Leaving A Legacy, a feature-length documentary on the 2013-2014 Northside Grizzlies Marching Band, is set for its first public screening on Jan. 19, with the director hoping it also finds air time on AETN – or even Netflix.
The screening follows a reception which begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Windgate Art and Design Building of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS). The film’s runtime is around 90 minutes and represents the culmination of four years of planning, shooting, and editing for first-time filmmaker Brenda Yelvington, who privately funded the $75,000 effort through her production company ST Films, LLC.
The documentary is one Yelvington hopes will soon be available on AETN and Netflix, but as with the process itself, she told Talk Business & Politics in a recent interview, “I’m figuring it out as I go and trying to stay one step ahead of where I need to be.”
The approach has served Leaving A Legacy well if the newly released trailers offer any indication. To get the polished big-screen look, Yelvington supplemented her own “gorilla filmmaking” footage – “Because starting out,” she said, “my stuff looked like a gorilla was holding the camera” – with the professional pedigree of Branchout Studios’ Chris Middleton, who runs a professional filmmaking studio out of Fort Smith.
“Chris shot the pretty stuff, and by the end of the project, I had gotten a lot better,” Yelvington said, adding that it was she and Middleton who locked themselves in a room with Werther’s Original hard candies and spent countless hours whittling down the 152 hours of footage to the final runtime.
True to her background as a certified public accountant, Yelvington created a 5,000-line spreadsheet and would affix keywords to each clip of footage.
“It was searchable so when I was ready to edit the movie, I could access what I needed quickly. I knew the opening, and I knew the ending. From there, I worked completely backwards and any time I needed a shot, I would just search the spreadsheet. Chris worked the editing program, and we’d pull it in.”
As an example, Yelvington said that one of the students in the film is Johnny, a former gang member, and when he would say something on-camera like, “I thought I was safe at church,” she would codename that clip “church.”
“I didn’t know how to do this, so that’s how I whittled,” she laughed, “and since most of the stuff I had either filmed or I was there, things would stick out to me.”
“It still may be longer than what AETN prefers, but we’re hoping they will think it’s a good fit,” Yelvington said, adding that, as with the filmmaking process, distribution has been a “figure it out as I go” thing.
“After attending quite a few film festivals both in-state and out-of-state, I’ve found that (festivals) are the primary way filmmakers get noticed, and so after the screenings, we’re hoping to take this on the circuits,” she said.
Yelvington said she “learned a lot” from attending filmmaker panel discussions at many of those festivals, and that’s a benefit she plans to offer to viewers, who attend the Jan. 19 screening. The “film festival experience” will feature a Q&A with the band directors and seven students (out of 239 total), who are featured prominently in the narrative.
When asked about the challenges she faced getting the participants to agree, Yelvington said the students, band directors, and school administration were enthusiastic and easy to work with on the project. It also helped that Kameron, Yelvington’s now 20-year-old daughter, was part of the band and provided a valuable connection in building trust.
“It always comes back to building trust in the kids, the directors, and the school administration,” Yelvington said. “If you don’t build trust, you’re not going to achieve your goals, and building trust in those kids and never losing sight of why I was doing this project, was what kept me going.”
Yelvington said she was inspired to take on the project after attending a MovieLounge screening of Undefeated in 2012. The Academy Award-winning feature documentary tells the stories of three underprivileged students from inner-city Memphis and their volunteer coach who helps them beat the odds on and off the field. Before leaving the theater with her daughter, she could already “see” the opening shot of Leaving A Legacy, Yelvington said, adding that the next few months were spent talking herself out of it, “but the pull was too great.”
Part of what made the project intimidating was the emotional component behind it all. The students do not lead easy lives, and they entrusted Yelvington to “put cameras in their faces” through the good and bad, the triumphs and disappointments.
“At some point, almost every single person cried, and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ It was hard, but a lot of times we left the camera rolling. Sometimes we didn’t, and I’ve heard never to turn the camera off, but I respectfully disagree because, for me, it always came back to building trust. … Ultimately, I felt I needed to shine a light on something the world needed to see — this group of young people who are going through life with respect and acceptance of one another.”
She continued: “This is a feel-good movie. You will leave feeling good about humanity, good that there are people out there, who are just doing a good job at life, and it will change your life working around people like this.”
The Jan. 19 event will require RSVP. Tickets are $75. Proceeds will be donated to the Northside Legacy Scholarship Endowment, which was established by the film’s executive producers, Yelvington and recently retired ArcBest Senior Vice President Lavon Morton. The Legacy Scholarship fund provides scholarships for two Northside students in each graduating class who attend UAFS. Each scholarship may extend through four years of study. The first two four-year scholarships were awarded in the fall of 2016. Additional screenings — viewings only — will be held on Jan. 20 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 22 at 2 p.m. at no charge.
The Northside High School Auditorium will also feature showings on Jan. 21 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. for a $2 admission fee that will be fully donated to the Northside High School Band program.