POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? Why did you choose documentary in this case?
Leah Mahan: I make documentaries because I think stories can be powerful tools for social change. As a medium, documentary film combines my interests in oral history, visual representation and the written word. Until I saw a rough cut of Eyes on the Prize in college, I hadn’t imagined that there was a way to draw my interest in these mediums together in such a powerful way. I was inspired by the way it lifted up the voices of the people in the trenches and provided such a compelling vision of what the Civil Rights movement meant to the country. When I’m considering an idea for a documentary I ask myself if there is any other medium that could convey the story fully. When I started thinking about Sweet Old Song I found it was a real struggle to describe Howard Armstrong and Barbara Ward and their connection to each other in a way that did justice to the story I was trying to tell. I knew there was something beyond words that was driving the story.
POV: What generally inspires your interest?
Mahan: I’ve been drawn to people that are resilient and creative in the face of circumstances that would make many others give up or turn away. I’m interested in “untold” stories that shed light on people and communities that have been overlooked or misunderstood. I’m inspired by stories that sneak up on you and challenge preconceptions you didn’t know you had.
POV: What inspired you to make Sweet Old Song?
Mahan: I had a close relationship with Barbara, and I was getting to know Howard when I first talked with them about making a documentary in the mid-1990s. I was intrigued by the two of them as individuals and by the ways they were collaborating in their art and music. I think it was their children’s book that really drew me in. When I started college I thought I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books, but I ended up studying anthropology and film. When I saw the illustrations Howard was doing of Barbara’s childhood I thought it was such an incredible gesture of love and collaboration. Then I saw the huge box of love letters he had sent her over the years — each of which was a unique work of art, decorated with elaborate paintings and poems. I understood so much more about their relationship through these illustrations. The story took on a life of its own, but that was the initial spark.
POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making Sweet Old Song?
Mahan: There was a lot of serendipity at play. I started shooting about a year before I got any funding because Howard had just entered his 90s and I decided it would be foolish to wait any longer for a grant to come along. I had never shot my own footage, so it was a trial by fire. When the funding fell into place (from ITVS) it was just in time to join Howard and Barbara on a music festival tour in the summer of 2000. Then Howard was invited back to Knoxville, Tennessee for an event and we drove the 40 miles to his hometown of LaFollette. The trip to Tennessee was dramatic for Howard because his last surviving sibling had just died. When we found his parents’ grave, he sat on the headstone and sang his mother’s favorite song, about his family being “over there,” in heaven. During that trip I realized that it would be a very important part of the story, and that the documentary I had envisioned was shifting a bit. During the time I was shooting, Barbara had put her own art aside as she was devoting more time to caring for Howard. The story was becoming less about the collaboration between two artists, and more about this stage of Howard’s life and Barbara’s role in it. My last shoot was a few months later in Boston, and within a couple of weeks I got a call in Oakland that Howard had had a minor stroke. He has recovered remarkably well, but if the production had happened just a few months later, the story would have been entirely different.
POV: What were your goals in making Sweet Old Song? And what would you like to see happen with it?
Mahan: There are so many lessons in the way that Howard and Barbara live their lives. I wanted to tell the story of their relationship and invite people to be surprised and impressed in the same ways that I was. I have enormous respect for the fact that they don’t allow themselves to be limited by other people’s expectations. Even as children, growing up in large families with no money, they had confidence in their creative ideas and pursued them. They each had a mentor who shared that confidence in them, and I think that is a key. I think their story shows the power of creative expression to open doors throughout your life — doors to opportunity, learning, memory. In particular, I am doing outreach to arts organizations that serve youth and elders in low-income communities. A grant is allowing me to make the documentary available to these groups on a limited basis, and I hope to build on that.
POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
Mahan: I’ve started working on a documentary about a friend of mine who is from a small community on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi that was founded by freed slaves. In the last ten years the area has been surrounded by development because of the gambling industry, which was legalized on the coast in the 1990s. Just about everyone who lives there is related to the original settlers and is determined not to be displaced or bought out. My friend has lived on the East Coast for many years, but the possibility that his hometown may not exist much longer is unthinkable to him. He’s taking a leave from his teaching position in Boston and heading to Mississippi to help his mother and her neighbors hold onto their land. I spent a few weeks there with him this winter, shooting some initial footage. It’s a beautiful place lined with ancient oak trees and is literally surrounded on all sides by an expanding airport, two highways, a strip mall, car dealerships and an abandoned factory that the EPA has designated as hazardous. I have a feeling that this story won’t have a happy ending. I think that my friend’s struggle to maintain his connection to his hometown will be a rich example of what “place” means in our culture and what it means when our communities begin to look like a homogeneous strip mall.