Surprised to See You
In 2019, on a brisk November evening in New York, I was wearing every piece of winter clothing that I brought with me, yet it wasn’t enough to keep me warm. I was in New York for a film festival and had memorized my route from one part of the festival to another — two long blocks east, five short blocks south — and tried to walk with the confidence and poise that I saw most of the city’s pedestrians display. On my walk, I peered into a few gleaming store windows, passed under some sidewalk scaffolding, and became mesmerized by the ingenuity of cyclist delivery drivers who used oven mitts taped to their handlebars for warmth.
When I arrived at the high-rise for the after-party event, I hung my coat with everyone else’s. A little embarrassed it wasn’t a black coat like all the others, I moved on, trying to mingle with a room full of doc film industry professionals that I’d never met. I talked with a sales agent for two minutes before we both realized we were operating on different levels. I was there presenting a twelve-minute film I’d co-directed and produced for under three thousand dollars. He was there buying features with budgets of a million dollars or more. There was an awkward pause, we both stared at our cheese plate for a moment, and I bid him farewell.
I managed to find the producer who had been interested in my original pitch for the film that I’d brought to the festival. She’d eventually passed on the project, but I wanted to say hello and let her know the completed film was screening at the festival if she wanted to see it. My goal was to simply let her know that I was a real boy, with a real film, that was screening at a real theatre, so my next pitch would have a little more distinction. Our conversation ended abruptly, and I questioned if I should’ve said anything at all to her. My feeble attempt at networking had left me standing there alone, business card in one hand, glass of wine in the other.
Across the room, I saw a man who seemed familiar. I was sure I’d seen him smoking a cigarette outside a bar in Atlanta. He was wearing a colorful scarf, maybe it was red, and a yellow beanie — I still call beanies toboggans, but that’s another essay someone else already wrote — resting atop his forehead pushing his salt and pepper hair back. He was perhaps the only person in the whole place holding a brown bottle of beer. I walked up to him, held up my beverage, and smiled.
“Cheers,” I said.
We clinked drinks.
“Cheers to you!” he said.
We began talking, working our way past small talk. Turns out the familiarity was just his regionally specific quirks. He was from South Carolina. As we talked, it was becoming clear to me that this beer was not his first or second.
His partner walked up midway through our conversation. Her eyes met mine and they seemed to say, I’m sorry. He’s drunk. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. We introduced ourselves. She complimented my red shoes, and the three of us slid back into small talk.
After exchanging the standard what’s-your-project-about questions, the man from South Carolina asked me if I was based here, meaning New York.
“No, no. I grew up in Alabama, and I live in Atlanta now,” I said.
“Oh oh.” He took a sip of his beer. “Surprised to see you here.”
His partner leaned over and smacked him on the shoulder.
“What!” he said.
“It was really nice to meet you,” she said.
She turned to him. “Let’s go. You’ve had too many, already.”
I smiled and waved as the pair trotted off to the food table. I stood there with the man’s words echoing in my head. I was already feeling a little out of place, and I was drawn to this fellow by some semblance of a kindred spirit. I expected the producer I spoke to who’d previously rejected my pitch to run for cover, and she did so with grace. For most of the evening, I had felt like a stranger in a strange land, but what hurt most was this fellow southerner in New York didn’t expect me to be there. I can’t be certain about the nature of his astonishment for my presence, but I felt that he confirmed my own underlying suspicion that I didn’t belong there: at this party with real filmmakers who make real films that make real money. The sales agent from NYC didn’t make me feel that way, the producer that rejected my pitch didn’t make me feel that way, my contemporary filmmaker from South Carolina made me feel that way.
As southern filmmakers, we do this to ourselves and to one another. We sometimes believe wholeheartedly the outsider’s narrative: people from this region, the American South, don’t deserve to play in the same arena as the coastal elites. The notion that I’m somehow less than acceptable when it comes to filmmaking seems to run through my own mind on repeat. I’ve talked myself into that belief over and over.
I grew up in a multifaceted family. We were a lower-middle class southern white family. I was a freckled faced boy who spent all his free time playing in the forest behind my childhood home. Sometimes, I’d sleep over at my cousin’s trailer; box fan in the window, Marlboro lights on the counter, hot dogs and a bag of Doritos on the kitchen table. Once, while at a family gathering, a bee stung me. My uncle pinched some chewing tobacco from his dip can and taped it to my welted skin. It worked, it sucked the sting right out. A few years later, a different uncle became a professor with a Ph.D. and taught American History. He’d tell me about his current teaching topics. He taught me how to play guitar and introduced me to the Beatles. On one side of my family some of my cousins have gone to prison, while on the other side of my family, I have a cousin who was a highly sought-after traveling veterinarian.
I share this to provide an example of my own background and how its uniqueness prepared me to make the work I’m currently making now. The twelve-minute film I brought to New York dealt with poverty and addiction in rural Alabama. One of the main participants in the film had just been released from prison and was living in a trailer, much like the one that I remember hanging out in with my cousin. Many of us from this region have multifaceted backgrounds, because people living in this region have always had to be a little more resourceful here.
Southerners are familiar with coming together, pooling our own resources, and getting things done for ourselves. Because we have to.
A recent example of this community oriented approach to getting things done is what Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight Action did here in Georgia to combat racist old tricks employed by white politicians and lawmakers to suppress Georgia’s voters of color and young voters. Southerners from all backgrounds have a longstanding tradition of pooling their resources and support together for a common goal. But this is the region of Jim Crow laws, and so very often, as is the case with movements like Fair Fight, these gatherings of support are organized by Black southerners and their allies from both near and far to combat systems, laws, and road blocks designed to maintain white supremacy.
When Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won their run-off elections earlier this year, I was just as surprised to see that victory as my filmmaker friend from South Carolina was to see me at a film festival in New York. I didn’t believe that Georgia could do any better than it had done in the past. I was wrong. My drunk compatriot didn’t believe that I could’ve made a movie worthy of bringing me to that festival in that city. He was also wrong.
I’m not advocating that we mythologize our own trajectory to the point that we lose our footing. I think we should all be realistic about what we’re doing. But, if we listen to one another’s needs, stand shoulder to shoulder and learn from the great leaders within our region, we can accomplish exceptional things while telling the important stories from this region that we all know are here. We southerners have a long history of coming together to confront the outsider naysayers, but we also need to be on the lookout for the naysayers from within, even if it’s within our own mind. If we can, maybe in the future, we won’t be so surprised to see ourselves thrive.
ABOUT ADAM FORRESTER:
Adam is an award-winning filmmaker and artist based in Atlanta. His work has been featured by Oxford American Magazine, NPR, AEON Magazine, VICE Magazine and exhibited at the Historic Center of Kalamata in Greece, Bunkier Sztuki Contemporary Art Gallery in Poland, Weinberg/Newton Gallery in Chicago, Soap Factory in Minneapolis, whitespec in Atlanta, and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. His films have been distributed by PBS, and screened at DOC NYC, IFF Boston, Sheffield Doc/Fest, New Orleans Film Festival, indie grits, and many more. Forrester’s work is held in the collections of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA) in Atlanta, GA. Adam received an MFA in Studio Art from the University of Georgia, and from time to time he reminisces about the moment when jelly shoes and Reebok Pumps were popular.
This piece was commissioned by the New Orleans Film Society for South Summit 2021. South Summit received critical support from JustFilms, which is part of the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression program, and is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.