“It’s always about storytelling first,” she said. “If a story needs to be told it tells me there is an audience to see it.”
“Althea” and “The Loving Story,” which James co-produced and edited, tell important but somewhat unheralded 20th Century American stories.
“Althea” is the story of Althea Gibson, the first African American to break the color line of international tennis. She became the Jackie Robinson of tennis by winning Wimbledon and U.S. Open tournaments in the 1950s.
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The film was the season opener on the PBS series “American Masters” in 2015. James was surprised so many people thought of Arthur Ashe as the first successful African American tennis player, unaware of Gibson’s legacy.
“The Loving Story” is about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose marriage was invalidated by Virginia state law in the 1950s and fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The documentary earned numerous awards and was shown on HBO.
“What makes ‘The Loving Story’ so special is the love story,” James said.
Post-screening discussions are what James looks most forward to. She’s experienced disbelief from young women in a former Soviet Union country to being questioned in the U.S. why “The Loving Story” ended on a true but downbeat note.
That’s what such films are intended to do.
“My hope is there is an immediate reaction and then another two to three days later,” James said.
She also stresses that watching such films as part of an audience brings a different experience than viewing on television or online. Seeing audience reactions is one of her pleasures.
Whereas documentaries once had the label of stuffy and boring, she said it’s changed in the last 20 years. The storytelling is more inclusive with fewer talking heads and more storytelling.
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Having the documentary subject or their descendants is key, she said.
While filmmakers can make a living doing documentaries, they can’t expect the Hollywood megabucks, and that’s OK for James. She’s used Kickstarter campaigns to offset costs.
It’s more about sharing a story that needs told, she said. James has gotten feedback from people around the world, but is just as excited to receive it from her neighbor.
Subjects can come from a lot of different places, such as her current project on falconers. She used an example that there can be three films on global warming and each can be told in a different way.
“A great documentary is like a narrative feature. I consider myself a filmmaker who makes documentaries” James said.
HOW TO GO
What: Wittenberg Series: Filmmaker Elisabeth Haviland James
Where: John Legend Theater at The Dome, 700 S. Limestone St., Springfield
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, and Tuesday, Feb. 6
More info: www.wittenberg.edu/about-wittenberg/art/wittenberg-series