You probably haven’t spent very much time thinking about Kannapolis, North Carolina. I grew up less than an hour from Kannapolis, and I can’t recall a single stray thought I’ve had about the town. But, before I saw Jenny Scheinman‘s Kannapolis: a Moving Portrait, a friend reminded me that Kannapolis was the hometown of Dale Earnhardt. There’s a statue there and everything. So it has that going for it.

Our collective disinterest aside, the city of Kannapolis is the focus of Scheinman’s ingenious and moving amalgam of film and live music. Presented by UNCW Office of the Arts at Kenan Auditorium, Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait was a truly unique experience that incorporated folk-inspired compositions with rare archival footage. Part of the unique experience of Kannapolis lies in its odd origins. During the pre-war era of 1936-42, H. Lee Waters, an out-of-work photographer, devised a clever way to make a living. He’d go town to town in North Carolina and film the folks there going about their daily lives. Dancing, laughing, walking to work, stray images of women shying away from the camera, or a little girl doing the hula. Images of people. Sort of a proto Funniest Home Videos, but with fewer pratfalls. He would then play the footage for the townsfolk. They would come in droves. Waters’ work would remain a rare time capsule, showing how life was in Depression Era, USA. But more importantly, these ghosts from the past show us glimpses of ourselves, revealing how little it is that things change. You could very well put Waters’ footage on the Voyager space probe as a way to show intelligent life what we’re all about.

Enter phase two of the project. Some 80 years since Waters’ initial filming, a DVD preserving this footage was given to musician Jenny Scheinman. Working with filmmaker Finn Taylor, they created an engaging and ingenious multi-media event, juxtaposing Waters’ edited footage with Scheinman’s live musical compositions. As the title implies, the project focuses on one city that Waters captured in particular: Kannapolis, NC. Once called the “City of Looms,” Kannapolis was at one time a burgeoning center of industry and the home to Cannon Mills, then the largest employer of textile workers in the country. Scheinman’s and Taylor’s artistry craft a thematic dance of images, telling the story of a city surviving, and even thriving, during the Great Depression. We return to certain images again and again – the constant being the ever-present loom that seems like the hearth at the center of town. We see a town brimming with life, with hope, and with endurance.

But I haven’t said anything about the music, and there’s a lot to be said about it. Playing alongside musicians Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe, Scheinman’s folk music, Appalachian-inspired, is at the heart of the experience. The multi-talented string trio presented us with an array of guitars and banjos, with Scheinman’s nearly ever-present violin leading the way. Scheinman’s infrequent but rewarding lyrics provided us with stray commentary. The music elevated the imagery, telling us a story from a bygone era. So when we saw a little girl dancing in the street, the banjo and guitar accompaniment made it seem to us that she was starting a flash contra dance. The excitement also gave way to beautiful longing and left us wondering about the interior lives of the film’s subjects. A stray street sweeper became an artist in his own right when dancing alone in the street to a waltz only he can hear. The town came to life with this music, and when the images synced up with Sheinman’s compositions, it felt like magic.

The film invited and warmed us, and the juxtaposition of the music and the footage mesmerized us, like the flicker of a flame. And that was all good and fine, but the more interesting and important stories were the images we didn’t see. This was rural North Carolina in the 1930s and early 40s. Where are the “no coloreds allowed” signs? The separate water fountains? The KKK rallies? So when Scheinmann sings, “I’m going down to the city of looms. Can share my cooties with who I choose,” we have to remember that we’re talking about a time and place where cootie sharing between white people and black people was strictly prohibited and policed. There was at least one moment of commentary on this, when we saw a shot juxtaposing images of two schools: one white, one black, a gentle (if fleeting) reminder of a segregated era. But we can’t blame Scheinman and Taylor for this white-washing: The nature of the project set out by Waters could not capture those images. It wasn’t in Waters’ job description. However, the fact that Waters shot images of black people at all, and showed their day-to -ay lives (side by side the lives of white people, no less) feels like a rare triumph for a filmmaker of that time.

And although Scheinman is careful to remind us in one of her songs, “The good ole days are just a lie,” I’m still left with the lingering feeling that, intentional or not (and I’m sure it’s not), the nostalgia of the film gives the whole thing a very capitalist-propaganda, “Make America Great Again” feel to it. Places like Kannapolis are the towns that the unpredictable boom and bust cycles of our economy have failed tremendously. (Cannon Mills laid off its workforce in Kannapolis in 2003, a wound from which the town has yet to heal.) Towns once brimming with life, just as Waters captured them, have now turned to opioid addiction and Fox News for relief. The reassurance and nicety of Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait is the knowledge that the economic depression the subjects of the film are enduring ends with one of the largest economic upswings in the history of the US. It is a troubling thought for us as we leave the mesmerizing portrait of a town that suggests the reality that our own crisis (economic, ecological, political, you name it) seems to only be beginning.