Published on March 15th, 2016 | by TLV News
Yalo: Blue Magnolia Films Finds Bright Spots of Revitalization in Water Valley
At the 2016 Oxford Film Festival, Yalo, a short documentary film showcasing the talent, dedication, and hard work that go into Water Valley’s Yalobusha Brewing Co., took home the Hoka Award in the hotly contested Audience Favorite category.
Yalo is the creation of husband and wife documentary filmmaking team Chandler Griffin and Alison Fast, co-owners of Blue Magnolia Films. The company is an ongoing venture that aims to create twenty-five short documentaries highlighting economic and cultural revitalization through the entrepreneurship, conversations, and endeavors of small-town Mississippi communities. Chandler and Alison had each made inroads to the mainstream filmmaking world before discovering a passion for documentary film. Alison worked in Los Angeles for such networks as NBC, PBS, BBC Worldwide, and MTV, picking up a Peabody Award for her first go at directing. Chandler graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was cinematographer for a short film that ended up an Oscar contender during his senior year. He thought his career path was set as a New York-based cinematographer working on narrative films until a visit to Zimbabwe opened his eyes to the power of documentary film. “I don’t think I’ve looked back since,” Chandler told Inspiration Mississippi.
“I left Mississippi [for college] and vowed to never return,” Chandler explains. “Then I came back eleven years ago to start running these documentary workshops, because I felt like I didn’t understand my home state and I needed to figure it out, and not be embarrassed to be from Mississippi. So I did. Through these workshops, we started to fall in love with Mississippi.”
Their professional bond unexpectedly blossomed into something deeper midway through this time, while teaching a filmmaking workshop together for several months in South Africa. They ended up getting married a week after the workshop, and jumped in full-force with making their own documentaries.
When they came back from Africa, Alison was hired by the Audubon Society to make a documentary after the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast. They both trace the genesis of Blue Magnolia Films to around this time.
“When the oil spill was going on, it was really a tragic thing,” Alison recalls. “You could literally feel the tension with the ecosystem, and the loss that people were feeling who treasure those landscapes. We were thinking, ‘What are the bright spots? What are some stories we could tell that show the community’s resilience even in the midst of challenging events?’”
They ended up staying in the area longer than expected, producing several short documentaries to allow residents a chance to give voice to their experiences, as a way of giving back to that community. Their subjects were all individuals who were advocating positive action in their community and leading by example, such as a young girl raising funds to help with the cleanup of the huge avian populations damaged by the oil spill, by selling handmade felt birds in a local cafe.
Chandler and Alison returned to Mississippi, continuing to teach filmmaking workshops in Clarksdale. With the state’s upcoming bicentennial anniversary in 2017, they saw an opportunity to showcase local voices in Mississippi communities.
“We wanted to have our own platform that wasn’t solely restricted to teaching other people – to make our own films celebrating local stories,” Chandler recalls. Alison elaborates: “We think Mississippi’s greatest asset is its stories – they should be told and celebrated. The bicentennial is such an important moment of reflection among Mississippians about who they are, who they’ve been, and who they want to be. We ask people, ‘What is life-giving in your community? What is emergent? Who or what is influencing your town to develop in new and authentic ways?’ The common theme for the films is “Revitalization.” These small towns are reinventing themselves, and retrieving aspects of identity that have been lost or covered over. A lot of the time we get stuck in a static identity as to what our hometown is about.”
Blue Magnolia’s films focus on a wide array of subjects, such as people working in issues of cultural dialogue about land conservation, racial reconciliation, and local grassroots community revitalization in many forms. “I think economic development and cultural development can run up against each other occasionally,” Alison muses. “But a lot of the time we’re talking about the same thing. It’s not just ‘I’m going to start a business, or a health practice, or I’m going to do art.’ We can include all of those dimensions in the same story.”
Blue Magnolia and their producing partner, Natalie Irby of Corner to Corner Productions, have so far completed eight films, with seven more currently in production. Natalie echoed this emphasis on individual action leading to community-wide energization: “These films highlight individuals who are getting out there and doing the work. Even if the odds are against them. Creative economy and cultural revitalization start at the individual level, and I feel honored that we have been granted permission to tell these stories that celebrate small-town solutions, and the people determined to make it happen.”
Finding Yalobusha Brewing as their next subject was an organic process, Alison explains. “We did a film called 85% Broken in Water Valley. The town came to our attention because it has a reputation as a strong small arts community, and after that we were looking at other stories.” Chandler offers a more pedestrian explanation: “I called and had them bring a keg over for an event in Clarksdale. [Yalobusha Brewing Co. owner] Andy O’Bryan drove it over for our photo lecture, and we met there. It all kind of overlapped.” They followed the brewery over its expansion into a larger regional operation over the course of several years, with other ongoing projects all the while.
Their ultimate goal is to make films that empower the community by letting their voices be heard, and over which they feel ownership. “It’s not like getting an email from someone you’re never going to see again,” they explain. “We sit there with our subjects, and we have a conversation with a hundred people in a room about the story. It really holds us accountable. It’s great if it goes anywhere from there, but those are our ultimate measures of if we succeed. If the community receives it back, and if the people who are in it are moved, and feel genuinely represented, we feel like our job is done.”
As director of Water Valley Main Street Association, Mickey Howley works closely with local businesses such as Yalobusha Brewing Co., and provided instrumental assistance to Alison and Chandler by facilitating Yalo’s filming. For his part, Howley was overwhelmingly happy with the results. “Yalo is a small town comeback story told very well. I think folks like to see that, because there are so many small towns in Mississippi that are hurting, just barely hanging on… So it’s good to see one beat the odds. It’s a story of a community returning via steady determination and daily sweat… doing it on their own.”
He went on to explain how Yalo serves as a reminder of the tangible difference being made in his community. “A decade ago the Hendricks Machine Shop was a derelict, internally collapsing empty building. Bringing that building back has been an ongoing effort by many here at the WVMSA… It was pure joy to see it on the big screen. Alison and Chandler are masters of the art.”
Melanie Addington, director of the Oxford Film Festival, was equally pleased with the film’s reception. “It is so nice to see that something that tells a local story win the audience award, especially a film about my favorite small craft beer company in existence. Yalobusha Brewery is doing a lot for Water Valley, but also for Oxford and Mississippi. I am glad that Blue Magnolia Films was able to tell their story and that people responded to it so well. It is not often that a documentary wins the audience award and I say cheers to that!”
Chandler returned the compliments. “I was blown away across the board, with how it was run, the community participation, and the amount of filmmakers and film critics participating. I’m excited about doing stuff in the future with them. And Melanie is just a rock-star.” Alison added, “We overheard film one critic who said, ‘I’m over Sundance. This festival is where it’s at.’ And I think that says it all.”