TORONTO - As a black president gets set to take up residence in the White House, a Canadian documentary maker is heading to the Sundance Film Festival with a portrait of a racially torn Mississippi community.
Paul Saltzman's "Prom Night in Mississippi" shines a light on a high school in the deep South where racism has been so ingrained that separate proms are held for black and white students.
"I was blown away, I thought: 'Really? In 2008?"' says Saltzman, whose film debuts at Sundance this weekend.
At Charleston High School, black and white kids share classes, sports, friends and even fall in love, but when it comes to their final formal, they divide along racial lines to celebrate amongst their own.
It was such a staggering fact that a little over 10 years ago, movie star and former resident Morgan Freeman offered to pay for all the arrangements if the school would integrate the prom. But nobody took him up on it. Saltzman went to Freeman again to see if the offer still stood, and it did.
"Tradition is one thing. Idiocy is another. And to me, this is idiocy," Freeman says bluntly in the film when he meets with school officials to repeat his offer, which they accept.
What unfolds is a remarkable journey by the students, who at first seem indifferent to the school's antiquated traditions but gradually become empowered by the bold decision they've made to stand up for themselves and in many cases defy their parents by celebrating as a single class.
"Mostly it's a journey of the courage and the beauty of these high school seniors in shifting a long tradition of racism," says Saltzman.
The film elicits telling revelations from students like the white teenager Jessica, who says she'd be beaten for socializing outside of her race and the black senior Jeremy, who's had a white girlfriend since Grade 7 but has never taken her out in public on a real date.
The film will screen as part of Sundance's world cinema documentary competition, along with the Canadian film "Nollywood Babylon," a documentary about the Nigerian film industry directed by Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal.
Saltzman says they've also arranged two screenings in Salt Lake City for high school students, and the festival is holding a special screening for its volunteers. In all, "Prom Night In Mississippi" will be shown seven times.
"The timing, in a certain sense of the zeitgeist, couldn't be more remarkable," says Saltzman. "We premiere our film at Sundance on the 17th of January, this coming Saturday, and (U.S. president elect Barack) Obama is inducted into office three days later. I mean, what an amazing period of time for our film to come out."
The film's producer, Patricia Aquino, says getting ready for the festival has brought about a slew questions as they make their Sundance debut.
"Things like, do we need a sales agent? Do we need a publicist? What's it like in Sundance in this regard? And it is, probably, the place where most people that are going to be there in the business are there looking for product or selling product. So it's really important that we prepare ourselves in that way."
But Aquino says their biggest goal is for young people to see "Prom Night in Mississippi" and to be inspired by the remarkable teens who changed history in their town.
"If young kids watch this film and in some way or another, whether a tiny, tiny little way or a large way, they start to actually explore what it is they feel in their own lives about these issues, that's phenomenal."
By Cassandra Szklarski, THE CANADIAN PRESS
|Liveleak on Facebook|