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Cotton Hills Farm is a observational film that captures the rural way of life that existed before the coming of cotton mills in the South and continues to exist after. To do this I worked with Jeb Wilson of Cotton Hills Farm in Chester, South Carolina whose family had been farming in the Lowry’s community since 1882.
The film is positioned in the aftermath of the closing of the cotton conglomerate, Springs Global, an economic and economic and cultural presence in Chester since after the Civil War, which moved its cotton operations overseas beginning in 2007. In this context, the film shows the enduring culture and custom of the rural South against the backdrop of globalization.
Additionally, the film portrays the South in ways not addressed in broader representations of the region in cinema. Cotton Hills Farm illustrates an alternative visual narrative of the rural and working class South which is usually represented through violent connotations in the American imaginary through in subgenres such as “hixploitation” and horror films. In turn, alternatives to such negative representations are sorely lacking in more popular cinematic depictions. Cotton Hills Farm offers this alternate view through its form and content, by allowing subjects a voice through its use of observational techniques that allow an alternative pathway of entry into the South for the viewer.
Chester County, South Carolina, in the Piedmont region was once central to the local mill conglomerate Springs Industries, which formed during the U.S. Reconstruction and was central to Chester’s economic and social culture. It closed its last operating plant, the Katherine, in 2007. While starting to visually document workers’ stories during the closing of the mill, I amassed footage quickly. The project morphed into a more comprehensive focus on class, culture, and history that considered Chester County in the context of a long-time reliance on the mills and the contemporary situation surrounding their closure. This wider palette was generated by my interactions with Chester’s citizens around the topic of the mills in informal conversations. I explored Chester’s importance to the South’s long history with mill culture and the ways in which rural- and working- class citizens associated with that culture were portrayed in a broader American imaginary.
Part of this scope included Cotton Hills Farm, a farm in Chester that stood at the beginning of mill culture and now is enjoying one of its most successful periods. I decided to capture the rural way of life that existed before the rise of the mills and so contacted Jeb Wilson of Cotton Hills Farm whose family had been farming in the county since 1882. I explained my project to Jeb, and he allowed me full access to the work being done on the farm. What emerged was Cotton Hills Farm, an ethnographic film about the South in an observational style. The film includes scenes of work during the summer season and follows the daily activities on the Wilson’s farm. Part of the purpose of this film is to provide a counterpoint to what I saw as broader stereotypes found in films about the U.S. South.
Central to looking at the region’s issues analytically can be a question of ethics for the researcher. I grew up in Chester. My grandfather was a doctor for Springs Industries, and my father followed in his footsteps at the turn of the millennium. I also had a vague notion of Springs’s involvement in constructing the Olympic size swimming pool in which I swam competitively during my youth, but had only the vaguest self-awareness of the mills and the work they performed. My family and hometown were obviously impacted by these events. To deny their personal effect on me would be both academically dishonest and ethically suspect. My voice is, of course, present in the film, but it is the obligation of the filmmaker to let the materials speak to readers for themselves, rather than shoehorn them into any type of preexisting theory.
Cotton Hills Farm utilizes a methodical approach that explores the space around the subjects and the subjects’ relationship within that space and to each other, unfolding at an intentionally deliberate pace. To explain any more is to do the viewer’s job. One tenant of observational filmmaking is to allow the viewer to experience the rhythm, culture, and custom through visual nuance. Scenes included herein discover the way people across the racial spectrum work together on a farm. It is the eye of the viewer that must unravel the subtle distinctions of this film, engage moments of reading (or not) the underlying politics, culture, custom, and understand the ways in which Chester’s rural citizens exist. In the process, I hope to show a different side of the rural- and working-class South.
Keywords: Southern mill culture; Cotton Hills Farm; observational cinema; Southern United States; Chester, South Carolina; Lowry’s, South Carolina; Southern farms; Southern Piedmont.
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