The first annual Boone Docs Film Festival took place on Saturday, February 27. The runtime of the festival was three hours long, with the 11 short films divided up into three hourlong blocks, followed by a short Q & A with the videographers. The festival identifies itself as “a collaborative project between Appalachian State University faculty and The Appalachian Theatre with a shared goal of providing a creative platform for authentic stories about the beauty and complexity of Appalachian life and culture that extends beyond common stereotypes.”  The evening of films was a reminder that struggle is frequent in the high country and that the positive spirit of its people will always prosper and lift each other up.

The unexpectedly emotional evening was filled with various short films (mostly documentaries) that focused on topics ranging from grief and loss, pollution and restoration, small-town stars, a motocross prodigy, art and dance, and LGBTQ+ inclusion. The organization of the films was well executed because similar topics were not shown next to each other. Films containing topics of depression or loss would be followed by a separate inspirational story of hope and community collaboration. The balance of topics created a rollercoaster of emotions within me, and the fluctuation of topics contributed to my overall engagement during the entire evening.

Each film was in some way reminiscent of the spirit of the Appalachian Mountains, whether it be songs, sights, or a familiar personality. Three of the night’s offerings, “Wild and Scenic,” “26 South Main St.,” and “Bright Morning Stars,” are all films that focus on topics of a rapidly changing environment.

“Wild and Scenic,” by Jesse Barber, focuses on the ecological destruction outdoor recreation and the logging industry have had on Wilson Creek and the non-profit that has devoted a team to keep the river clean. The team’s formidable efforts will help to restore the natural beauty of the river for generations to come. This film also serves as a reminder to consider your own impact on the land when visiting other scenic locations. Not every climbing spot, hiking trail, or river entrance has a team like the one at Wilson Creek taking care of it, so we should help.

“26 South Main St.,” by Gabi Metzger and Brooke Randle, takes a look at the shift in Marshall, North Carolina from a manufacturing-based economy to an arts-based economy. Similar to many rural towns in North Carolina, Marshall had to recalibrate. The story focuses on a family-owned hardware store and its quirky Southern owner, whose attitude is unphased by the decline in visitation at her store. The town was given a new breath of life when artists took up residency in the abandoned county jail. Thanks to the new influx of art tourism in Marshall, the store has seen many new customers.

“Bright Morning Stars,” by Ethan Payne, was the Judge’s Award winner and tells the story of two inspirational women who have become leaders in their community following the post-coal era in Eastern Kentucky. Mable and Gwen Johnson bound together through tumultuous times and started a community center and bakery that revived the spirit of their town. The community center and bakery were mere accessories for Gwen and Mable in spreading their positivity throughout their community. The two women carried the history of the town with them and have impacted the future of it.

My personal favorite was “Brother Samuel Tate: A Life on Air,” by Willard C. Watson III. The documentary was about the lifetime of a local radio host and DJ named Samuel Tate. In 1983, he built the first radio station in Blowing Rock, North Carolina and has become widely known for his Gospel Gems, an “oldie-goldie Black gospel show.” It was a particular pleasure for me to watch this film because I grew up hearing my mother play Tate’s show in the car, and I had never known the face or the story of the man behind the microphone. The life of Brother Samuel Tate is truly remarkable, and the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum (BRAHM) is hosting an exhibit to honor his legacy in June of 2022.

The fan favorite was “Alchemy,” by Bridget Fitzgerald, which tells the story and tribulations of a glassblowing artist named Rebeccah Byer as she navigates the loss of her brother from ALS. Byer struggled growing up in traditional schools and was without direction until she discovered glassblowing. A few years after her brother’s death, she founded The Olio in 2014 as a place for healing and growth for her and her students. Ever since it opened its doors, Byer has focused on “engaging young people and empowering them with valuable entrepreneurial skills.” The documentary also focuses on the strong bond Byer has with one of her apprentices, Lucy McGinnis. Lucy has struggled with being bullied and harassed her whole life for being trans, and The Olilo has become one of the few places where she can be herself. It was powerful to see the strong bond Lucy and Byer shared. I do not doubt that Byer will continue to love, inspire, and change adolescent lives.

“Alchemy” felt particularly poignant because I have spent my whole life in the South and have seen many voices minimized by conservative outlooks and politics. I appreciate the willingness of the Appalachian Theatre to select multiple films that discuss topics in the LGBTQ+ community. Many people do not think of LGBTQ+ representation when they think of the South, so it was heartwarming to see marginalized groups of people accepted and loved by their community.

I believe that The Boone Docs Film Festival did an excellent job of capturing what is so special about the high country, the people. The people are here to support one another when times get hard, and their communities rally despite adversity. Each film at this festival accurately displayed the charm and resilience of the people in our fine state.