It has been said that in order to understand America, you must first understand the Civil War. As the country commemorates the event that defined a nation, what we choose to remember — and hope to forget — of our past reveals much about who we are in the present. Southern Belle is a story about how people use history to create their personal identity and shape their values and guiding ideology.
In the summer of 2008, we discovered a camp in middle Tennessee that teaches young women how to become a 19th-century Southern belle. Perplexed by the concept of contemporary girls choosing to return to a time when they would have had very few rights and freedoms, we wanted to document the experience — the only one of its kind in the country.
In this era of hyperbolic opinion and prime-time rants, we chose to observe rather than critique. This approach allows viewers to experience how the camp fulfills a wide range of desires for the participants from simply wanting to play dress up for a week to wanting to feel a connection to ancestors who fought in the Civil War. By enabling viewers to experience what the young women experienced, we believe they can better understand the underlying motivations, rhetoric, and logic of a long-standing American subculture.
The camp operates out of the historic headmaster’s home of the Athenaeum Girls School, a surprisingly progressive college for young women from 1852-1904. For one week every summer since 1990, organizers aim to recreate the life of a student during 1861 on the eve of Tennessee’s secession. While the college was considered revolutionary for its time — teaching a rigorous curriculum in the sciences and math to women — its reincarnation focuses on manners, etiquette, and dress.
Our film follows three young women learning about the history, values, and practices of a Southern belle from 1861. The instructors repeatedly stress how these seemingly antiquated lessons still apply today. The teachers also make little direct reference to what would have been an integral part of the belle’s life: slavery.
What does it mean to re-enact a past that represents only part of the story? How do the young women understand their history if they experience a romantic and nostalgic version of a belle’s life? What happens when the rough edges of history are smoothed out of existence?
As we begin the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we believe it has never been more crucial to examine how historical memory is formed and shared in popular culture, and to ask “Whose history is remembered and what is forgotten?”
Kathy Conkwright, Producer/Director
Kathy Conkwright is co-founder of MakeWright Films, established in 2007. Before becoming an independent producer, Conkwright worked as a staff producer for Nashville Public Television (NPT) and spent nine years in New York working in a variety of roles with Bill Moyers and Frontline at PBS, Turning Point at ABC, and Dateline at NBC. She also served as the senior associate producer on an independent-feature length documentary, Well Founded Fear, which premiered at Sundance and broadcast on the PBS series P.O.V. Winner of multiple Emmy, Gracie, and NETA Awards her credits include nationally and locally broadcast films seen on topics as diverse as political and social history, music, civil and human rights, political asylum, public education, and a federal inmate’s suspicious death, which lead to a U.S. Justice Department investigation. Conkwright has also taught documentary production classes at Vanderbilt and Fisk University and served on two local film boards for a decade. She is presently getting her MFA in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College in New York City.
Mary Makley, Producer/Director
Mary Makley is co-founder of MakeWright Films, established in 2007. Her locally and nationally broadcast programs have won multiple Emmy, Gracie and NETA awards. She has been an independent producer and freelance editor for nine years. Clients include Nashville Public Television, Country Music Television, and Time Life Music. She co-produced a PBS documentary Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, & the Presidency. She co-wrote and edited The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which was acquired by the flagship PBS series, American Experience. Current projects include the first in a series of seven documentaries on the state of children’s health in Nashville, Tennesssee.