Southern Belle

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 is a unique insider’s look at the 1861 Athenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South attempts to rise again.

The camp is held in the historic headmaster’s home of what was originally a four-year college for young women from 1850-1920. Never before have cameras been allowed to closely shadow the students and teachers during this intensive week of historical reenactment. 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. For them, the Civil War had more to do with states’ rights and unfair taxation than slavery. 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.”

Orman started the 1861 Girls School almost twenty years go to create a living history experience that captured the essence of what young women would have experienced during that time. He says, “The important thing that happened here was that women were recognized as being able to learn and retain and do as much as men.”

Gaining unprecedented access to document the camp’s daily activities, gave Conkwright and Makley an opportunity to capture a world rarely seen by outsiders.

“Our intention was to immerse the viewer in this world as if they were also attending the camp,” said Conkwright, “ultimately giving them space to make their own judgments about the representation of history surrounding the most contested and violent event in our country’s past.”

For Makley, watching the campers recreate the period may be hard for some to watch. “I think women today who did not grow up with these traditions or are unfamiliar with these customs,” she said, “may cringe a little during some of the period lessons on etiquette, dress, customs and manners.”

The film’s score is an original collaboration between the filmmakers and local producer/artist Neilson Hubbard. Hubbard used a mix of Lomax folk recordings, blues, rock and roll, and period southern instruments to create a distinct voice, capturing the tension between the past and the present. Sometimes eerily haunting and unbalanced and other times flirting with the edge of sentimentality, Hubbard’s score musically distills the complicated, multi-layered world of Southern history and tradition.

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