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ECU School of Communication faculty Bernard Timberg, right, and Erick Green, center, along with ECU graduate James Gould, collaborated on documentaries that tell stories about rural communities in North Carolina. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Filmmakers Document Life in Eastern North Carolina

By Christine Neff

Erick Yates Green and Bernard Timberg, colleagues in ECU’s School of Communication, open a window to rural North Carolina communities through documentary films.

Two recent projects, “The New Country Doctor,” and “Bunny Saunders: The Mayor Who Stood Up,” examine the struggles of local towns, and the residents fighting for change.

“In just getting off this campus, a whole world opens up,” said Timberg, an associate professor at ECU who co-wrote and served as associate producer on the documentaries. “We use the term ‘under-the-radar.’ These stories are unknown, and they’re wonderful, rich human stories.”

Their first film collaboration, “The New Country Doctor,” features Dr. Mott Blair, a North Carolina Family Physician of the Year who practices medicine in Wallace. By showing Blair’s and his patients’ experiences, the film sheds light on the health disparities that exist in rural North Carolina counties.

The film received grant funds worth $13,478 from the ECU Faculty Senate Research and Creative Activity Grant in spring 2007. Green and Timberg started production in fall 2007 with the help of an ECU media production student, James Gould, who graduated last fall. Experts on rural medicine and health disparities from ECU served as advisors.

The documentary plays out, on a small scale, the complex national issue of health care affordability and availability, said Green, an assistant professor at ECU who directed and produced the films.

“When experts speak about statistics and percentages relative to health care, I don’t always know how that translates on a personal level. But when you go to a smaller community and meet people who are on the edge of the health care safety net, these real life challenges become much more tangible,” he said.

The filmmakers interviewed more than a half dozen physicians before discovering their main character, a fourth generation rural family doctor and ECU medical graduate. “As soon as we met Mott Blair, we thought, ‘OK, this is the physician who can best tell this story. He is a southern gentleman, but he is also a devoted idealist who doesn’t mind expressing his opinions,” Green said.

As the project continued, they realized the story depended more on Blair’s patients. “From the outset, we knew it was a story about a man committed to rural medicine and to contributing to his community. But, in order to articulate that story, we eventually knew that we had to go back to capture the voices of his patients as well,” Green said.

Filming and editing continue on the project, which is expected to be completed in April 2009.

The struggles of rural communities formed the basis of Green and Timberg’s next documentary collaboration, a film called “Bunny Saunders: The Mayor Who Stood Up.”

The idea came from a public hearing about the Outlying Landing Field (OLF) – the Navy’s controversial proposal to install a concrete landing strip for military planes. At the hearing, Green and fellow filmmaker, Hsiao Chu, an assistant professor in the School of Communication, discovered an “amazing personality” in an outspoken resident who opposed the project, Bunny Estelle Saunders, mayor of Roper.

Saunders, they learned, had a rich history in public service. Her father had served as mayor; her grandfather worked with the NAACP. Her mission was to unite North Carolina communities in the grassroots fight against the OLF proposal, which was eventually abandoned in the wake of widespread opposition.

“We knew again that we had a strong character and a topic affecting a rural community,” Green said. “This was another story we just had to pursue.”

The filmmakers received a $6,957 ECU College of Fine Arts and Communication Faculty Grant for the short film, which will be finished this spring.

Both films were screened at the University Film and Video Association in Colorado Springs, as well as at selective screenings at the Broadcast Education Association Conference in Las Vegas and The International Reminiscence and Life Review Conference in San Francisco.

Green and Timberg plan to show their documentaries to the communities and individuals involved, as well as government officials, policymakers and general audiences. The hope, said Green, is to “open a window” into these small communities and their struggles through media.

Gould, the former student who assisted with the documentaries, said being part of the filming process was an invaluable experience. Gould said he learned, not only from the technical process of filming, but also from the content of the documentaries. “Both stories have been encouraging to me because they both show people making a difference in their community and the world around them,” he said.

Other film projects are in the works. In future documentaries, the filmmakers intend to continue calling attention to health and environmental issues that affect the underserved communities of eastern North Carolina.

The experience of working with local residents in rural towns has been rewarding, they agreed. “You learn so much more when you go out into the world of this region and listen to people,” Timberg said.

The colleagues have also enjoyed involving their students in film projects. In Spring 2008, they involved students in a service-learning project that produced public service announcements for HOPE Station in Greenville, a mental health center for peer counseling and support.

This page originally appeared in the March 20, 2009 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at