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Local Doc Set for PBS Showing

May 21, 2009

williemae

By Melanie Addington
As Published in the Oxford Town

Joe York’s documentary “Saving Willie Mae’s Scotch House” is set to Air May 28 at 9 p.m. on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. The documentary tells the story of the rebuilding efforts of Willie Mae Seaton’s ravaged New Orleans restaurant after Hurricane Katrina.

The documentary was completed by the University of Mississippi’s Media and Documentary Projects Center in November 2008 after 18 months of filming and editing. Among the volunteers who rebuilt Willie Mae’s were Oxonians John Currence, restaurateur and New Orleans native; John T. Edge, acclaimed food writer and director of the UM Southern Foodways Alliance; and Mary Beth Lasseter, SFA associate director. The documentary also can be viewed online at: http://omtvlive.com

Joe York recently sat down with the Oxford Town to discuss the project.

Q: This documentary was your first feature length project. Was it more difficult to expand into feature length or with a story like this was it easier?

A: Editing this film down to the 56 minutes 40 seconds it is now was easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We shot for a little over a year and we also received a lot of footage from some folks in New Orleans who covered the first two weeks of the project while we were busy finishing another project. All together, we ended up with just shy of 60 hours of footage, which means that for every hour of video we shot we used a little less than one minute in the film. So to answer your question it was easy and hard. Easy in that we had so much material we could have made three feature films, all with equally compelling story lines, and hard for the very same reason. That said, I count shooting and editing this film among two of the most interesting and worthwhile experiences of my life.

Q: Tell us a little bit about how the project got started?

A: Another film crew from New Orleans who were working on a video for the Convention & Visitors Bureau shot footage of the first few volunteer weekends at the Scotch House and later allowed us to use that footage free of  charge (which is unheard of  and for which I am eternally grateful). So the project itself, the clean up of Willie Mae’s Scotch House, started before we started shooting. We came in a started doing interviews for our film when it had become apparent that the project had shifted from a clean-up effort to a complete renovation of the restaurant. We continued to follow the rebuilding for the next year until the restaurant reopened.

Q: Tell us more about the role John Currence, John T. Edge and Mary Beth Lasseter took in helping to salvage the restaurant?

A: John Currence rebuilt that restaurant. He had a tremendous body of volunteers who helped him throughout the process, but it is not an overstatement to say that no one worked harder, stayed longer, gave of himself more over the 18-month long process than did John Currence.

John T, Mary Beth, and others within the Southern Foodways Alliance created an environment in which John could be successful. They organized the volunteers, raised untold sums of money, and volunteered themselves time and time again. As John T says in the film, the SFA “was the brains of the operation” and they were. Mix that with the brawn and determination of the SFA membership, the locals who cared deeply for Ms. Willie Mae and the restaurant, the donors who dug deep in their wallets to keep the project alive, the chefs from around New Orleans who provided lunches free of charge to the volunteer workforce, the locals who opened their guest bedrooms to cash-strapped volunteers, and John Currence’s single-mindedness to get this project done, and you have recipe for how a few dedicated people can do  amazing things.

Q: Give us a little background on you Joe – how did you begin making documentaries? What are some of the highlights over the years in your career? What do you hope is next?

A: I made my first short documentary when I was a graduate student here at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. John T Edge, who I was working for as a graduate assistant, asked me to try to make a film about an heirloom bean and tomato farmer from Berea, Kentucky. I had always wanted to try to make a documentary, but I had no idea, zero idea, what I was doing or if I could do it. John T bought a camera and I went up there and shot some of the worst footage in the history of footage. It was so bad that I had to go back to Kentucky and reshoot the whole thing. My friend Matt Bruder was helping me and we edited the movie on his laptop in my dining room. It wasn’t a great film, but it proved to us that we could do it. On a lark, we submitted it to a film festival in Italy and we got in.

I think the fact that John T believed in us enough to let us try to make that first short documentary, the fact that we go to go on that trip, and the support shown by the SFA and its members, more than anything convinced me that we were doing good things with good people and that what we were doing was real and viable and valuable. So that was an eye opener. Take that together with the support of Andy Harper who runs the Center for Documentary Projects where I work now and it’s really been a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow at something I wasn’t even sure if I could do to begin with.

Since that first documentary, the SFA and the Center for Documentary Projects have come together to produce fifteen more short films and a feature, Saving Willie Mae’s Scotch House, and I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that we’re just getting started.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 21, 2009 9:48 am

    Thanks to Michelle Emanuel for sending the online version of the doc:

    http://itss.outreach.olemiss.edu/mpdl/?page_id=927

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