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  • Sincerely, Southern

Inside the Ogeechee International History Film Festival

By: Justin Hall, Print Reporter

Ogeechee International History Film Festival was presented at Georgia Southern University Friday, branching into African culture in the U.S. and a journey from Israel.

OIHFF is a festival dedicated to historical films that take place in Europe and other continents. The festival made its debut in March of 2017 and has been representing various films from unique backgrounds and perspectives.

The festival is sponsored by the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau and it gave those in attendance an opportunity to explore various cultures from around the world. Countries such as Canada gave a unique experience as it relates to African civilizations that were present at Fort Pulaski.

Michael Van Wagenen, Associate Professor and Public History Coordinator at the Department of History, spearheaded the event. Van Wagenen was a filmmaker for many years before he became a professor and he has always wanted to have a film festival. Van Wagenen has made 25 films in 10 years.

“I worked with one of my graduate students who was doing a capstone project for her degree, and this is what we came up with,” said Van Wagenen.

Van Wagenen also mentioned that at the time he was a filmmaker, there weren’t too many outlets for historical documentaries and he wanted to devote an entire festival to filmmakers to showcase their craft in this given area.

“We want to do an entire festival dedicated to these types of films,” said Van Waggenen.

One hope or expectation Van Waggenen said that he has is to get a good audience for this festival in a post-COVID world. The festival was virtual for two years, and now that it’s back in person, he would like to see it build up again.

“I want to see it back to what we were and even better than ever before,” said Van Waggenen.

The films that were presented at the festival included the following from the U.S.:

“Black Moses,” “The People’s House,” “Afrikan By Way of American,” “Land Before Land,” “The Hut,” “Cane Boil” and “The Triumph of William Henry Harrison.”

“African Americans at Fort Pulaski” was a submission from Canada; The Voyage was submitted from Israel; Echoes from the City of the Dead came from Portugal; and The Kingdom of Sacrificed Children came from France.

I had the opportunity to view several of the films at the festival and each one of them provided a unique insight into human cultures and behavior, but more importantly, they illuminated a part of the human spirit that has either been ignored or discarded completely.

“Afrikan By Way of American” is the story of Africatown, a historical African American community in Mobile, Alabama. Africatown was founded by a group of Africans who were smuggled into the United States on the Clotilde, the last such ship to reach American shores. In the years following emancipation, Africatown residents built churches and schools, struggled against the restrictions of Jim Crow and fought to maintain their group and ethnic identity.

“Land Before Land” explores the hidden histories of southern landscapes, profiling Stewart County, Georgia’s Providence Canyon, the hydroelectric reservoirs of North Georgia, and the forested southern stretches of the Appalachian Mountains. The film reveals that in each case today’s landscapes cover a long history of human action: southern places that seem natural are, in fact, thoroughly cultural.

“The Hut” traces the history of a structure in Allendale, South Carolina, erected by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The hut served a range of community purposes in the following years, serving as a place for Boy Scouts to meet, a center for dances and cookouts, and then a vital part of the social life of University of South Carolina Salkehatchie. Over the past ninety years the simple structure has become an integral part of the community fabric.

“Cane Boil” was directed by Abbey Hoekzema, an associate professor of the Multimedia Film & Production Division. It’s a documentary film about a traditional sugar cane boil right here in Statesboro. Hoekzema has been a filmmaker for 12 years. She first got wind of how cane boil is made when she was approached by Tyler Hendrix, a history majors student, wanting to make a documentary about cane boil and she agreed to help. Hoekzema and her crew filmed for two days, and it was edited over two months.

Hoekzema hopes that people who see the film take away a piece of the past that is still honored.

“It’s a reflection on memories of a dying practice,” said Hoekzema. “I hope that folks watch it, they can think back on dying traditions in their own communities and perhaps think about why certain traditions die out.”

Historian Julie de Chantal who is also an associate professor at the Department of History at Georgia Southern also showcased a film entitled African Americans at Fort Pulaski.

de Chantal was inspired to make the film after she had just finished a three-year research study and she needed to share the results of her research with the staff of the National Monument.

“In a moment of either genius or madness, I proposed we use digital storytelling to highlight the most important stories from our study,” said de Chantal. “I had previously used digital storytelling in classes with my students and thought that it would be a great way to make the stories that we had discovered come to life.”

The ball got rolling on the project in Spring 2022 and finished it recently. The script was written based on her study and recorded the narration. Once the narration was recorded, she made a rough cut of the movie to see how it would flow. She then modified the script accordingly, and re-recorded the narration. Then the long process of finding the right images and music began.

“There are very few existing illustrations and photographs of African Americans from that period,” said de Chantal.

de Chantal’s goal for those who have the opportunity to see African Americans at Fort Pulaski come away with a better understanding of the people who lived through this time period as well as the themes of freedom and determination.

“The goal of our research was to document the ways in which the African American communities in Savannah and the Lowcountry were connected to the fort,” said de Chantal. “I hope that people who watch this movie will come away with a better understanding of that history. I also hope that these themes stick at the back of their minds when they visit other monuments, forts, and historic sites in the South.”

Another film that was featured prominently at the OIHFF was The Voyage from Israel. This film was directed by the Wexler family who was searching for their relative Sonia. The family had heard multiple stories about when and where she died. One family states she died in 1922 in Libau, Latvia; another says in 1929 in Copenhagen; another states in 1934 in Hamburg.

When Nazi Germany invaded and the family left for Palestine, Sonia wasn’t one of them which is the main focus of the film.

Brian Feltman, Associate Professor & Associate Chair of the Department of History at Georgia Southern was the speaker during the Holocaust and Memory Program. He explained that the film was made for the better part of a decade.

Feltman’s belief is that the film will serve as a reminder to those who suffered in the Holocaust and the effects it still has on those living today.

“I hope the film will encourage people to think about the historical significance of the Holocaust,” said Feltman. “I also hope people will think about the experiences of the survivors and the generational trauma of the children.”

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