April 13, 1999
by R. Bruce Brasell
In general, there are not many filmmakers in Mobile. So those that exist work against great odds, including that of isolation. An independently produced film or video typically takes years to complete as a filmmaker struggles to earn money to finance his or her projects by producing commercial ones, by groveling before the various not-for-profit and governmental organizations that provide grant money, or by sweet talking an organization or company into sponsoring it. For example, the classic early documentary film Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922), about Eskimo life, was underwritten by a fur company. Regardless of which avenue a filmmaker pursues, completion of an independent documentary necessitates endurance and faith in order to reach the final goal of creating a film or video. And accomplishing that goal deserves a celebration. One local documentary maker who just recently completed a new video is Manning Spottswood.
When I asked Manning how he became interested in making documentary films he told me that while serving as an Information Education Officer during the Korean War he often used films to explain to soldiers why they were fighting. "When I got out [in 1952]," he said, "I decided that might be a good occupation, so I went into making documentary films." One of the first films he made was Historic Mobile in 1959 for the Historic Mobile Preservation Society. The film included a number of re-enactments of historical events in the life of Mobile performed by local thespians. In his four-decade-long career he has made over 200 films and videos.
His most recent documentary is Pathfinders. When traveling Manning would pass historic sites and museums. So, as a result of his personal interest in history, he began shooting and collecting material related to them as well as interviewing people. He also spent time in some of the region's archives. He knew that one day he would create a history documentary out of the film and video footage, photos, and slides that he had collected but just was not certain exactly how he would eventually shape it. "When I was collecting all of these materials I wasn't thinking specifically about the tri-centennial," he told me. But once he sat down to sort through his materials, given that the tri-centennial of the founding of Fort Louis de la Louisiane by the French in 1702 was quickly approaching, he decided to focus the documentary on the French period of southern history. (For those not aware, Fort Louis de la Louisiane was the original name for Mobile.)
Manning informed me that one of the primary forces providing him with motivation for this particular documentary was an article he read in the newspaper in 1990. The article described the results of a history test a professor at the University of Alabama gave to around 1,000 high school students across the state. The test results showed that the students had a gross lack of knowledge about basic historical facts such as when the civil war occurred, what was the Cold War and the Holocaust, who lead the Protestant Reformation, and who wrote the Communist Manifesto. Because young people are now more geared toward visual based texts (film, video, and TV) rather than written ones (history books), Manning thought he would write history through the visual medium. He told me that students unwilling to invest two weeks in reading a thick history book might be more willing to spend thirty minutes watching a video or film.
Stylistically, the 37-minute-long Pathfinders is very traditional, composed of a voice-over narration by Graham Timbes, accompanied primarily by visuals of still shots and photos. Manning pointed out to me that "If you change scenes quick enough, people don't miss the motion." Although the documentary focuses on the French attempts to settle the area between the Mississippi River and Pensacola from the Gulf of Mexico northward to present day Tennessee, it actually begins with an exploration of the American Indians who originally populated the area prior to the Frenchmen's arrival. The documentary is full of historical facts about France's attempt to establish the southern end of a dynasty that it hoped would stretch eventually from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to present day Canada where it had other colonies. In addition to the expected traditional type of historical facts, the documentary also includes information about the cultural, social, and religious life of the French colonist, for example the story of the cassette girls. (But no more about it from my keyboard fingers. You'll have to watch the video to find out the story if you don't know it already.)
A VHS video copy of Pathfinders, packaged along with Spottswood's earlier 27 minute long documentary Historic Mobile, can be obtained for $19.95 from Spottswood Video/Film Studio at 2520 Old Shell Road, Mobile, Alabama, 36607. The telephone number is (334) 478-9387.