I am sitting in the front seat in a white van with seven other filmmakers. As we pull away from the airport heading to Birmingham proper, we introduce ourselves to the others. Our films have been programmed to play at the Sidewalk Film Festival and everyone is happy, including our driver, a red-faced, cherub cheeked, gap-toothed man. He hands a festival poster back for us to sign.
“You never know when one of you might become famous,” he says. “might be worth something some day.” We all sign it.
I’m in this van by accident. I’ve taken a respite from the exorbitantly expensive hobby of submitting my films to festivals, though, apparently, under the influence of coffee or wine, I shot off a submission in a random, unfocused manner and got accepted into the line-up.
The acceptance email was lost in the shuffle and swirl of my post-burglary emails, my acclimation to my new technological landscape on the slow side. Inspired, by one of my new anthem, I pledged that “living well is the best revenge” and that no drug-addled thief would stop me from playing in this random festival. I nearly blew up my computer first searching for files of the film ,then downloading software that could actually open it on my fledgling computer. The discovery of an egregious continuity error, one that I had missed despite my weeks of editing, watching, editing, watching, threw me into a tail spin. I considered surrender. But then I pushed it from my mind. I will do this, I told myself. And, somehow, I did.
I wasn’t planning to go to the festival. And then I was. And then I wasn’t. And then I was. And then I wasn’t. And then I ran into a dog walking buddy who programs films for festivals. “You have to go,” he said. “It’s one of the best festivals out there. And it’s so much fun.”
So, I decided to go. And then I decided not to. And then I decided to go. And then I decided not to. And then I booked a flight on miles and a hotel room reservation on my credit card. And then I packed my things in boxes among the deadly drilling of deconstruction outside my apartment window and the smell of entropy emanating from my hoarder neighbor’s apartment, the ego shattering, but successful, attempt to earn my motorcycle license without killing someone, and the vague, head-splitting dive into a major mid-life crisis.
I mean ‘crisis’ in a good way.
And then I decided not to go.
And then I went.
I’m a sucker for a happy-ish ending. Aren’t you?
Of the eight others in the van, one is drives, five make documentaries, and two are animators. One lives in Alabama, one has been at the festival before, one knows all about the festival, but has never been, and six of us have no idea what to expect.
It was great.
It was great because with these others film makers, and the other others I met over the weekend, film makers and film watchers both, I remembered who I am.
In the van, at the party, walking the sidewalks from venue to venue, we label ourselves. Our bright yellow lanyards read ‘filmmaker.’ This weekend, we are special. When asked, we label what we do, how we make our films, the medium within the medium of visual story telling. But as we drink our beers, wine, fruit juice, and soda the labels peel away until we all become versions of each other. We are story-tellers. Every single one of us.
Stories are human. Stories keep us connected. Stories are real. Stories, our silly little, serious little stories are important.
Walking through the streets, I felt a little important, like a toy soldier fighting to keep the doorway of communication open by clearing a path with my stories so that others can tell theirs.
I wonder what would happen if there came a day when every human individual laughed at the very same time. What would all of humanity do with all that joy? Would our laughter cause the mountains to shake?
That was Thursday.
On Friday, I wander into an uptown coffee shop that may or may not a nursery for baby hipsters. The coffee guys are fresh-faced and clean, dressing in white button down and vintage ties, the southern version of their New York City Stumptown Coffee brethren. They don’t speak so much as languidly spill words which run together like soft cloth, even as their coffee breaks through both cream and sugar. It’s the sort of coffee that requires a water back.
This fuel rockets me first into the blazing sun, and then to the Birmingham Museum of Art, where Hale Woodruff’s Talladega College murals tell stories so deep of slavery and emancipation, that I begin to weep caffeine clouded tears.
On Saturday, I wake up early. I need that coffee, I covet that coffee, I desire that coffee with such a fever that I’m pulled from my hotel room into the sweltering streets. Before the street is the lobby and before that, the elevator, which packed with twelve orange shirts. Smiling, chattering people, boldly stating that “all lives matter,” and that “Planned Parenthood and the MIddle East are monsters.” There is a Glenn Beck rally happening a few streets over from the film festival. Oil and water.
They swarm my coffee place asking a million little questions, struggling with the milk thermos, keeping me from my drug. I leave defeated, yet determined to find coffee somewhere between here and there. A good cup. Birmingham’s street throb with history and heart, a good cup of coffee can’t be that hard to find…
Every corner, ever sidewalk is packed. People with orange shirts. I ping-pong through the crowd. Another good coffee place, another crowd. Where are my people, I silently cry. Where’s my coffee? And for a terrible moment, I ask myself a terrible question. Where are the story-tellers, the glue that hold this place together.
And then, in a moment, I catch myself swimming upstream against the current as scared of the fish I’m surrounded by as they are of me. And I resolve to talk to someone with an orange shirt and ask them what and why.
I do it, too. At the airport the following day.
Some land has a heart beat, some cities, a pulse. Birmingham, I slowly realize, has a soul that expands and contracts with every given victory, every given deception. It’s alive, and it’s flavor is deeply complex.
“What was your biggest take away,” I ask the orange shirt as we line up to board. I know him from the hotel van.
“We’re all one,” he says, “and I should go to church more often. And I wish we had a black Baptist church where I’m from,” he adds. “My congregation back home don’t know how to sing at all.”
Birmingham, I think I have a crush on you.