Perhaps it was the onslaught of magazine and newspaper spreads proclaiming Nashville as everything from the new Southern culinary mecca or one of the top five travel destinations in the world. Or perhaps the finger could be pointed at the grand, glamorous portrayal of the city through ABC’s nighttime soap Nashville.
The outside attention has been overwhelmingly flattering for a city that has, at times, had a bit of an inferiority complex for not being as “cool” as its coastal counterparts in the entertainment industry. And like an ugly duckling’s rush of magnified self-awareness upon the discovery of its swan status, we Nashvillians are revising the way we see our city and the communities who call it home. Questions start to arise, the kind of questions anyone who has spent time navel-gazing will undoubtedly ask: What do they really think of or know about us? What do we really think or know about ourselves?
You could argue that the outsider intel is valid because it’s coming from trusted reporters at prestigious institutions like The Washington Post, Conde Nast Traveler or Britain’s The Guardian. But can these journalists parachuting in for a few days paint an authentic picture of what’s going on inside our city? Can they tell us who we are?
Documentary filmmakers Jace Freeman and Sean Clark, also known as The Moving Picture Boys, aren’t really concerned with the outsider’s perception of Nashville. They’re also not attempting to tell us what Nashville is, or who we are. What they’re concerned about is connecting and encouraging discussion among the many diverse communities in Nashville through the vehicle of brief narrative nonfiction episodes available at their website, docujournal.com.
Their hope is that an increased dialogue will reveal a greater understanding between seemingly disparate groups and subcultures, allowing for the recognition of common struggles and dreams that all people share, regardless of race, income level or age. Ultimately, this understanding will encourage a stronger connection with our neighbors, building a stronger community.
Despite their intentions, with the imminent release of Nashville 2012, a feature-length documentary composed of microscopic stories that, when unified, tell one large, cohesive story, they’re offering us and the rest of the world an unfiltered perspective of life in present-day Nashville.
And it’s not the one you’re seeing on TV.
Freeman and Clark did not initially set out to make a full-length movie about Nashville. Since Jan. 1, 2012, Freeman and Clark have regularly posted vignettes of Nashville life at the Docujournal site. These black-and-white episodes show compelling snippets of everything from a tense meeting between 12South neighborhood residents and H.G. Hill Realty/Southeast Ventures to an outdoor potluck meeting to support the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
Freeman and Clark initially collaborated on The Country Club, a short documentary about post-earthquake Haiti, in 2010. After enduring what Freeman describes as “really hard conditions” during the three-week trip to Haiti, they realized they worked well together and decided to go into business, launching The Moving Picture Boys shortly after. In addition to producing documentaries focusing on social issues in South Africa and Ethiopia, they did commercial work around Nashville to pay the bills.
Yet after traveling abroad, they struggled with barriers in time, language and resources, inhibiting them from fully understanding and capturing their subject matter to the extent that they desired. “After going to these countries and doing a lot of stories internationally, we realized that it takes more than just landing on the ground and finding a story and figuring it out,” Freeman said.
Acknowledging that there were compelling events happening in Nashville that deserved attention, Freeman and Clark decided to dive in and tell the stories happening within their community. “There’s stuff going on in our own backyard that we don’t know about,” Freeman explained. “Who better to tell these stories than us, since we’re in the middle of it? They’re as good stories as you’d find anywhere else, as pertinent to the human condition or anything else going on.”
While the digital age has birthed a mind-numbingly large amount of video content available online, a disappointingly large portion of it is produced by individuals looking to further their own agenda or, in many cases, their own stardom. Freeman and Clark couldn’t be further on the opposite end of this spectrum; they don’t conduct interviews or appear in any of the Docujournal episodes. Instead, they remain as unobtrusive as possible in order to authentically capture their subjects, who are aware they’re being recorded.
“We started out of curiosity,” Clark said. “Originally, we decided we wanted to do [the project] for a year. We shot everything [for each episode] in a day: No interviews, everything in black and white, and all of the sound and video had to be captured on location, so we weren’t using sound effects or overdubs or anything like that. We’re passionate about the specific style, this fly on the wall, present-tense storytelling documentary.”
“Most documentaries use B-rolls, so if you miss a shot, you go back next week and shoot and nobody knows that it’s inserted,” Freeman continued. “We make a point to capture everything within that 24 hours. We have to capture everything because we don’t have another chance. The style that we’re shooting in, we feel that it’s more news than anything.”
The duo edits the footage as quickly as possible — shooting for a 48-hour turnaround — to provide coverage of timely events, such as the enforcement of HB 2638/SB 2508 — the bill, directed at Occupy Nashville participants, that made camping on state-owned property a Class A misdemeanor. In that episode, Freeman and Clark captured Christopher, a 24-year-old man from Nashville, who calmly stated that he intended to be arrested when the bill passed at midnight on March 8, 2012, practicing his right to speak out against the bill.
“This bill criminalizes homelessness and takes away your right to speak out against it; we need more of a voice in the government, and they’re not listening to us,” Christopher said in the clip. “We got to find a way to make them listen to us by being peaceful about it. I can worry about six months of being incarcerated or a lifetime of incarceration outside.”
In addition to giving viewers a glimpse into communities they may be aware of but know little about, Freeman and Clark also explore unique subcultures, like USWO Wrestling at The Stadium Inn or third-generation race car drivers at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. And because they do it in the rawest, purest form possible, they’re offering a perspective of Nashville through an honest, objective lens. For Freeman and Clark, it’s essential to gain the trust of the members of the communities they’re profiling, which allows their characters to be comfortable on camera.
“Our goal is to get the spirit of the actual story,” Clark said. “We’ve had really great feedback from people we’ve worked with, and they’ve been extremely trusting, and we want to do them justice. They let us in.”
Remziya Suleyman, director of policy and administration for the American Center for Outreach, runs an advocacy organization that serves the Muslim community in Tennessee. She originally met Freeman and Clark when they covered a protest Suleyman participated in at War Memorial Plaza. As other events came up in her line of work, such as the construction of and permit battle for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, she stayed in touch with The Moving Picture Boys. She says members of her community have no reservations about being filmed by Freeman and Clark, and that they’ve been happy with the resulting footage.
“We’ve built a relationship; there’s a comfort level and trust with them,” she explained. “Our community is always very open and welcoming. People were willing to interact with them.”
Suleyman thinks the filmmakers gain trust quickly because of the integrity in their work. “They show the human side of the situation that’s happening,” she explained. “General media tries to do that, but I think when you look at these Docujournals, there’s the sense of truly getting an essence of what’s happening, and the emotions and feelings behind what these people are dealing with. The way they weave the narrative in — it’s not a narrative that someone from the outside is creating. It’s a narrative for the issue and what people are facing, and a narrative that’s simplified. People can quickly grasp what’s happening.”
From day one, the Docujournal process has been a project that both Freeman and Clark were passionate about, yet did not have a business plan to monetize. Awareness of their project came organically, through word of mouth, their continued engagement with the subjects and their communities, and activity on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Hot-button issues, like the 12South episode from June 4, showing the negative neighborhood response to the construction of the 12 South Flats, pushed the project to even more platforms.
“The 12South one was the first one that got picked up by a lot of different outlets and was talked about a lot,” Freeman recalled. “Besides that, we’ve let the community we shot know that the video has been produced so they can put it up on their Facebook and let their friends know about it. By watching one, you might say, ‘I enjoyed that, and that was my own community, so now I want to watch another one.’ So you watch one about a community in Nashville that’s completely different from yours, and you learn about that community.”
According to Suleyman, this is already happening in the Muslim community in Nashville. “I’ve seen folks from our community who, after we post [the episode] on Facebook or Twitter, they’ll go take a look,” she said. “I’ve spent some time going through the videos. They truly have touched the major diverse groups in Nashville; I commend them on their efforts. It’s incredibly well done, and it’s so easy to relate to. For anyone who looks at any of these Docujournals, there’s a connection that’s indescribable.”
As for the decision to string the episodes together into one film, it happened organically as well, and at the expense of about $300, spent primarily on gas and parking downtown. “Four or five months ago, we wondered if it would all fit if we stuck it together,” Freeman recalled. “The whole premise of the series is to connect different communities — different individuals and subcultures within the whole — and we thought, what best way to do that, if we could just stick them all together in one cohesive piece? It would unify all the stories within the Nashville framework. Also, we thought it would be a good vehicle to point people to the series to let them know that we’re doing this.”
The pair culled from roughly 30 different episodes, linking half of those together in the film, which is organized chronologically. In between the bookends of New Year’s Eve revelers drunkenly shouting their final countdowns, several different stories are presented, and Freeman and Clark hope these stories will provide a greater understanding of the neighbors we might not know. Taking it a step further, perhaps it will encourage a conversation with this neighbor, whether he’s selling The Contributor on the street or preaching from a street corner.
“It’s interesting because it is cohesive, even though each story is dramatically different from the next,” Freeman said. “Each person onscreen is different from the next. Each has different struggles and aspirations, but they all have the same struggles and aspirations, whether they’re an immigrant from Mexico or a homeless guy on the street. It’s interesting to see it all within one big story, because it’s all in the city. They all desire the same thing, and [will] hopefully support each other in accomplishing that same thing.”
While 2012 has drawn to a close and Nashville 2012 is finished — the film, which will have a spring release, has been submitted for consideration at the Nashville Film Festival — The Moving Picture Boys will continue to update the series online. “It will change a little bit; the first year we were just figuring it out,” Clark said. “Now we’re going to focus in on certain areas and dive deeper on things we have explored.”
Freeman adds that they’re always looking for tips on topics they should cover, and they encourage people to reach out to them via their website. Additionally, they’ll continue to develop the relationships they’ve built through the duration of the project. “The best way to find our stories is involvement in the community,” Freeman said. “Already having established these connections, and this trust, we can go deeper next time we’re there. Being involved within these different subcultures will get us better stories in the future.”
Despite the barrage of outside media attention on Nashville in 2012 and early 2013, the filmmakers don’t see that convergence as any less valid or truthful than the picture of Nashville they’re offering. Clark, who hails from Franklin, and Freeman, from Indiana, both sympathize with an outsider attempting to capture the essence of a foreign place.
“It’s kind of what we struggled with when we were going to Haiti or on different international projects, trying to get to the heart of the story,” Freeman recalled. “To say that it’s more true than somebody else who’s in the middle of it? It’s hard to say.”
“Our goal, and our style, is to attempt to get out of the way of the story,” Clark added. “That’s why we have no interviews. We’ve shot some people we agree with and some people we don’t, and we empathize with all of them. We’re trying not to put our spin on it. As far as putting an opinion on what The New York Times thinks or what other people are thinking, it feels a little weird, just because it’s different than what we’re trying to do.
“It’s an interesting discussion, for sure, and I think it’s kind of cool that we have this project to add to the discussion,” Clark continued. “Like our stories, this is what it is, in this moment. The whole film has moments like that. The idea is to come up with your own idea as a whole from all of these small, microscopic moments.”
Nashville 2012 is filled with these kinds of moments, snapshots of life that may not be as commercially attractive as exceptional dinners at The Catbird Seat, premium denim from Imogene + Willie or Taylor Swift’s latest boyfriend, but depict essential components of the city as a whole.
In addition to finding a common thread throughout distinct communities and subcultures, the subjects and situations presented in Nashville 2012 and the Docujournal project are universal. One of the most evocative episodes is “Church Street Park,” shot on Oct. 17, 2012. A group of adults, some presumably homeless, are receiving computer training from a young man through a program at Goodwill. A middle-aged woman is struggling with an exercise in which she is answering questions such as, “Where would your dream home be?” As she attempts to focus on the mechanics of operating the computer properly, you can’t help but wonder what’s going through her mind. When she focuses on the computer screen, reading the question aloud, a look passes across her face, as if she is distracted by the very idea of a dream home, or any home. You may be surprised by how this simple scene, expertly captured by Freeman and Clark, stirs emotions.
But what makes this film distinctly Nashville is the fact that the biggest character, and the one consistent character throughout these vignettes, is Nashville. The same argument could be made on Nashville, but while the TV show’s version of Nashville looks like it’s spent as much time in the hair and makeup chair as Hayden Panettiere, The Moving Picture Boys’ Nashville is wholly naked, bared for the world to see.