Do you want to be in pictures? More specifically, have you already been in pictures, and could David Petersen borrow those pictures from you?
There’s to be a grand multimedia event at the Alys Stephens Center on September 21. Tom Blount, in conjunction with UAB and the ASC, has commissioned composer Yotam Haber to write an orchestral work, entitled A More Convenient Season, to be performed that night by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, the UAB Gospel Choir and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Children’s Choir. Petersen, in turn, has been commissioned to produce a film to be shown on the ASC screen as the orchestra plays the first movement.
The title of the musical work is taken from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and the music is inspired by Haber’s auditing of oral histories of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as personal interviews with participants and his research into the Birmingham Public Library archives. The world premiere of A More Convenient Season will follow by six days the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, and it commemorates that sad event.
Born in Holland and living in New York City, Haber is an interesting choice to compose such a piece. He’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rome Prize, among many other awards, and his compositions run from chamber music to movie soundtracks. As a precursor to his Birmingham piece, Haber wrote a work called New Ghetto Music, inspired by and incorporating recordings of Roman Jewish cantors from the 1940s to the 1960s.
David Petersen wants to take a complementary approach to the video he creates to accompany this impressive music. He wants to carry the audience back to 1963 Birmingham, but not via the grainy black-and-white movies of police dogs and fire hoses the world associates with that time.
“For this film, I would prefer not to dwell on the iconic civil rights news footage from that era, since so many have seen these images before,” Petersen wrote from the Tri-State Area last week. “Instead, I hope to cull from intimate home movies and archival material that depict many types of daily life of citizens and children in Birmingham during the early 1960s.”
In other words, somebody finally wants to look at your family’s home movies.
In my home, at that time, video capture capability consisted of a wind-up Bell and Howell standard eight-millimeter film camera — silent, of course — which could obtain a whole three minutes of any given occasion. Not the most sensitive film stock, to be shot indoors, eight-millimeter film had to be aided by a light bar, the giant floodlights of which were hot enough to light the candles on the cake at the birthday party you might be filming. Many’s the time I thought I caught the scent of scorched eyebrows after Daddy shot a roll straight through.
It took a few days to have the film developed at Lollar’s, and when it arrived, it was on three-inch reels we viewed eagerly in a darkened living room, one reel at a time, on our Bell and Howell — we must have gotten a package deal — projector. Then the reels would go up into a closet, only rarely to be viewed again. (As they piled up, Daddy was pretty good about editing the small reels onto bigger reels, but these wound up in the very same closet.)
So now, David Petersen would like to borrow our films and yours for his film. The Oscar-nominated multi-hyphenate filmmaker is likely best known around these parts for his 2004 documentary Let The Church Say Amen, a riveting look at street-corner Christianity in the nation’s capital; well worth a look-see on Netflix. For his Alys Stephens Center film, he would “welcome any home movie footage that captures daily life in Birmingham in the late 1950s to mid-1960s: at home, in school or church, on the street, eating breakfast — just simple life that shows families and children in their homes and communities.”
If you were around at that time, you probably think of your Birmingham in fading shades of Kodachrome. Certain hues have stuck with me: the gray paint job on the 43 Edgemont bus, the ochre of the sandstone around Vulcan’s old pedestal, the teal blue adorning the SanAnn gas station sign on Fifth Avenue North. A kid walking downtown streets then could be forgiven for comparing his hometown’s bustle for Manhattan’s, but his perspective might be altered after seeing some film of that at this late date.
So here’s our plan to help David Petersen. If you’ve got movie footage your family shot 50 years ago, he’d like to look at it (sooner than later, because he’s got a September 21 premiere to make). Maybe it’s at your house, maybe it’s at Mom’s, or maybe crazy Aunt Kibbee has it in a trunk. It could be 8mm, 16mm, or perhaps your people were prescient enough to transfer it to videotape back when we still had that format around. Don’t worry if you don’t have a machine that’ll play your footage anymore; after he transfers your film to a digital platform, Petersen will be happy to provide DVD copies to those who contribute.
Our central collecting point will be the Birmingham History Center (which you should drop by to see even if you don’t have any film to contribute), located downtown at 1731 First Avenue North. The lady you’ll be looking for is Liz Ellaby, but if you want to call her first, you can do so at 202-4146. Liz will give your home movies safe harbor till the filmmaker comes to town to see them for himself.
Pass the word about this project. Until now, the world has seen essentially one view of Birmingham in 1963. Through your eyes, it’ll soon have a chance to see a broader view.