Reynolda Film Festival remains true to its vision

by Keith Barber


A screen shot from Daniel Koehler’s short documentary film, “Burlington: A City Divided” depicting Zenobia Mebane, mother of Leon Mebane — the young man killed during the Burlington race riot of 1969. “Burlington: A City Divided” is one of three documentary shorts that will screen at the third annual Reynolda Film Festival March 24-27 on the campus of Wake Forest University. (courtesy photo)


Spike Lee’s appearance at the third annual Reynolda Film Festival this week underscores the mission of the Wake Forest student-run festival: entertain, inspire and challenge.

“What [Lee] is really known for is challenging the social norms,” said festival director Brent Lindley. “If people haven’t made a film about a certain subject because it’s too controversial, he doesn’t shy away from it. And he’s stuck to his roots after all these years.”

Lee’s impressive canon of films spans four decades and includes Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and Mo’ Better Blues. More recently, Lee has helmed Inside Man, Miracle at St. Anna and When the Levees Broke, the four-part documentary series about Hurricane Katrina and the resulting devastation of New Orleans.

Lee will speak at Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University campus this Friday at 7 p.m. The festival kicks off on Wednesday and runs through Saturday. Lee’s appearance is one of four special events at the 2010 festival. Other special events include featured speakers Angelica Casillas, digital production manager at Rhythm & Hues Studios; screenwriters Josh Olsen, who penned A History of Violence, and Junebug writer Angus McLachlan; and animator Bill Frake.

The festival also offers In the Shade Sessions featuring Dale Pollock, the former dean of the University of North Carolina School of Filmmaking, and animator John Cernak.

Reynolda also features student film finalists in three categories — narrative, documentary and animation/experimental — and feature films. The Messenger, the critically acclaimed film about Army death notification teams, will screen Wednesday night, and Beeswax, a dark comedy will screen on Thursday night. On Friday night, a number of local filmmakers will showcase their work in the student section of the festival. Daniel Koehler, a sophomore at Elon University, and recent Elon graduate Natalie Fava will screen their documentary short films during the festival. Koehler’s film, “Burlington: A City Divided” deals with a historic event that doesn’t appear in most North Carolina history books — the Burlington race riots of 1969.

Racial tensions surrounding the integration of Walter M. Williams High School proved to be the spark that ignited the riots, Koehler said, which culminated in the death of 15-year-old Leon Mebane. The killer was never caught, and the case has been closed for 40 years.

“It’s like a blank moment in history,” Koehler said. “The newspapers say Mebane was caught in the crossfire, but eyewitness reports say that Leon was stopped by Burlington police, put up his hands and was shot 17 times.”

Leon Mebane’s mother, Zedonia, tells her story to Koehler, which gives the film its emotional weight while revealing those same injustices persist to this day.

“What the film is trying to get at is these things are still going on even if people aren’t aware of it,” he said. “They’re still going on and they impact the way Burlington is today.”

Natalie Fava, a 2009 graduate of Elon University, will screen her short documentary “Elsewhere: 3 Stories Afterwards” at this year’s festival. Fava’s film shines a spotlight on Elsewhere Artist Collaborative in Greensboro and the work of three artists — Adam Brody, Laurel Kurtz and Steven Beatty. Brody is a storyteller and musician, while Kurtz and Beatty are social practice artists. A Pennsylvania native, Fava said she was pleasantly surprised to discover a bastion of creativity in the Deep South.

“I’m not really a documentarian; I’m really a fiction writer,” Fava said. “This was a great chance to tell a nonfiction story. The great part was it was this place of pure imagination — a lot like the stories I write.”

The Reynolda Film Festival will culminate on Saturday night with an awards ceremony at 8 p.m. at the Annenberg Forum. Any Given Friday, a feature-length documentary about a successful high school football coach who leaves a nationally ranked team to transform a losing team and losing culture, will hold its world premiere at 8:15 p.m.

on Saturday. The film was directed and produced by this reporter and edited and co-produced by Sam Smartt, a 2009 Wake Forest graduate.

wanna go?

Third annual Reynolda Film Festival Wake Forest University March 24-27.

For further info and a complete schedule of events, visit: