Credit: Alex Harris/High Museum of Art
Behind-the-scenes of the American South's growing indy film industry
You can take a virtual visit to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which is mentioned in this feature, while its doors are closed due to pandemic restrictions. See its online collection here.
In the past decade the American South has become a nexus of film production. Over a year ending summer 2019, $2.9 billion was invested into Georgia alone, as a result of productions choosing to film in the state.
Alongside blockbusters like "Avengers: Endgame" and "Black Panther," both filmed in Georgia, there is a new wave of independent productions that are bringing the realities of the South to the screen. Many of these smaller films tackle subjects that are close to home, including police brutality, shifts in sexuality and gender norms, and the legacy of the Civil War.
"These filmmakers are coming to terms with matters of race, class and sexuality," said Atlanta-born photographer Alex Harris, who has been documenting the American South and other locations for more than 40 years, and more recently the Southern film industry.
"Our Strange New Land: Photographs by Alex Harris," commissioned by the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, is a series of photos taken by Harris on film sets, and shows this new Southern filmmaking in action. The original exhibition also included a three-channel video piece, composed of Harris' stills, an original score and sounds from the sets, further evoking the emotional range and themes of the films.
"We really see things changing in the film world and the stories are being told in the same way we see attitudes changing in the culture ... Those are the things that are being explored on these independent film sets," he said.
While Harris was preparing for the project, his eyes fell on a book on the shelf of a classroom that appears in a scene of 2018's "Graceland," a comedy shot in South Carolina about a Southern mother's suburban life getting turned upside when her daughter starts to believe she is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley. The book was called "My America: Our Strange New Land," and he decided it was a good title for the project.
"The irony was that it was a book for sixth graders about the way in which the pilgrims thought of this continent as a new land, when in fact it wasn't a new land at all for the people who had been here for many centuries," Harris said.
Now based in North Carolina, Harris came to think about that "strange new land" as the world we experience through the films that reflect us, back to us.
Unexpectedly, the title has almost taken on a new meaning in the time of the pandemic. The role of filmmakers to imagine life for us, both the frightening and contented parts, has only increased in importance.
"We're inhabiting that strange new land of visual stories even more now as we're isolated in our homes," Harris said. "It's not just news we're looking for in stories. We're looking for magic stories to help us make sense of things and help us face our greatest fears."
Expressing the human condition
For the project, Harris, who is the co-founder of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, connected with independent filmmakers who were making narrative films about or set in the South. Since he wasn't hired by the productions to capture specific or promotional images of the films, he was mostly free to shoot whatever he wanted while on set, including 2018 dramedy "Thunder Road," directed by Jim Cummings, coming-of-age story "Let Light Perpetual" (2019) by Micah and Whitney Stansell, and 2020 mystery "Abducted," by Ben Joyner.
Right away he noticed that many of these fiction films were tackling the same subjects that documentaries do, just in scripted form.
"They were doing it in a kind of an oblique way, so that you'd have a horror film set in Mississippi, and at the heart of that film is a same-sex couple," Harris said. Or, "You'd have a film set in Louisiana about life in Trump's America, but at the heart of that you'd see this racial tension around police and police work."
As the casts and crews got used to his presence on set, a small camera and a silent shutter allowed Harris to be a fly on the wall, capturing the intimacy, emotion and tension of thematic moments in dramas, thrillers and comedies.
Some of the images feature crew members or makeup artists, set lights or other equipment. Other times, the images are of the actors in the middle of a scene. But many of the photos are ambiguous. Sometimes it's hard to tell if a photo is of someone in front of a camera, behind it, or someone near the set location who lives in the community.
One photo, from 2017 short film "And the People Could Fly," depicts a young girl looking wistfully at her mother as the woman absentmindedly drags on a cigarette. The shot and the scene, Harris said, were inspired by the filmmaker's own personal journey of growing up in a family where there was love and care, but also copious drug use.
A photo from the set of "Hallowed Ground," a 2018 horror film shot in Mississippi, features two women leaning into a kiss as they repair their marriage after an affair -- acknowledging not only the relatable experience of infidelity, but the South's gradual acceptance of same-sex relationships.
Adolescent boys and young women play and dance on the lawns underneath leaden skies in shots from 2018's "Liberty," a short film about a friendship threatened by the challenges that moving to another community brings. Whether the teens are actors or residents is left to interpretation.
Harris said that the photo series is in some ways about how we are all actors in our own lives. "We create our own sets, we practice our lines, we refine our characteristics, play ourselves. If you really think about it, that's what it's like to move through the world. And I think it's that tension between the scripted moment and an unscripted one that is really explored here."
Southern film industry shifts
The recent growth of Georgia's film industry has been helped significantly by tax incentives, a high population employed in media and the arts, and a wide variety of locations that range from metropolitan to suburban to rural.
Peachtree City, Georgia, was the location for the 2019 comedy "Greener Grass," chosen by producer Natalie Metzger and the other filmmakers for its tax incentives and scenery.
Harris tagged along on this film set as well, capturing the film's comedic commentary on Trump's 2016 "Make America Great Again" slogan.
"The directors looked back to the decades that were supposedly 'great,' the things that these politicians are pushing to go back to like the '50s and '80s," Metzger said. "Part of 'Greener Grass' is showing (those decades) kind of smashed together and then showing the dark underbelly of all the gnarly stuff that was happening, especially in the suburbs, which were 'safe' and 'perfect' and nothing bad happened there."
Independent film has been able to aggressively turn toward "truly human stories," said Benjamin Wiessner, a producer of 2020's "Beast Beast" drama and "Thunder Road," along with Metzger.
"I think filmmakers have re-imagined how ambitious and resourceful they can be. Independent film is thriving and building new mirrors for people that have never seen themselves on screen before," he added.
Harris' photos capture the light and fire of a blend of new faces, voices and stories of the South, "too long ignored by the two-city industry" of New York and Los Angeles, Wiessner said.
"My goal was to make photographs, to choose my best images and then discover the story my photographs had to tell," Harris said.
"My hope is that people will engage with these pictures in a personal way and be moved by and drawn to them. That they will cause us to ask questions about the South and about society."