Film an excavation of Malvern, Perla

The Malvern Colored School Marching Band was a binding agent of the small town’s black community, which is deftly examined in Pam Uzzell’s documentary Unearthing the Dream.

— Pam Uzzell’s Unearthing the Dream has been named the best documentary at this year’s Arkansas Black Independent Film Festival, which kicks off today in Little Rock.

The 53-minute film will screen today at Arkansas Baptist College in the 4-7 p.m. program, on Saturday at Philander Smith College in the 4-7 p.m. program, and as part of the awards ceremony beginning at 6 p.m. Sunday at Dreamland Ballroom. (For information on tickets and passes,as well as for the entire festival schedule, go to arbiff.com.)

It wasn’t until I started watching the film that I realized I’d seen Uzzell’s work before - I saw her first documentary, which was also her master of fine arts thesis film, Some Call It Heaven, at the 2007 Little Rock Film Festival.

Some Call It Heaven is an enchanting, evocative 28-minute film about the small town of Smackover, its oil-boom population explosion and its mysterious “goat woman,” Rhena Salome Miller Meyers, a classically trained musician who for a while performed as a one woman band - playing seven instruments - for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. From the time she arrived in Smackover in 1929 until her death in 1988, she haunted the town’s collective imagination, serving as a kind of eccentric mascot. While children were warned to stay away from the strange lady, her story ultimately inspired a children’s book.

While the film was brief, Uzzell - a native of El Dorado who now lives and works in San Francisco- let the story unspool in its own time, letting the details and anecdotes accrete into a textured, nuanced portrait of a particular time and place.

And that’s kind of what Unearthing the Dream is - it’s an elegiac, social portrait of a way of life that has vanished, most would argue for the better: the self-contained, segregated black community of the small-town South. It’s not the expected thing.

Dozens of witnesses are called to describe the specialness of Malvern and its black suburb Perla in the 1940s and ’50s. It was a place where an employer - Acme Brick - paid the same wages to blacks as whites, affording them the dignity and wherewithal to give their children better lives. And it was a place where education was highly valued, and where the schools - especially A.A. Wilson High School - were a points of pride for the community.

And while the integration of the Malvern School District in 1968 was an inevitable, necessary step forward, it caused collateral damage among the young folks caught up in the change.

Unearthing the Dream is a thoughtful and well-observed meditation on the costs of social change, told in the voices of dozens of witnesses. It’s restrained, sober and remarkably affecting - once again, Uzzell has found a poignant story in an unlikely place.

Speaking of documentaries, Market Street Cinema has confirmed a number of screenings for Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, the new documentary about the West Memphis Three that will be released theatrically later this year. (Tentatively the film is scheduled to be released in late December, probably only in a few markets, which means it will most likely make it back to Arkansas early in 2013.)

Markets Street will screen the film Wednesday and Thursday, on Oct. 2, 3, 9, 10 and 30, and Nov. 1. All the screenings are scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Call Market Street at (501) 312-8900 or go to marketstreetcinema.net for more information.

As I’m writing this, details haven’t been firmed up, but the word is the film has undergone significant revision since it screened at Sundance earlier this year. (The new version is showing at the Toronto International Film Festival now.)

Because we’re anticipating that the film will make it to Arkansas in a regular theatrical run, we’ll probably hold the review until it opens.




MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 09/07/2012