Michele Fazio & Jason Hutchens: Documentary Filmmakers and Professors
by Mark Canada
Dr. Michele Fazio is a scholar of American literature, contemporary U.S. ethnic literature, and working-class studies. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English, Theater, and Foreign Languages at the University of North Carolina Pembroke (UNCP). Dr. Jason S. Hutchens is a 20-year veteran of video production who has worked in corporate, freelance, and educational environments. He is currently an Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Mass Communication at UNCP.
Their feature-length documentary film, Voices of the Lumbee, makes a unique and valuable contribution to an understanding of North Carolina folklife. Three years in the making before its debut in April 2014, Voices of the Lumbee captures the culture, religious and economic life, and work history of the state’s largest American Indian tribe, as well as the tribe’s roots in Robeson County. I have seen the film, as well as the warm welcome it has received from the Lumbee people. It is a remarkable piece of work for a number of reasons.
The most obvious strength of Voices of the Lumbee is its content, which is both diverse and revealing. The film summarizes the Lumbee tribe’s history, which stretches back hundreds of years, but focuses on the very recent past and, most importantly, the present. It tells, for example, the story of the tribe’s struggle to achieve federal recognition, particularly the negative consequences of changes in its name. Here, too, is the story of economic developments that, over the past few decades, have presented formidable challenges, particularly after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which led to devastating factory closings in the Lumbees’ home area in and around Robeson County. Through candid interviews with various Lumbee people who lost jobs or suffered from the impact of the 2000 and 2007 recessions, the film captures the personal side of economic downturns. The dominant message of Voices of the Lumbee, however, is one of strength, joy, and tight community bonds, not only in Robeson County, but also in Baltimore, Maryland, where a separate Lumbee community has developed and thrived.
Through footage shot onsite in both locations, the film brings to life a lively faith community, a successful family business, foodways, music, the tribe’s annual powwow, and some impressive and inspiring endeavors in pursuit of constructive change. Various parts of the film represent Growing Change, an organization that gives at-risk teenagers, some of whom are Lumbee, a chance to grow through sustainable agriculture; Sacred Pathways, which serves the poor with food and clothing; and an annual music series called Peace in the Park. It is worth noting that all of this content is expertly presented on the screen. Indeed, the film recently was honored by the Broadcast Education Association with a first-place award.
Less obvious but equally impressive is the way the film came into being. The story behind the story that the film tells, in fact, is itself a contribution to the appreciation of folklife, since much of the film grew out of a service-learning project conducted by Dr. Fazio’s students at UNCP. Thus, this aspect of the project helped to create a new generation of North Carolinians who can carry on the tradition of studying and capturing the state’s folklife.
The third chapter in this story is the electricity it has generated in Robeson County and beyond. Almost 700 people flocked to its premiere at Givens Performing Arts Center on the UNCP campus, and Dr. Hutchens and Dr. Fazio heard from scores of people writing to express their appreciation, convey lessons they learned from the film, and applaud the work. That, however, was only the beginning. The filmmakers have shown the film at a conference in Texas, where it drew more praise, and have submitted it for possible showings at film festivals in Nashville, TN; Austin, TX; Atlanta, GA; and Durham, NC. They also are thinking of pitching the film to various international film festivals and are seeking a deal that could result in distribution across the country. Meanwhile, a companion website (www.voicesofthelumbee.com), which chronicles the production of the film in great detail, has been viewed nearly 8,500 times as of early Fall 2014 by people in the United States, the Republic of Korea, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, and Spain.
This combination—a well-made film that effectively tells an inspiring story, a process that itself advances the appreciation of folklife, and a warm reception that testifies to its impact and future potential for telling the story of NC folklife—is unique, powerful, and, to my mind, worthy of recognition.
Mark Canada is Chair of the Department of English and Theatre as well as Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at UNCP. He received the Board of Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2008, and is the author of Literature and Journalism in Antebellum America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and numerous articles. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Edgar Allen Poe Review and the Board of Directors of the Thomas Wolfe Society.
Canada, Mark. “Michele Fazio & Jason Hutchens: Documentary Filmmakers & Professors.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 61-1-2 (2014): 11-14.