Curiosity and presence: A conversation with filmmaker Jennifer Crandall

The line comes after 1,326 others, in the penultimate verse of of Walt Whitman’s 52-verse poem “Song of Myself.”

It takes some patience to reach, but the statement is the most famous of the text.

“I am large, I contain multitudes,” wrote Whitman.

But it’s not just the poet who contains multitudes. His point was that we all do.

“This point should be made often,” said Jennifer Crandall, who has spent the past two-and-a-half years creating documentary vignettes of Alabamians reciting “Song of Myself.”

“There’s a largeness in each of us which needs to be celebrated. If you’re giving that to someone else but not yourself or giving it to yourself but not other people, then that’s fundamentally out of balance.”

Crandall’s interpretation of Whitman’s words is beautifully illustrated in her project, “Whitman, Alabama,” which blends journalism and art.

Members of The Creative Minds Dance Crew in Birmingham read Verse 21 for “Whitman, Alabama.” Pictured are Zaniah Bell, DaCorian Campbell, Zykiria Slaton, Hayden Hocutt, Mya Skeete, Tyland Tarver, Christian Campbell, Lamar Moore.

The videos in “Whitman, Alabama” do not attempt to encapsulate participants as a whole. After all, if we all contain multitudes, our entirety cannot be captured in just five minutes. Instead, the pieces show small moments of Alabamians’ lives illuminated, juxtaposed, or intertwined with recitations of Whitman’s text.

In verse 37, for example, individuals report to drug court, and Judge John Graham reads lines like, “Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side.” One of the defendants, Chris Freeman, recites some of the other lines from the verse, mirroring the call-and-response dialogue of the judge’s questions about his progress in recovery.

Bob Miller, one of the filmmakers working with Crandall, said the beauty of the series is its ability to convey that “each person has a story worth telling … while also presenting them in such a normal, every-day kind of way.”

Finding those layers of the ordinary and the extraordinary requires a subtler approach than is common in a media landscape where time and budgets are limited. Crandall and her team said they tried to meet people across Alabama as people first — not just potential video subjects.

Filmmakers Jennifer Crandall and Bob Miller during production of the “Whitman, Alabama” documentary series.

Pierre Kattar, another filmmaker on the team, explained: “I’ve always been deeply curious about people. Who are they? Why do they think the way they do? How were they raised and how does that manifest their thoughts and personalities? I like to think that the people I interact with can tell that I’m genuinely curious about them and I think it helps them open up.”

According to Crandall, that kind of curiosity and presence doesn’t mean all interactions will be sweet and peaceful, but it does allow a way to find connections.

“It can be something contentious, it can be something contrarian. It can be funny or enlightening. Points of connection don’t all have to ones of bliss,” she said.

Miller said: “There’s a lot to say for just being willing to sit with people, and giving them the space and permission to create or show you their own identity, rather than limit your interactions to what you already assume about them. We were surprised on so many occasions on this project.”

Some of those surprises are captured on film. For instance, verse 51 shows Donnie Goodin, a man with cerebral palsy, selling candy and gum from his wheelchair in front of a grocery store. He uses a computer to recite the poem and to chat and joke with passersby. After one of his female customers walks away, his eyes follow. Crandall’s voice comes from behind the camera: “Did you just check her out?” she asks, the amused surprise clear in her voice. Goodin laughs, shoulders shaking, before punching one of his pre-programmed computer phrases: “I got to do what I got to do.”

In the filmmaker notes that accompany the piece, Crandall notes the humor of that moment as well as the lessons she learned from spending time with Goodin.

“If you’re patient and observe people long enough, you get to see who they are through the kinds of relationships they have with others,” Crandall writes. “When Donnie’s working, it’s not merely transactional: the sale of candy. There are richer moments of connection.”

The same could be said for Crandall as a documentarian. By capturing the “largeness” that she has seen in Alabamians, Crandall hopes to allow viewers to feel a connection “with people you wouldn’t normally think you connect with.”

Pilot Greg Koontz read verse 29 of “Song of Myself” from the skies above Ashville.
Teenager Mariam Jalloh read verse 17 for “Whitman, Alabama.”
Bob Tedrow, one of only eight concertina makers in the world, read verse 7 of “Song of Myself.”

The “Whitman, Alabama” series comprises 17 videos so far, with about 20 more being edited now. Crandall says she has heard from Whitman scholars as well as the arts community about ways they plan to use the videos to explore both poetry and American identity.

Crandall lives in San Francisco but says she has more ideas for documentary projects in the South. No matter the location, her future work will likely share some DNA with “Whitman, Alabama.” Crandall says she is “absolutely in love with the process” and will continue developing projects that “are about trying to show specific lives while having audiences be able to recognize something universal in them.”

Editor’s note: In the coming months, select videos from the series will be shared here on a semi-weekly basis.

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