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In Features, Issues

Filming the confederate flag controversy

In his film Confederacy Theory, first-time director Ryan Deussing takes a head-on look at the controversy surrounding the flying of the confederate flag over the Charleston, South Carolina State House. While the mostly white constituency of pro-flag supporters argue that the flag is a symbol of non-diluted Southern culture, the anti-flag activists, mostly black, see the flag as a reminder of the South at its worst. In their minds, the flag is a racist symbol of the slavery their ancestors just barely survived.

"I knew from living in the South that the confederate flag exists in a sort of gray area of Southern culture," Deussing says. "It’s an historic symbol, but it means very different things to different people, and that ambiguity is part of why it’s so powerful. I wanted to examine that, and also to document the phenomenon of the last few years, as this long standing lack of consensus concerning the flag and its meaning has transformed from a taboo that no one wanted to discuss into a very public debate, with both positive and negative results."

Deussing attended high school in Charleston and has called South Carolina home for over a decade although he primarily lives in New York City where he works as a film journalist. "When it comes to ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ I like to think I carry dual-citizenship. That’s not always ideal, but in making this film I think it was an asset," Deussing continues. "The question of ‘What is Southern?’ came up all the time and that’s something I deal with every time someone asks where I’m from." It was this question that led Deussing to seek advice from Gill Holland, who had just finished producing Tim Kirkman’s similarly searching Dear Jesse, about North Carolina senior senator Jesse Helms. Holland ended up signing on as executive producer. Production began in the summer of 1998. Deussing interviewed outspoken individuals from both sides of the argument and attended anti-flag demonstrations and "pro-South" rallies.

One of his greatest challenges was gaining access to prominent South Carolina politicians and convincing them that he didn’t have an ideological or political agenda of his own and was just trying to capture the complexity of the story. One such individual was republican South Carolina state senator Arthur Ravenel, a likeable older man who slouches comfortably in a beach chair on a dock talking intimately with Deussing, only to appear in the next scene screaming highly politicized rhetoric to an angry crowd of confederate flag-wavers. One from the other side of the debate is Tom Turnipseed, a former campaign manager for George Wallace, who has switched allegiances and is now a legal advisor to NAACP. And in a memorable scene, the camera starts in close-up on the faces of several anti-flag activists demonstrating at rally in front of the State House on Martin Luther King Day. The image widens to slowly reveal a crowd of over 40,000, the largest demonstration in South Carolina history. With over 100 hours of DV footage, Deussing is now editing on an Avid in Atlanta, and hopes to premiere his film in early 2000. – Bari Pearlman


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