The Panola Project Team at Sundance Film Festival 2022

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The short film selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2022 includes “The Panola Project” directed by Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine. CineVino’s Wesley Marsh virtually connected with the production team of “The Panola Project” including Rachael DeCruz, Jeremy S. Levine and the film’s composer of  Jermaine “Maineframe” Fletcher to discuss the filming that chronicles the journey of Dorothy Oliver.

“I think we were just really into this idea of like what is a film that we can tell right now. We don’t have to ask anyone elses permission, nobody else needs to like come on board at this point, we’ve got a camera, we’ve got the two of us, let’s go do something.” – Jeremy S. Levine

Jeremy S. Levine: Hey, yeah so I am Jeremy and this is Rachael DeCruz, we’re partners in life and working on some creative projects. We are really excited to be hear talking with you.

Wesley Marsh: Good, good, so tell us a little bit more, just give us a little overview about about The Panola Project?

Jeremy S. Levine: You want to go for that? (to Rachael DeCruz)

Rachael DeCruz: Sure! Yeah so the Panola Project is a short film that follows the work of Dorothy Oliver in her community in Panola, Alabama where she is working tirelessly to insure that her full community is vaccinated and has all of the information if they need to get vaccinated. So the film chronicles her journey and through her incredible, incredible effort she was able to get 99% of her community vaccinated in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

WM: Very good. Definitely a story that needs to be told. So, tell me. How did you learn about Dorothy’s work in Panola and what actually drew you to this project?

Jeremy S. Levine: Yeah, you know I think we were really uhm, you know, we all know it’s been a rough few years. It’s just been one thing after another and we were living in Alabama at the time. This is about a year ago now and it had been a year of the pandemic and miraculously Oh my G*d we have vaccines and there was light at the end of the tunnel. And you know, there were a lot of people who weren’t getting the vaccine whether they are not able to or they have fears about it or whatever that is and all of sudden it just kind of feels like we are back in some downward spiral that we can all relate to. And so it was a really conscious effort on our part to find a story that could bring us hope and bring the world hope. A lot of my work in the past has dealt with some really hard issues and sometimes it’s important I think to tell those hard issues that are sometimes just depressing and I was like I cannot do this right now, I need a story that is going to kind of lift us up. And we read an article about this woman who was kind of running her own vaccination campaign in her community and she was doing it all from this convenience store she was running out of a mobile home. It sounded like the kind of story we wanted to tell. We drove about an hour and half or so to go visit her and yeah, she was kind of amazing from the beginning. We were just so inspired and taken by her from the first moment we walked in that door.

Dorothy Oliver appears in The Panola Project by Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jeremy S. Levine.

W.M.: Good. So, tell me more about working with Dorothy. What type of insights did she give you into her community and her initiative to get everyone vaccinated.

Rachael DeCruz: Dorothy is a Super Hero. She is just like an incredible, incredible woman. Deeply driven, deeply committed to her community and it really comes across in the film. And so, you know I think this film wouldn’t have been possible without her. Obviously she is the main character of the film that we are following but also the vaccination rate would not be as high as it is in Panola without Dorothy’s efforts and a lot fo that is the deep relationships and trust she has with community members. And so, because Dorothy is so well respected, because every body knows each other in Panola, it is a really tight knit community, that gave us a level of access that I think would have been really challenging for us to get if it wasn’t for her. And you know throughout the whole time continued to be amazed at her persistence and her ability to say we are just going to keep going until we get every person in this community vaccinated and even when you know some hard conversations or conversation that maybe didn’t go as she expected or as we hoped it really felt like she was like “okay, I am just we are going to dust myself off, I am going to go get some sleep and tomorrow we are going to try again so that spirit was really for me it was personally something that I felt I took away from the work with her.

Jeremy S. Levine: And you know I think it’s so true, the same kind of level of persistence and that like dogged effort to get everyone vaccinates right, she is doing that for the film too. She’s in many ways like a coproducer there. We are going to go do this thing, you can’t stand in Dorothy’s way if she says we’re doing it we’re doing it. So yeah, she is was a huge part in making the film come to fruition.

W.S: So when you started working and researching on this project, when did you know, or did you have a strategy in place I should say to make this film and when did you know that you actually had a story to tell here.

Jeremy S. Levine: That’s a great question. You know I think that we’ve got some longer term projects that were working on and were super excited about but it takes time, it takes resources, you know we are applying for grants and were trying to get partnerships and support and we’re doing pitches and all that stuff. And it just takes so much time and meanwhile there is a pandemic that makes traveling difficult and makes literally doing anything beyond getting out of bed and even getting out of bed, it makes that difficult too. And so I think we were just really just into this idea of like what is a film that we can tell right now. We don’t have to ask anyone elses permission, nobody else needs to like come on board at this point, we’ve got a camera, we’ve got the two of us, let’s go do something. And this was a very different process than a lot of the other projects that I work on where you know I think we would keep brainstorming “what do we need to tell this story?” but there was way less of that planning stage then I was use to and way less of that justation phase you have to do when you are pitching to other people and it was way more of kind of an organic process of kind of like let’s go and see what happens and then things kept falling like they were falling into place and we were like oh. Was it our first day filming when she kind of drives up on ledenzo’s lawn and he’s hesitant to get the vaccine and Dorothy has this amazing 45 minute conversation with him and by the end of it she convinces him to sign up and get the shot it was incredible to see that.

LaDenzel Colvin appears in The Panola Project by Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jeremy S. Levine.

Jeremy S. Levine: And so we were like okay, maybe we’ve got something here and you know, I don’t want to get too much away from the film but we show up on Vaccine Day she managed to get a vaccine clinic to show up in Panola Alabama it is a super rural community and otherwise it is 40 miles away to the closest place to the shot and a lot of people don’t have cars so it is kind of a huge deal that she is bringing this clinic to Panola Alabama and so we are filming that day and this drama happens where you know it is unclear who is going to show up that day and I think after that there were moments that were like oh god this isn’t going t work and we’re feeling as stressed and hopefully that comes across in the film as well but at the end filming that day we were like oh we have actually have kind of a full arch for a short film here. So yeah, it was a really interesting experience to just be open to whatever the world would bring us.

WM: Yeah, very interesting. Honestly, when I was watching the film myself, I thought it was really cool how it opened with the shot of people riding horses. So this speaking to the aspect of it being a small town from the moment it opens the film, you kind of already get the sense of it being like this really isolated community because, you know, it’s 2022 and people don’t ride horses to go to the convenience store. But most of the U.S. is made up of these small and rural communities. So how would you say this documentary brings focus to the ongoing push to vaccinate people across the country and communities like Panola?

Rachael DeCruz: Yeah, well, I think it highlights the for us, one of the things that was really important for us to emphasize throughout the arc of the film is just the the structural barriers in place for panola residents in terms of being able to get the vaccine right. Jeremy mentioned the nearest hospital is almost 40 miles away, a lot of people didn’t have cars. They didn’t have access to internet to be able to sign up online to get the shots. They didn’t even know when the shots were available. So there were a whole host of barriers that aren’t unique to Panola are very much kind of embedded in the fabric of rural America, and I would say even more so in rural black communities, right? So I think for us, we were really just wanting to be able to show that so that we can also alongside that, alongside all of those challenges also show the ways that Dorothy and Miss Jackson were really stepping in to fill the gaps right from a lack of investment by the government. And we see that all the time across the country the ways that black women are just stepping up each and every day to protect and care for their communities. And so we wanted to be able to share that story of hope while also opening people’s eyes a bit to the realities that people are facing in rural communities.

Jeremy S. Levine: Yeah, I think it really speaks to, Right; Access is a real issue that we’re going around with Dorothy as she’s trying to get people to sign up for this pop up clinic in town. And you know, there were people who had fears, there are people who had concerns and there were even a few who were just like, reallt, I don’t want to get this. But for the the majority of the folks, it was just like, I don’t have time to get there. I don’t have transportation to get there. That’s like really far away. And so this issue of access is hugely important. And then meanwhile, we’ve got solutions all around us in the Dorothys and Miss Jacksons, in communities across the country who are doing this work right out of love for their own community. And imagine what what they could do with proper support, with proper resources like that would be. That would be incredible. And if we’re looking for hope and we’re looking for a way out of this, then I think that’s that’s a good place to look.

WM: Yeah, love for the community definitely goes a long way. And on a similar note, you guys spoke about how you did live in Alabama for a time, right in Alabama, along with many other states in what is known as the Deep South. They often ranked very low when it comes to many different health metrics. So when you were living in Alabama, what sense did you get of why your state, that state and other states in the south were falling behind in many health aspects, especially as it pertains to the ongoing COVID pandemic?

Rachael DeCruz:
That’s a big question. (laughs)You know, so let’s take Panola, for example. It’s so rural when you think about it’s like like we talked about the hospital being really far away. So even people being able to get an access care when they’re sick, when they need to go to the doctor is kind of this whole ordeal. We think about people’s ability to access healthy food that’s like close by. Right? And that’s a challenge too for rural communities. So there’s all of these ways that institutional and structural racism are shaping the lives of so many people across our country. And those barriers tend to be invisible-ized, right? There’s like a concerted effort when we’re talking about racism, really focus the conversation on individual acts of racism instead of talking about the ways that racist policies are shaping outcomes for people.

Jeremy S. Levine: Yeah, and you know, I do think, too, obviously misinformation is a huge issue. And and the way to combat that is not to get on Twitter and yell at people and think you might want to. Shockingly, that doesn’t seem to move the needle too much. But we can learn from somebody like Dorothy who listens to people, right? Like, she already has this deep relationship with folks. That’s key, right? As our as our communities and our relationships with people in real space for more and more like, we lose that. But here’s the power that exists. You know, when we do have that strong sense of community. You know, she would be able to just have these really intense conversations and she would take people’s questions seriously, and she would find out information and be like, I’ll get back to you on this. I’ll find out somebody who has the answer for you for this if I don’t know it. And and meanwhile, she’s like prodding and she’s joking, and it feels like joyful. And it’s not, you know, I certainly I think, you know, we all want to just be like, No, just do this thing right? Like, I’m right, you’re wrong. Like, I’m going to just kind of out of sheer will and use my anger to convince you that that like you have to agree with me. And that’s not going to work. But if you show up with love and compassion and respect, then and persistence, because Dorothy is nothing if not persistent like you can, you can make real change. And so, yeah, I mean, the issues that are causing low vaccination rates and in southern states are myriad. But I do think that going back to that community and those real relationships is one of the key things that we can do to to try to get those numbers up.

WM: Tell me why you feel it’s important for a space like Sundance to exist in the physical sense where people are actually able to meet filmmakers and everybody comes together and also in the virtual sense like it is this year. 

Jeremy S. Levine: Yeah. I mean obviously community is so hugely important, that’s what our film is all about. We’re super grateful for Sundance. We’re so excited. This is our first film at Sundance. You know, not going to lie we’re bummed we’re not you know, schlepping around the cold snow of Park City right now but you know, any way to connect is great anyway, to build connections is great. I do think ultimately, you know, just like we see in the film right there, nothing takes the place of being in space with people like in a real embodied space, right? Being able to reach out and, you know, just like touch each other right to like be able to see each other’s body movements and see more even somebody from the chest up, right? Like, it’s a totally different experience. So, very much looking forward to future iterations where things are able to get back to some semblance of normal. But but kudos to Sundance for continuing to find a way to make such a huge impact in the film world. And it’s such a hugely important space to build support and to to build momentum for films to find new voices, to promote artists. I mean, it’s it’s really it’s really a privilege to be part of it.

WM: Definitely. Rachael, your background in social justice, tell me how that affected your ideas as a filmmaker?

Rachael DeCruz: Yeah. So I think whenever we’re telling stories about race, it’s complex and needs to be nuanced. And we need to be as filmmakers, we need to be really intentional and thoughtful about what story it is we’re telling and what story it is we’re trying to tell because otherwise, you know, stereotypes and people’s bias just sink in, and it’s like this self-perpetuating cycle. So I think for me, the biggest piece is always and I talked about this a little bit, but it’s like, what are those structural barriers? What are the institutional and structural barriers that we’re trying to excavate for people that we’re trying to give people a window into that they might not notice otherwise, right? Because it feels like it’s just happening, but it’s actually by design. We’ve made a series of really intentional choices throughout our country’s history that have led us exactly to this moment and that have led us to the disparities that we see in our communities today. And so instead of, you know, trying to pretend that that’s not true, how do we actually create a pathway for people to be able to understand that? And how do we share stories that allow us to explore that in ways that kind of connect with different subsets of the population, with different people, in different ways? So I think the biggest thing for me is always this like it’s both the intentionality. And then it’s like, what is the structural story that’s sort of operating maybe under the surface that we need to help bring to the surface for people to be able to see more clearly?

WM: How did you guys get into the film industry? What inspired you to become filmmakers? 

Rachael DeCruz: I can go first. So this is my first film I had never made a film before. You know, My background is in sort of racial justice organizing work, and I’ve always been really interested in communications, work and storytelling as well. So that’s kind of been a part of my career. And then I started dating a documentary filmmaker. And, you know I think film has always felt like a really natural medium for me to be able to both share complex stories and also get to a level of depth and empathy and connection in a way that’s hard, to in other formats. And so I’ve always been really interested in film, although I didn’t know much about the technical background. And so it was just when we were starting to work on this project and we have another feature length film that we’re working on as well. Just the ability to kind of bring some of the skills and tools that I’ve learned, both through organizing and kind of the importance of relationship building, but also from the storytelling parts of my work into a new field feels really exciting to me.

Jeremy S. Levine: And then, yeah, like Rachael said, I got too many projects that are kind of mostly are in those early stages. I’m working kind of along the theme we were talking about. I’m working on a film about an ex white supremacist who’s trying to come to terms with his, his violent past. He’s kind of re he’s found a new identity as a traveling circus performer. But meanwhile, the film is really kind of exploring the differences between concealment and kind of covering up one’s past and actually dealing with it and what is what does kind of true transformation look like. I’m also working on a film that explores the long term effects of the family separation policy at the border, which again ties back to my family’s past and and kind of my body of work. And yeah, also working on my first personal film with my brother that for the first time, it’s like looking at some of our own kind of unresolved past trauma that deals with mental illness through the frame of our shared love of horror films. So kind of all over the place, but excited.