“Tonight, these students are going to bring us arguments that we wouldn’t otherwise hear,” said professor Andrew Grace the night of April 24 as a sizable crowd gathered outside the Bama Theatre in downtown Tuscaloosa.
Grace is the instructor for a year-long UA course called Documenting Justice in which students are guided through the process of conceptualizing and directing a short documentary centered around social justice.
One student posed that Documenting Justice is the most important display of the arts at UA. The course was originally the idea of Stephen Black, the founder of Center of Ethics and Social Responsibility at the University, whom Andy took over for in the second year of Documenting Justice.
“The documentary format forces us to see our community, to see lives that are different from our own,” Grace said.
Each documentary short is rooted in the culture and history of Tuscaloosa County and the state of Alabama as a whole. Brittany Grady, a junior on the Alabama Forensic Council, is no stranger to social justice.
“This is my third year at Documenting Justice,” Grady said. “The stories always hit close to home, and I’m excited to see what levels they’ll take it to this year.”
The screening drew a large crowd, including many students studying journalism and creative media. However, as Grace emphasized, the class is designed for non-film majors, and this year’s group of students had no previous experience in film.
Nevertheless, their work didn’t fail to make waves.
“Every year there are documentaries that are stand-outs of filmmaking, which is all the more impressive when you learn that the directors themselves have zero film experience,” said Dr. Jeremy Butler of the College of Communication and Information Sciences.
The first documentary of the evening came from students Alex Brittenham and Sydney Gabrielson under the name “An Empty Spot.” Their short explored the decline of the American mall and the unseen demographic that frequents it. The film opens with shots of abandoned shopping complexes in Tuscaloosa spliced together with decades-old commercials from advertising the same complexes. The “Mall Walkers” are elderly people who frequent malls, the easiest places for them to walk and exercise. They describe what malls mean to them and how the decline of these businesses has affected their lives disproportionately. Several featured Mall Walkers were in the theater that night. Perhaps the next time you find yourself in a mall you’ll be able to spot them: older men and women wearing tennis shoes and baseball caps, power walking through the food court.
Next, Ilham Ali introduced “Back to the Farm,” the story of three generations of men that work together on an old farm in Sawyerville. George, Parrish, and Frank work the farm in a kind of “generational synchronicity,” a bond between them that allows them to work as an effective team despite the age gaps between them. But their reasons for taking up farming vary. George explains that they have an ancestral claim to land; their people are the ones who worked it lifetimes ago. The personal hardships that they have faced have led them to discover important parts of themselves, and the land.
“Dear, Inescapable,” directed by Sarah Cheshire and Sophie Strohmeier, delves into the rich history of Selma and the St. James hotel, which was boarded up after an exorbitant amount of money was spent renovating it. Nameless interviews guide us through the halls of the hotel. Ghost stories combined with the disturbing history that unfolded on the very streets outside of the hotel ensure that it will not open up again.
“Selma is a city that has more history than it knows what to do with,” one interviewee said.
The last short of the evening came from Corey Carpenter, who was also a student in Documenting Justice the previous year. He was given the opportunity to showcase his new film, “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” an animated adaptation of the journal of Arthur Bremer, the “would-be assassin” of Alabama Governor George Wallace. A surreal art style transforms those ten minutes into a deep dive into the alien mind of an individual who warrants further examination.
They stories that these students tell on an annual basis insist on being considered and processed further. Each short was around ten minutes in length, wasting no time and managing to elicit emotional responses with every shot. Andy Grace gave a final statement that explains succinctly what the evening was all about.
“Social justice is created when we realize that other people’s lives have value,” Grace said. “Also, support your local arts.”