As Mississippi approaches its bicentennial year, filmmakers Alison Fast and Chandler Griffin are looking to tell the stories of revitalization to show how far the state has come during its 200-year history.
They hope to inspire that change to continue.
The couple is in the midst of a project to make and screen a total of 25 short documentary films focused on innovative projects and creative businesses around the state, many in Mississippi’s small towns.
The creative duo makes up Blue Magnolia Films, a company that has deep roots in Mississippi. Chandler is a Jackson native who studied film at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia before he made his way to New York and traveled to remote parts of the world. During a filmmaking workshop in South Africa, he met and married fellow filmmaker and Boston native Alison Fast. In 2005, the couple founded Barefoot Workshops, an annual immersive documentary workshop held at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale.
When Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Film Office, asked Chandler and Alison what they planned on doing to commemorate the state’s bicentennial, the couple put their heads together and came up with the documentary series.
Now Chandler and Alison are all but living in their car as they roam the state with their recording equipment. So far, for this project, they’ve filmed in Oxford, Clarksdale, Tupelo, Corinth, Hattiesburg, Water Valley, Jackson, Holly Springs, Greenwood, Pascagoula, Shaw, Batesville, Lorman, Senatobia, Friars Point, Ocean Springs and Sumner and hope to film in McComb, Natchez, Philadephia, Turkey Creek, Wiggins and Lumberton.
“This is such an important moment in Mississippi,” Alison said. “It’s not often that you can see the past while imagining the future. We have a generation coming behind us, and they are asking questions. We want to have intergenerational conversations. We feel that that’s the key to unlocking the vision and potential in the state.
“There are some very positive stories in the communities around the state,” she continued. “We can tell those stories and screen them back to the communities. But, usually after a screening, people go home and that’s that. We decided we want to take the excitement that comes with a screening and determine what action we can take to mobilize the eyes that saw it. The film is merely an excuse to start the conversation.”
Thirty screenings of the bicentennial films have happened so far, with more to come. Chandler said he’s seen the economic impact and community development impact the films have had on their subjects. Hugh Balthrop’s company Sweet Magnolia Gelato Company in Clarksdale had a 20 percent spike in sales the first four weeks after Blue Magnolia’s film, “Delta Flavor,” debuted online. The ice cream company grew from having three employees to seven and new markets opened up both in-state, as well as out-of-state.
“It’s been a great marketing tool,” Balthrop said in a case study about the film and its impact on his business. “It will pique folks’ interest in trying the product who have not tried it before. That’s something I’ve been trying to do. It’s not just about us but connecting all these farmers and families to get behind the product.”
Chandler said most Mississippi stories are told from outsiders looking in. Blue Magnolia’s approach, however, is different and focuses on the stories of the individuals.
“During the bicentennial, we will be working with small towns to show them how they can reclaim the narrative and grow what’s working,” he said.
Blue Magnolia has partnered with Mississippi Main Street Association to tell the stories of people who are generating opportunity in the state without a lot of money.
“We ask ‘Who are those creators? Who are the people who are creating new ways of doing things?’ We want to tell the stories that haven’t been told — emerging stories that will ignite people’s beliefs in the state,” Chandler said. “We want to stimulate conversation that will grow the creative economy.”
Growing Mississippi’s creative economy is an effort that Malcolm White has championed since 2009, both as the director of Visit Mississippi and as the executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC). Mississippi’s creative economy consists of creative individuals and enterprises that fuel jobs, revenue and quality of life. More than 60,000 people work in Mississippi’s creative economy — in industries that include visual and performing arts, design, literary and publishing, film and media, culinary arts and museums and heritage.
“Blue Magnolia’s films spotlight the creative people and businesses that are moving Mississippi forward,” White said. “The bicentennial year is a fitting time to be having the conversations initiated by these short documentaries, a time to reflect on where our state has been and where it’s going. The creative arts have always been a vehicle for bringing people together.”
Alison said that each story in the short film series has multiple layers.
“One story may touch on mentorship, race healing, community and the creative economy. Each story is a means of reflection and celebration,” she said.
The next step in the project is to create an online component, where the couple will host a curated collection of short Mississippi-made documentaries, all dedicated to the theme of small town revitalization. Chandler said they will make the collection available for people to share during the bicentennial with the hope of inspiring people through the examples in the films.
“Phase Two is to embed actionable toolkits and resources for communities to inspire people to grow these examples around the state, wherever they live, and to access a network of other people who are learning by doing and sharing their example in the state of Mississippi,” he said.
Alison said Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream is a prime example of what the team calls “story solutions.”
“It’s a local product that is now being sold across the state,” she said. “How can other businesses replicate that? What starts to move the needle? Our biggest challenge is to inspire people to think of solutions that are outside of the box.”
A key part of Alison and Chandler’s work is connecting people as they go. They recently invited two STEM teachers from Brown Elementary School in Jackson to host a “pop-up makerspace” at Fondren’s First Thursday to help share their work with the broader Jackson community. The teachers provided hands-on interactive activities for children and families to explore VR technology, 3D printers, coding, robotics and announced the opening of the first Mississippi makerspace, a community-operated workspace where people with common interests meet and collaborate.
“We showed a five-minute film about their work and encouraged them to connect with other innovators of learning around the state,” Chandler said. “The challenge in Mississippi is connecting the dots and helping communities of practice come to life. If community innovators were more connected, working toward similar goals, we could see more regional initiatives and sharing of resources and expertise. By telling next-generation stories, we hope to spark those informal networks and give them life.”
This new series of films focuses on catalyzing community in areas of New Literacy, Placemaking and Arts, Race and Reconciliation, Creative Economy and Health and Wellness, such as food systems and access to healthy foods.
Blue Magnolia Films recently received the Mississippi Tourism Association’s Travel Media & Broadcast award at the 2016 Governor’s Conference on Tourism, a testament to Chandler and Alison’s ability to bring Mississippi’s best stories to light.
“We are like community weavers,” Alison said. “Our mission is to highlight people to make sure their stories grow.”
Photos by Melanie Thortis