Brenda Yelvington never told herself she wanted to make a movie. Yet on Saturday night (Sept. 16) she received a message on Facebook informing her she had won Best Documentary at the Fayetteville Film Festival for her feature-length film “Leaving a Legacy,” which chronicles the journey of the 2014 Fort Smith Northside Grizzlies marching band.
“Something put this inside of me, and the film was just a means to the end,” Yelvington told Talk Business & Politics.
Yelvington’s film beat out 11 other selections, including such Arkansas-focused fare as “The Arkansas Wild Man,” the story of 87-year-old musician Sonny Burgess and his final concert, and “Voice of the Razorbacks,” a documentary on the life of Chuck Barrett centered on the 2015-2016 Razorback football and basketball seasons.
“Leaving a Legacy” was the first of those three films to play the festival and the second out of 56 total (16 feature-length, 40 narrative short films). It opened at 7 p.m. on Tuesday (Sept. 12), but managed to leave an impression, getting the nod four nights later.
Yelvington privately funded the $75,000 effort through her production company ST Films LLC. In January, she told Talk Business & Politics she hoped to land the documentary on AETN. She still holds that vision, but is not as certain film festivals are the right market for it in spite of the win, noting other band programs throughout the country had been in touch about staging private showings at their schools.
It’s a path she hopes to pursue in the coming months as the journey has been less about becoming a filmmaker and more about helping young people find their path at the critical stages of life depicted in the film. She has also considered launching a podcast to the same goal.
There were certainly moments of doubt for Yelvington on her almost five-year journey getting the film from idea to finished product. For starters, she had never made a film and didn’t know where to begin. But considering herself a tenacious learner — she is a certified public accountant with a doctorate and has also written and recorded music — she adopted the same learn-as-you-go mindset in her approach.
It made for a long journey, especially when it came to whittling down the 152 hours of footage she and a barebones staff had recorded over a one-year shoot. In typical accountant form, she had a 5,000-line spreadsheet to help locate key shots in piecing together the narrative.
“There were times when it felt like a clock was ticking. The students graduated in 2014, and I would wonder, ‘Is this too old? Am I running out of time?’ But if I paid attention to the clock, I never would have made it.”
Ultimately, the students she features so prominently throughout the film’s 89-minute runtime kept her going.
“Johnny just wants a place to belong. The twins’ parents just want a better life for them than they had for themselves. You feel it. You see it in what they’re going through.”
This universality of the characters and a serious medical issue that occurs in the second half of the film convinced her.
“I kept waffling. I had written this title music called ‘Heartbeat,’ and I got word that event happened (what she calls ‘The Heart Episode’). When you watch and see it, that is what made me do it.”
Yelvington praised Northside’s teachers, parents, students, and band directors for their “openness” in committing to the film, noting the win on Saturday “is not me; it’s them.”
And now that “Leaving a Legacy” is no longer just a large file on a hard drive and cloud server but a film with an audience, Yelvington is thrilled the film will live beyond the Northside High School Class of 2014 and touch the community as a whole.
In fact, while Yelvington was unable to attend the film’s showing, Northside bussed a crew of 40 students to the event.
“You couldn’t fit all of them on the red carpet, and you can tell they’re just having the time of their lives,” Yelvington says.
From the tone in her voice, that seems like the bigger award.