I’ve seen magic created inside of classrooms. I’ve witnessed time stretch and students see their futures for the first time — watched them realize they hold magic in their minds and helped them harness it. This summer I had the pleasure and privilege of leading eight young minds during a four-week documentary camp in Princeville, the first and only of its kind in this area.
I’m not an educator in the traditional sense, instead, I am a documentary filmmaker from Kinston who understands the importance of leaving a path for younger generations to follow. This is how I practice “sankofa,” a word I learned during my first trip to Ghana in 2016. Sankofa is a word in the Twi language, from the Akan tribe, which translates to mean, “go back to the past and bring forward which is useful.” Sankofa is represented as an adinkra symbol, drawn as a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward and its head turned backwards. The Akan tribe believed deeply that the past serves as a guide for planning the future, and so do I. I also believe that the future lives in the present, and in the hands and minds of our young people.
Princeville rests along the flood plain of the Tar River. In the 1800s this land was disregarded and deemed uninhabitable by white people. After the Civil War, this indifference left it available for newly freed Africans to settle. Building up a community — a home — in disregarded marsh land, my ancestors once called this place, “Freedom Hill” and later incorporated it as Princeville after Turner Prince.
I grew up not too far from Freedom Hill in Kinston, so imagine my surprise when I learned that it was the first town chartered by Black Americans in the country at the age of 22. And to add to the shock value of that late discovery, my first introduction to Princeville was when it was underwater in 2016 after Hurricane Matthew. I was a TV news reporter with NewChannel 12 at the time, doing flood coverage while my hometown was also underwater. I knew then that Princeville’s story wouldn’t fit within a one-minute news story.
I knew Princeville’s past required deeper analysis, and if we wanted to know why this part of our state floods at a much higher rate than other parts, then we needed to know the story of Princeville, North Carolina. That is when the idea for my directorial documentary debut, “Freedom Hill,” came to me.
Four years later, in 2020, we filmed the principal photography for the film, and two years later, in 2022, we premiered the 30-minute documentary at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. And just a few months after that, I found myself back in Princeville staring into the eyes of eight young people from eastern North Carolina interested in learning more about environmental racism, history, and documentary filmmaking.
The inspiration and purpose behind creating this camp was two-fold. On the one hand, I believe deeply that true storytelling doesn’t stop at just storytelling. I believe true storytelling contributes to the work that is already being done in that community and works toward leaving that community in a better place. So, I knew that I couldn’t release “Freedom Hill” in the traditional way; I knew this community, my community, deserved long-term impact work to accompany this film.
I often say being a TV news reporter taught me how not to tell a story. It also showed me how extractive and violent media is to our Black communities. In journalism school, we are taught that police officers, government officials, business owners, etc. are the experts. As an experienced storyteller, I now know that we are the true experts on our stories, and I wanted “Freedom Hill” to showcase that. I also wanted this film to harness the power of us telling our own stories. Thus the Freedom Hill Youth Media Camp was born: a four-week documentary camp teaching Black students in eastern North Carolina how to archive their own experiences and become documentary filmmakers.
Growing up in Kinston, there weren’t a lot of examples for the life that I live now as an independent artist and filmmaker. It was important for me to take what I learned back home, to students not unlike myself. Our students collectively worked on a documentary short about the inaugural Princeville Homecoming, a two-day festival celebrating eastern North Carolina’s rich culture and history. Their film, titled “Coming Home,” will tour the state with “Freedom Hill” as a part of our family reunion style screening series, where our production will sponsor families to host intimate screenings of the film in exchange for sizable grocery stipends.
Most of my students walked into the first day of camp not knowing that becoming a filmmaker was within reach for them; more than half of my students have told me they are now going to pursue a career in film, and those who hadn’t even given college a second thought are now actively seeking out media schools to apply to. I managed to organize this camp with little to no funding and a very small team (myself and just one other part-time worker on the camp, Bianca Jones).
I’ve seen what is possible when you give young people the space, resources, and courage to dream. This was just our first-go at this camp, and I’ve had parents tell me they’ve never seen their child so engaged with something they were learning. It was then that I knew this couldn’t be a one-and-done thing.
I say we created magic because I did this camp with very limited resources, and even still, we managed to change the direction of people’s lives. Much like our ancestors who landed on disregarded land and built up a home, an entire town and community; look at what they did with the limitations, I can’t even imagine what they could’ve done without them.
When folks ask how the camp went, I often am at a loss for words and say, “You just had to be there.” But for the large number of you who weren’t, here is a reflection from one of our students, Viv Ashford, who served as our director of photography (cinematographer) for “Coming Home,” their cohort’s film.
“My time working with this media camp has completely shifted my life for the better. As soon as I logged into our first Google meeting and met all these teens and mentors I would be working with, I knew that this was about to be a big deal for me. I remember ending that first call feeling like I needed to strap down, because this completely opened a new career choice for me that I’ve never really thought twice about. You always know how much goes into a film or production, but I didn’t truly realize I wanted to be a part of that crew until this camp.
I loved that experience, and I couldn’t be more grateful that my first filmmaking opportunity was taught by a person like Resita Cox. I’ve always known that film was gonna be a part of my life growing up in a house where my mom actively worked on films of her own, but Resita was the final little push I needed. She’s almost single-handedly opened my eyes to the film industry. Waking up early and driving an hour everyday to see my crew was actually a powerful feeling for me. Everyone was nice, everyone was understanding, and I honestly don’t think I could’ve had a better team for my first film.
I specifically played the role of the DP or better known as the director of photography, which is just a more formal way of saying I was the camera-man in this production. I had never touched a video camera before this experience and didn’t have a single piece of knowledge on how to work this equipment. Because of Resita, I now know.
I sometimes wish that it was a bigger group just so more people my age could’ve gone through what I have for the past four weeks. It’s changing how I view everything in my day-to-day life. Even though it’s technically ended, I am still learning new things every day that tie right back into the media camp. So a giant thank you to Resita Cox, Bianca Jones, Vonii Bristow, and all of my peers for making my life more clear.”
Freedom Hill is the headlining film at the 2022 Diaspora Film Festival at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center, a sponsor of the Freedom Hill Youth Media Camp. Freedom Hill will screen at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill on September 29, 2022. RSVP here.