verse 43 with Anthony Williams, changing a tyre beside a busy highway, en route to Montgomery, swearing under his breath as he recites with trucks roaring past: ‘Frivolous, sullen, moping, angry, affected, dishearten’d, atheistical, I know every one of you…’
Sometimes, there’s convincing and explaining – like the readings in a drug court or in a doctor’s office with a patient; sometimes it’s as fast and magic as a lightening bug, filming literally upside down in the air.
Occasionally she encounters amateur actors or poets (like ninety-seven-year old Virginia Mae who kicks off the project from her brown cloth recliner, or the impossibly handsome young Alabamian she found setting off fireworks on a rural backroad Fourth of July show) who bring an almost performative quality to the reading. Sometimes, there’s no human voice at all, like Donnie Goodin, a candy-salesman with cerebral palsy who speaks with the help of a computer on his wheelchair, or the children signing Whitman’s words while they play dodgeball at the state school for the deaf.
Often I can’t understand the unfamiliar words, written in another time and place (‘Making a fetish of the first rock or stump, powwowing with sticks in the circle of obis, Helping the llama or brahmin as he trims the lamps of the idols, Dancing yet through the streets in a phallic procession, rapt and austere in the woods a gymnosophist’), but I feel the charge of it as it rushes over me and I stare into the eyes of a young hotel maid near-fainting in the heat of a southern summer and I know something I did not know I knew before.
Because this is not news, and had no beginning and no ending, we struggled to know how or when to release it and who or where the audience would be. Days after the 2016 presidential election, however, it was clear – ready or not, this work belonged to this time, as we Americans struggled to see ourselves in one another across the growing chasm. Week by week, we are rolling out these short films to the world, building a library of shared, lived experience as we go.
‘Please, read this as yourself, there is no right way, you don’t need to sound like anyone other than you,’ Crandall tells her readers. We hope you too, will experience this as yourself. As no one other than you. It is the only right way.
This report is taken from PN Review 238, Volume 44 Number 2, November - December 2017.