Leah Mahan weighs in on Gulf Coast disasters in 'Turkey Creek.'

'Turkey Creek' Bridges the Gulf

Michael Fox October 20, 2010

Derrick Evans, the African American hero of Leah Mahan’s Gulf Coast-set documentary, Turkey Creek, wasn’t looking for a cause. Rather, it found him, and he was compelled to join by a personal responsibility to his ancestors, his mother and his neighbors. “He’s a reluctant activist,” Mahan says. “He was a schoolteacher [in Boston], and that’s what he’s cut out to do. Being an activist and running a nonprofit is a challenge, and he resents it in a way. His commitment to Turkey Creek has wreaked havoc on his life. He had a stable life that he built for himself in Boston, and he was ready right before Katrina to go back to it and Katrina just tore all that away.”

Mahan and Evans had met in the 1990s at Blackside, the venerable Beantown production company founded by the late Henry Hampton (Eyes on the Prize). Evans was an intern and, more importantly, a descendant of emancipated slaves who’d bought 40-acre parcels in Mississippi along Turkey Creek after the Civil War. In recent years, legalized gambling and real estate development had fueled the growth of nearby Gulfport and dramatically changed Evans’ hometown. In 2001 he asked Mahan (who by this time had made the PBS doc, Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street, and was working on Sweet Old Song, about bluesman Howard Armstrong and artist Barbara Ward) to go to the Gulf Coast with him on a shooting—film, not fowl—expedition.

It was a favor for a friend, partly, because I was thinking of it as a personal project,” Mahan recalls. “We went down there originally thinking we were collecting oral history. As Derrick learned more about what was happening in the present, he ended up moving home and starting a nonprofit to protect Turkey Creek from the rampant development.”

Mahan was born in Walnut Creek and lived in Oakland until her family moved to the East Coast when she was 11. She returned to the East Bay in 1999, in large part because she met and married her husband (S.F. Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie). She’s well aware that she picked a place with an abundance of collaborators and resources for documentary makers. Mahan credits local editor Dawn Logsdon—a Gulf Coast native who was forced by Katrina to revamp and restructure her terrific 2008 documentary, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans—with helping frame the narrative for Turkey Creek.

In the editing, Dawn and my co-producer Jane Greenberg have made clear the importance of following Derrick’s story more than I might have,” Mahan confides. “He’s a window and a really good channel through which you care about this place and the issues. Sweet Old Song (2002) was a portrait, a moment in the life of an artist, and Holding Ground was an epic social documentary. I see this film as something of each of those. Because Derrick is the line of the film, it’s very much about his personal journey. But his story is in the service of a larger story of this community and what has happened to the Gulf Coast.”

All sorts of nefarious and opportunistic attempts to cash in on the Gulf Coast post-Katrina, from land grabs to water privatization schemes, have been reported. The exploitation of local populations predates the hurricane, of course. Most recently, the devastating BP gusher created a fresh hell of environmental and economic havoc in the region.

We were well into post when the BP disaster happened, and to some degree the end of the film is that what happened after Katrina prepared Derrick and the community to take on this challenge in a different way,” Mahan says.

Simultaneously with the development of Turkey Creek, Mahan has been working on Bridge the Gulf, an ambitious outreach project that uses a Web site (http://bridgethegulfproject.org/) to tell untold stories, provide training and provide tools to local leaders.

Although Turkey Creek is a unique place with a lot of idiosyncratic characters, the themes resonate in many communities along the Gulf Coast and across the country,” Mahan explains. “So Bridge the Gulf puts the Turkey Creek story in a much broader context and allows a lot of other voices to be heard.”

Mahan confides that fundraising on Turkey Creek was so difficult that she considered turning the film into a Web project last year. She had her hands full with three-year-old twins and ramping up a sequel to Holding Ground that centers on a land trust that shelters low-income Boston communities from the foreclosure crisis. In an unexpected turn of events, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation came through with a grant that has enabled Mahan and her team to push on with what will likely be a one-hour piece.

We’re shooting for an hour because of budget issues and also because we see this as a film that will be useful in educational settings,” Mahan says. “We’re at the stage where that’s a decision that has to be made really soon. Right now we’re aiming to finish before April to have screenings in the Gulf Coast for the one-year anniversary of the BP disaster and Earth Day.”

Notes from the Underground
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman will be at the Roxie this Saturday and Sunday to field questions after special 3 p.m. screenings of Howl … As of this past Monday, Susan Mooney is the new executive director of GroundSpark, the social-issue production, education and outreach organization founded by filmmaker Debra Chasnoff (Straightlaced—How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, It’s Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School) .... Alex Cox will be at the Roxie October 31 and at Smith Rafael Film Center November 1 with Straight to Hell Returns, the revised version of his 1987 cult fave. Joe Strummer lives!

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