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5 Questions with Alabama Bound filmmakers
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Directors Carolyn Sherer and Lara Embry
The documentary Alabama Bound was co-directed by Carolyn Sherer and Lara Embry and produced by Michele Forman. We talked with them about the film, which airs on World Channel, Sunday, March 18, at 9 PM ET, and on both UNC-TV and SCETV, Monday, April 9, at 9 PM.

Carolyn Sherer

What inspired you to make this film?
I am a still photographer who explores issues related to identity. I work in series, creating images of individuals within a group, compiling a mosaic portrait of a frequently marginalized community to represent both diversity and shared humanity. But I was afraid of the consequences of turning the camera on my own lesbian community that lived comfortably in a don’t ask, don’t tell state— until a crisis pushed me to take action.

One day a friend was keeping vigil by her partner’s hospital deathbed when the family of her beloved locked her out of their home. She was never allowed to move back in. But worse, at the funeral, her close heterosexual friends said they did not realize that the two had been a couple or that gay people could be treated that way. Even devoted allies didn’t know that we lived in a state that lacked a single LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance or law.

In response to that tragedy, I created a series of portraits of my community, Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South. The exhibition debuted at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2012, becoming a defining moment in the conversation about LGBTQ non-discrimination in Birmingham. The exhibition put a face on a previously invisible community, and served as a pivotal point in the shifting conversation about LGBTQ equality in Birmingham.

People now wanted to hear our stories. When filmmakers living outside the state asked for access to my community, I knew natives had to tell our own story.

What makes this a Southern story?
In Alabama some of my peers still struggle to keep jobs, child custody and acceptance from families of origin because of sexual or gender orientation. This is a socially conservative state, where a whisper is often more powerful than a shout. Storytelling in the South has long been a traditional way of passing values and life lessons along. Quietly and persistently.

What were the challenges and blessings in making this movie?
It was interesting to follow the narrative and decide what footage we should capture. While I enjoyed the editing process, the most difficult part was editing the number of participants down to three families. We decided to focus on the legal ups and downs of lesbian families in Alabama. Lara Embry was passionate about following families that, like hers, faced legal battles for parental rights. And although our state adoption laws require parents to be married, Judge Roy Moore actively blocked recognition of the federal mandate to recognize same sex marriage. We worked together to create Alabama Bound in a conservative state where religion has been used to legislate morality, and some politicians stir up prejudice in others to create divisiveness.

It was a blessing to witness seismic social change in my home state of Alabama. I am grateful to have lived long enough to bear witness to the younger lesbian couples now planning careers and families with full expectations of equality.

How did the story change you?
I made this film because I wanted to be sure the story was told from an authentic insider viewpoint, not because I wanted to be a filmmaker. The process was a surprise. I am used to editing the environment prior to a photo session, and then focusing on the decisive moment when everything comes together to visually, in a single frame, tell the story. With documentary film, the task was to follow the continually shifting social and political landscape with little control over the environment. And the people move!

What do you hope will happen after people see this story?
When I started this film, my goal was for America to understand that conservative states needed federal protection to secure minority human rights. Now, I think these stories illustrate what could happen to Americans everywhere when the lines between church and state are unclear. We refer to this new concern as the potential Alabamafication of America, and it does keep me awake at night.

Lara Embry

What inspired you to make this film?
When I lived in Florida, the other parent of my kids tried to use the state’s public policy against gay and lesbian adoption to invalidate our out-of-state adoptions. For a while, she was able to take one of my kids from me and separate them from each other because she found a local judge who misunderstood the Constitution. This was just an awful experience, but it made me realize how elected officials, including state legislators and local judges, can tilt things so dramatically against minority groups. I was interested in telling similar stories when we started filming, and we were very lucky to find families who express this vulnerability so clearly. We were even luckier that these families were so charming, and open, while making history.

What makes this a Southern story?
The South is a very polite place. We don’t like conflict and we don’t like change, but we’ll agree that we do if it's impolite not to. This kind of system really favors the advantaged. It is designed to make the oppressed feel powerless because it is so easy for them to be written off as ‘rude’ for confronting inequalities. The families in our story challenge the status quo, but they are so charming, they thread that necessary needle. Through their charm and persistence, they expose the injustice of treating these families any differently than you would want to be treated. They lay bare the hypocrisy of claiming to support family values, and not supporting families that so clearly share your values. It is a Southern tradition to tell stories that expose the injustices of power, and our politicians add a more gothic element, as their stories just kept getting weirder.

What were the challenges and blessings in making this movie?
The real challenge of this film was that there were so many families whose stories we wanted to tell. We initially filmed over 20 families, who were so lovely and generous with their time. With some of these families, we were very involved: we were at weddings and births, and we really thought we were dedicating a part of the film to them. Then, we had this wonderful luck to be filming the family whose marriage case overturned Alabama’s unconstitutional ban on marriage equality. That set off an unbelievable chain of events in the state involving the couple, Cari and Kim, as well as Patricia Todd, who we had also been following for two years already. We were in the middle of history, and we were so fortunate to have all the backstory already and to just love these people. But, the flip side of that was that we had to let go of so many of the other stories, and that was genuinely sad.

How did the story change you?
When I started this project, I was living in Los Angeles, and I was really interested in how staying in Alabama as an adult, rather than making a decision to live elsewhere, would have been. I found it fascinating that so many people had accepted this bargain of only being out to friends and some family. Then, I started spending time here, filming, and I found that the story is so much more complicated than that. There are so many people here making noise, moving things forward, and I like being a part of that disruption, so I moved home — back to Birmingham — during the filming. Filming this literally finally convinced me that change is possible in the South.

What do you hope will happen after people see this story?
I genuinely hope that people take a greater interest in who they are electing as family court judges and state representatives. We need to support LGBTQ candidates, as well as allies, and we need more progressive candidates to run for these spots. I believe in change, but it takes action, and these local positions have a very strong effect on the vulnerable among us, so they are a great target for action.

Michele Forman

What inspired you to make this film?

I have been a longtime fan of Carolyn Sherer’s photography, and I remember the day I drove past the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and saw a two-story banner of one of her portraits, for the Living in Limbo exhibition, featuring two women embracing. I knew that I was witnessing a moment of change in Birmingham. When Carolyn told me about the interest in telling the stories of the women she photographed in a film, I thought the time was right. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the federal government would recognize same-sex marriages in the 2013 opinion striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, but left the states to decide for themselves. I knew that was going to leave the very families I saw in Carolyn’s portraits vulnerable in Alabama. Carolyn met Lara Embry while touring with her work, and Lara’s own custody fight informed just how terrible the consequences could be. I have had a great deal of experience working in documentary film, especially focusing on civil rights and justice-related issues, and I wanted to help two first-time directors make a film about their community.

What makes this a Southern story?
One of the things I love about making films in the South is the openness and humor of the people who agree to be in them. In this film, the families went above and beyond because we were shooting over a very long period — four years, and they were in a state of limbo, fighting for custody of their children in a state that had no legal protections for same-sex families. Yet they kept opening up and sharing their lives with us: fears and hopes and everything in between. They described how many times they get asked why they live in Alabama, a place where there is so much resistance to LGBTQ equality. They answer that question in so many direct and indirect ways — the centrality of family in their lives, the many friends who become chosen family, and a whole lot of porch sitting and storytelling. The film captures so much complexity of Alabama and the South today — the simultaneous resistance to change and the communities who are alive and vital because of it.

What were the challenges and blessings in making this movie?
The biggest production challenge with a film like this, where we are following unfolding events in our participants’ lives as they happen, is that you do not know the ending. We started following a number of families, all of whose stories I wish we had time to tell. And as major legal and judicial decisions unfolded, we knew that the questions that come after marriage equality would be central: child custody and anti-discrimination protections. To quote Patricia Todd in our film, “You can get married on Saturday and get fired on Monday because you got married on Saturday.” The family court system across the country is even more of an unknown for same-sex families, offering a patchwork that could leave children vulnerable to losing legal relationships with their parents. We knew that focusing on these families’ stories would give voice to so many others’ experiences.

How did the story change you?
The question, “Where is your paperwork,” became one of those lines that would recur in my nightmares. I thought about the nurses who refused to teach Cari how to care for her infant son, who needed open-heart surgery, because they wouldn’t recognize her as a parent. Most of the time, when things are going well and you don’t need healthcare or a divorce decree or custody decision, you don’t think about the law and its impact on your life. When those legal protections are not there, it leaves people at the mercy of petty tyrants who will decide your fate based on their own personal attitudes. Through the fortitude of the families in the film, I saw what it takes to make changes in the law to protect so many others. And I was inspired by it.

What do you hope will happen after people see this story?
There is a scene in the film shot by Lauren Jacobs, our amazing Associate Producer (and so much more!), inside a car in the Jefferson County Family Court parking lot. I cannot watch this conversation between one of our married couples, Autumn and Kinley, without tearing up. Their custody case has been delayed again, and they are wrapping their heads around what this means for their son and for their own relationship. It is the strongest testament to the loving bond of marriage I have heard. For those who tout family values for only some families, I want them to see the true love and devotion and commitment right here.