Sheffield Doc Fest Features (Part 2): Southern Journey (Revisited) and Elder’s Corner. Other features can be found at Sheffield Doc Fest Features (Part 1)
Elder’s Corner is one man’s quest to understand his roots via a musical family tree. Its various branches include Juju, Afrobeat, and High Life, which musician and filmmaker Siji Awoyinka discovered while living in New York.
Awoyinka travels to Nigeria in order to track down the musicians, with a box of records as his starting point. There is no better way to explore Nigeria’s recent history than through the music, because it reflects the political and societal changes so intimately. War and political changes caused many of the musicians to be displaced or dispossessed.
There is a line of great trauma that runs through Elder’s Corner. The film was many years in the making, and Awoyinka catches many of the musicians just in time. There is a long list of participants who passed away during the making of the film, including E.C. Arinze, Mary Afi Usuah, and Fatai Rolling Dollar.
A lot of the musicians had never revisited their traumatic experiences in public, and Awoyinka does not enter into this lightly. But in his quest to re-record the music he is able to bring joy to them as well as exploring their pain. The new recording sessions take place in Lagos at Decca Studios, where they originally recorded in the 1960s, using much of the original equipment with all of its idiosyncrasies. It is in this setting that the musicians become animated and begin to open up about their experiences.
Siji Awoyinka sets out on a deeply personal journey. In doing so, he discovers Nigeria’s oral tradition, of which he is a product. With Elder’s Corner he creates a valuable document of this turbulent 20th Century history, and context for his music today.
Southern Journey (Revisited)
Southern Journey (Revisited) is a contemporary redux of folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s famous field recording trip Southern Journey. The Alan Lomax recordings have long been a source of fascination for filmmakers Rob Curry and Tim Plester, and this is their second film inspired by the archive.
Curry and Plester are opportunistic. An important quality in a documentary filmmaker. They subscribe to Werner Herzog’s philosophy which is more to do with observation, curation, and no small amount of plundering, than with careful planning and storyboarding. It’s this flexibility that explains the order in which they have made their films.
Southern Journey (Revisited) looks like the film they set out to make in 2017, when they ended up making The Ballad of Shirley Collins. They began with the Lomax archives, but on meeting Collins discovered a different story — one of a singer losing her voice to heartbreak. It was a shrewd decision to run with that story rather than pressing for this one. Curry and Plester were right to put a pin in their original ideas, and allow Collins’s story to take its own direction.
It is through The Ballad of Shirley Collins that the pair find themselves able to fully realise the story of the Southern Journey. Whilst touring the 2017 documentary, they travel (not by accident) along the route taken by Collins and Lomax in 1959. Here they encounter people and places recorded on the Lomax trip. They use Shirley Collins’s memoir America Over the Water as their guidebook.
In much the same way as Lomax and Collins, the pair are received with both warmth and caution. Some are eager to share their views, and others are visibly guarded — wary of being judged. In taking a slice of southern US culture, Curry and Plester strive to be responsible filmmakers. They are aware that it is too easy for editing to morph into censorship, and they are mindful to avoid that.
They present a view of the USA that addresses stereotypes directly. It is refreshing to hear from communities that are often overlooked when it comes to ‘culture’ in America. Southern Journey (Revisited) is scrappy and serendipitous, as much a product of luck as of judgement, which Rob Curry and Tim Plester would be the first to admit.
Sheffield Doc/Fest, short for Sheffield International Documentary Festival, is an international documentary festival and Marketplace held annually in Sheffield, England.
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