University of Texas graduate students Mark Westmoreland and Antony Cherian are not fly-by-night, get-the-story-and-go documentarians. They really got involved with the people of Washington, Texas, for their 48-minute film, Truth I Ever Told.
"We went there to film not every other weekend, but every weekend," says Westmoreland. "We would go back to the town and have screenings. They knew we were trying to give back to the community as much as we could."
That sense of dedication and respect paid off. In Truth I Ever Told, four generations of African-Americans talk vividly about changes in the life of their rural town -- from the final years of the Jim Crow era, when they were sharecropping and picking cotton for $2.50 a day, to the present day, when younger residents' aspirations of moving to bigger cities threaten Washington's sense of community. One elderly lady even admits to attempting suicide -- by downing beer, whiskey and Tylenol -- when the isolation and hopelessness of being left behind by family and friends became too much to bear. The candor of the interview subjects is amazing, and heartbreaking.
The film began as part of UT's "Interpreting the Texas Past" program, a collaborative project with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in which students research a site of historic interest. Westmoreland and Cherian won last year's Zora Neale Hurston Prize for their contributions to African-American folklore, and the film is now part of the permanent collection of the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Park.
Cherian and Westmoreland hope Truth I Ever Told will inspire younger generations, not just in Washington but in every small community, to take stock in their own personal histories. "They can take an active role not just in preserving it, but presenting it," says Cherian, who taught interviewing and filmmaking techniques to some of Washington's teenagers. "It doesn't take much: a mike, a camera and a computer. That's a start."