First Person: Jennifer Crandall on the documentary "Whitman, Alabama"

By Paulette Beete
Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall on a porch with two older white people

Jennifer Crandall, the director of the Whitman, Alabama documentary looks over verse 43 of Song of Myself with Billy Wayne Corkerin. Right, Lucy Corkerin. Photo by Pierre Kattar

When we think of the poet Walt Whitman, we usually associate him with New York or Washington, DC. But Alabama? Not so much. But for filmmaker Jennifer Crandall, formerly a video journalist for the Washington Post, Whitman was exactly who she found herself thinking of as she fell in love with the state during her time there working as a video consultant. After that initial visit, the San Francisco-based Crandall returned to Alabama, this time as an artist-in-residence embedded in, of all places, a newsroom. Her charge for the residency with the Alabama Media Group, which publishes and the Birmingham News, was to make a video series that somehow reflected the state.

Crandall, who identifies as biracial, had spent her childhood growing up in various countries thanks to her father's work with USAID. After discovering Whitman's "Song of Myself" at 16, the poet's statement "I contain multitudes" became a touchstone as she tried to understand the various parts of herself. Whitman's work seemed like the perfect guiding principle for a project about getting to know the diversity of people making up the state’s population. "Song of Myself" also became the project's organizing principle: Crandall and her team decided to find 52 Alabamians--or groups of Alabamians--to recite one each of the poem's 52 stanzas. The resulting project, Whitman, Alabama, captures a range of scenarios, from a young dance crew practicing moves as they recite a single stanza to a drug court judge in conversation with an offender to a radio host helping callers to barter goods and services. The project criscrosses the state, visiting Montgomery, Dothan, Scottsboro, Monroeville, among many other stops.

If Whitman's poem is a love letter to the human spirit, then Whitman, Alabama is a love letter to all those things that make us--and this group of Alabamians--utterly and beautifully human. Here, in her own words, Crandall describes what sparked the project, how she went about it, and the connection she hopes Whitman, Alabama engenders.

I was introduced to "Song of Myself" and [Walt] Whitman at a time in my life when I was really struggling with identity on various different levels. I moved back to the United States as a sixteen-year-old American with very little understanding of what it meant to be an American, because I didn't grow up here. Also being bi-racial, and without quite knowing at the time that I was a lesbian, I was very confused. The more you become familiar with [the poem] the more you realize that any one of those aspects to my identity was found in that poem. I was like, "Wow that really speaks to me."

Years later as I became a journalist and someone who wants to tell other people's stories, [“Song of Myself"] kept popping up in my head. It spoke to me so strongly [I wondered] is there a way I can use it in my work? I did try at one point to articulate an idea many years ago, but it just didn't come together. But when I went to Alabama… I found the pieces of the puzzle to bring this idea to fruition. It seemed at the time that it came to me in a flash like, "Hey, why don't we get Alabamians from all different parts of the state to weave this poetry and bring this poetry to life and the poetry bring their lives to life?” But I think it [the idea] had been on a slow, almost imperceptible burn of those last many, many years just waiting for various different ingredients to fall into place.

[I had been hired to] go to out Alabama for a few months to do some consulting for the Alabama Media Group. They wanted some creative video content and to also start up a video division at the company, and so I was out there giving some thoughts on that. That was my first time I'd ever been in Alabama; I fell in love with it. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and when the company said would you come back as an artist-in-residence, and do a video storytelling project that you can design, I was like, absolutely, because Alabama was just so inspiring for me. I feel like, as Americans, we sort of think of Alabama and the southern parts of the country—for many people that aren’t from there—as a very backwards sort of place that we're allowed to easily disparage. It's strange to me when people do that, so I was very excited to be able to go to Alabama and just absorb what the culture there would have to offer me and my ability to see the world, and [how it might] potentially change the way I can see the world.

We met people [for the project] any which way practically that you can imagine meeting people—anything from, "It would be nice to find someone from such and such a town and do you know anyone?" to just hitting the road. We stopped and spoke to people whenever we felt like we should pull the car over based on what we might see on the side of the road, or pulling into somewhere that looked like an interesting location and maybe we could find someone in that location. We just needed to make sure that we did a good job of being all over the state, being all over the possibilities of the types of people that we could meet and that we could open ourselves up to and [that we didn’t] just keep hitting the same spot literally and figuratively.

I thought [this project] would be really easy to edit because it’s already scripted [because we’re using the poem]. That was completely not the case. I didn’t articulate this myself when I set out, but the way I like to film is to… leave a lot of room for serendipity and a lot of room for people to bring forth who they are. I do not like to over define the moment. I like to direct it, technically and conceptually, but I don’t like to direct the people and who they are too much. It becomes about the stuff that you capture in little moments that you couldn’t have asked someone to do. You’re trying to manage the situation so they can be as much as who they would normally be despite the fact that they're doing something they would not normally do in front of the camera. To edit together a piece of these people meeting this moment of you asking them to read poetry on camera into a cohesive piece that brings what you felt was happening that day to the audience is a lot harder than just having the text of the poem for you to edit around. You're really more trying to edit around a moment versus the words that were actually coming out of their mouths.

The integrity of the project is based upon the notion that the people that have agreed to be a part of the project—and that includes the people that are reading, the people that I’m working with, and the people that have hired me—that they feel that not only have we captured something real, but then what we distilled down to is a good representation of what was happening that day. I'm under no illusion that we're all going to agree that this was the perfect representation that happened that day, but… [I want to] be able to look the subject in the eye if I ever have a chance to run into them again and know that either they can look at me and say, “Yes, I feel comfortable with this,” or even if they don’t, we can have an honest, confident discussion about our differences of opinion.

Ultimately the idea of the project is to get people to recognize that we need to understand and to know each other better. [I want] to show the richness of people. I want to create work that somehow sparks in the viewer a connection. I think what Walt Whitman does is he makes us large, when he says, "I contain multitudes." It’s not as simple as saying I have lots of different selves. If you can recognize the largeness within yourself, then you should recognize that in other people.