The Civil War may be long over but the spirit of rebellion is hard to extinguish in the South even in something as innocent as a girls' summer camp. Southern Belle, a documentary film by MakeWright Film partners Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley is an insider's look at the 1861 Athenaeum Girls' School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South attempts to rise again.
Every summer, young women from around the world eagerly sign up to become that iconic and romantic image of southern identity: the southern belle, replete with hoop skirt, hat and gloves, singing the region's anthem, "Dixie." The camp is held in the historic headmaster's home of what was originally a four-year college for young women from 1850 to 1920. Never before have cameras been allowed to closely shadow the students and teachers during this intensive week of historical reenactment.
The teachers, all of whom work for no compensation, hope to instill genteel manners and build pride in Southern heritage. Instructor and camp founder Mark Orman explains, "I just don't want the things that our families did to be discounted ... You have to judge things that were going on in the past by the past." They have also carefully selected the time period so they can share the "truth" with the next generation about why the South seceded from the Union. For them, the Civil War had little to do with slavery and everything to do with states' rights and unfair taxation.
Critics, however, say that by promulgating a Southern identity that erases emancipation as a cause of the Civil War and glorifies a disempowered female image, the camp experience whitewashes history and misinforms the next generation. Orman, who teaches high school history, says, "I'm not sure that everything has to be balanced ... The kids ... who come to high school already know all the bad about slavery. It's been taught to them and taught to them and it needs to be because slavery's wrong. But there is a good side too, you know, there was a part of life that was happy."
Is the camp a self-esteem building, living history experience, or does it ultimately reinforce separations between race, gender, and geography in the present? As we begin the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Southern Belle captures the divisive historical memory of an American subculture and challenges us to consider how a romantic portrayal of the past can affect current attitudes that continue to define and divide America today.
- Kathy ConkwrightProducer/Director
- Mary MakleyProducer/Director