By: Gordon K. Smith
Part of the Texas Competition at the 2013 Dallas International Film Festival is TOMLINSON HILL, an incisive documentary about race and class in Marlin, Texas, about two hours outside of Dallas. It’s the work of producer Chris Tomlinson, a white former AP Bureau Chief in East Africa, and director Lisa Kaselak, an Asian-American filmmaker and SMU assistant professor.
The film focuses on the parallel stories of Chris, as he rediscovers his roots, and Loreane Tomlinson, a black former resident who’s descended from the slaves owned by Chris’ ancestors, slaves who took the family name upon emancipation. Chris and Lisa discussed the film and its companion book and website at a March roundtable interview.
Chris: We found the community deeply divided, and a community in decline. Loreane and others were all trying to make a commitment to making it a better place. Yet they couldn’t seem to work together cooperatively, that became the subject matter. It wasn’t that we went to Marlin to document these divisions, and how people were trying to better the community, but that’s the story that presented itself to us.
Lisa: We’re dealing with a layer of multi-level complexity that has its roots in historical, social and class traditions…so you can legislate out things that are the most offensive, and this is what we’ve done in the U.S. The things that are left that keep communities from moving forward are the things that aren’t legislated, buried in this social and historic tradition. We genuinely liked everyone we talked to. These are lovely people…but it’s not that simple. When you grow up with traditions passed down from generation to generation, and nothing requires you to take a close look at how these traditions affect others in your community, there’s no incentive for you to change them…We’re proud of the people of
Marlin, this is a difficult discussion for them to have, for us to come in and have them talk about this monumentally uncomfortable topic, and then see each other the next day, and continue to interact with each other…Our real access is due to Chris being a fifth generation Texan, in a town named after his family, and that people in this community are really interested in history… Being a woman helps more than anything else. It’s disarming to people. I’m a documentary filmmaker, I’m curious and I don’t have an agenda.
Chris: When I worked in Africa and The Mid East, I was the neutral person…when I was in Falls County, I had a heritage and baggage through my name. I always pointed out that my grandfather left in 1920. It was all a bit strange to me, and important to place myself.
Lisa: Many of the oral histories we collected are now in the permanent collection of oral histories at Baylor.
Chris: There’s so much African-American history in Marlin that has never been recorded. What’s important about the oral histories, not just for my book or the film, is that it’s part of the record for future historians.
Lisa: We have about four terrabytes of footage that took two years to edit down…I learned a lot about how to raise money and write grants. 20% of your time is (spent on) content, 80% is producing, raising money and figuring out the next step.
Chris: Lisa captured the subtleties of what’s going on now in Marlin, with no simple good guys or bad guys. They’re all good people struggling with 150 years of baggage. Poverty is poverty, and some of these folks are caught in a poverty trap. They need some simple things to make their life better, but they also need to show some agency to get things done, and that’s what I captured in the film, how difficult that can be…the whites herd cattle and listen to George Strait, they’re loyal to that lifestyle. The African-American community is much more urban-focussed. In terms of entertainment, politics, how they spend time, what they value, it’s very divided…you have this little white enclave, located just outside the school district lines so they get to go to a different district.
KNOWSHI: One black Marlin resident is seen praising Obama. What does the majority of the population think about the current Administration?
Chris: Actually, most of the residents trace their current situation back to Reagan. In our research, we found people as far back as 1961 saying the area going downhill. Penicillin is what ruined the hot springs business there, which is what made Marlin famous. They had a high degree of sulphur in the water. If you had a skin disease, you would soak in the hot water and cure the disease. Thousands came every week in the ‘teens and ’20s. Once penicillin came and the interstates went around it, it was the beginning of the end.
KNOWSHI: The only outwardly negative comments in the film come from an elderly man, the former mayor. Were there folks who resisted and said, “Why y’all stirrin’ things up?”
Lisa: I can’t even tell you the levels of anxiety I’ve encountered from people about talking on these things. If you’re in polite Southern society you do not bring up these subjects, let alone point a camera in their faces and ask them. So there was a lot of people who refused to talk to us, or wouldn’t say much at all.
Chris: They’d say “Blame the powers that be,” but they wouldn’t give us any names. When you look at these real attempts, like Loreane’s to get a city garden started, no one can draw a line to why it hasn’t been approved. It’s impossible.
Lisa: It goes back to the black experience as to why. The black residents there are descended from slavery, their parents were sharecroppers a very long time – a path to poverty. If they got out, it was in their lifetime, like Loreane. They were pulling cotton up into the ’60, and after…one reason we show the lynchings in the film is to show that it didn’t take that much to keep the population down, so they wouldn’t stand up and question the power structure. It exists to this day.
Chris: It’s very exciting to me to have the film premiere at DIFF. Dallas is my home, where I was born. Considering Dallas history, I think it’s appropriate that we still talk about these topics here in Dallas…on my last trip to Rwanda, I encountered a Hutu who had committed genocide, and had reconciled with the Tutsi’s in his village whom he had tried to massacre. He said, “When you ask someone for forgiveness, you’re taking something from them. You’re making yet another demand on that person, after you’ve already harmed them.” People ask me if I’ve asked the descendents of my family’s slaves for forgiveness. I say no, I’m not going to. What I will do is make this book and this film as an act of contrition, to stand up and say, this is our history. This is what our ancestors did. People think Texas is rich because of oil. Texas has earned twice as much money from cotton than it ever did from oil. Texas economy is built on people who picked cotton. This is my way of helping to tell the truth about that.
TOMLINSON HILL will be screened Monday, April 8 at 4:30pm at the Magnolia Theatre during the 2013 Dallas International Film Festival. For more info go to www.dallasfilm.org