Rebecca Williams, capturing the loss of the mill

Shelly Frome
The Black Mountain News

Documentarian Rebecca Williams was commissioned to record the “Save the Monarchs” community project in Black Mountain, and now she’s working on a film about the fallout of Swannanoa’s Beacon textile mill. Recently from the comforts of her cozy home near the mill, Williams, who came from the theater world, reflected how she came to this point in her career.

One of the first things that she mentioned was a study she undertook at the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California.

“I learned,” she said, “you have to edit the shots and compress them like poetry and go to the danger place. The metaphor for me was being ‘lost.’ I was in San Francisco, a place I know nothing about — lost, seeking another form of expression.”

The concept of “the danger place” and the search for an alternate path sent her thoughts traveling back further to her graduate work at Trinity Repertory Conservatory in Providence, Rhode Island. At the time she was collaborating with a friend to present a feminist two-woman show that mixed autobiographical material with fictional characters. During the audience feedback, a woman who had been domestically abused told her that her monologue was too easy and not altogether honest.

“That became a watershed moment for me, opening the lid on all sorts of personal and cultural secrets,” Williams said. From there, she took the ultimate risk. Her master’s thesis became “The Father Project” centering on her problematic relationship with her own parent.

“As an artist,” she said, “you have the opportunity to take your story, shape it and try to make sense of your life. The act of telling it transforms things for yourself and your audience. I had to (tell) my own story in order to ask others to open up and tell theirs in my future work dealing with communities and grappling with pressing issues.”

She and her husband, Jerry Pope, were drawn to this area after attending annual Alternative Roots sessions.

“It was incredible,” Williams said, “to be in a community of artists from all over the world on the sacred ground and in the very rooms of the former Black Mountain College, talking about issues of integrity and intention in building arts around the concept of community of spirit and tradition.”

Later on, when she and Pope decided to move here in 1999, they had been working all over the country, through the auspices of grants and residencies, gathering stories in rural communities around the themes of geography, heritage and building relationships, enhanced by the music of local songwriters. At one point in the Florida Panhandle, they had older people tell their personal life stories to children. In this evolving process, they turned interviews into “folk history” plays.

The series of community-based folk history plays (with original songs, including Bert Brown’s “The Day the Great Mill Went Down)” dovetailed into the haunting tales people told after the 2003 burning of the Beacon textile mill.

Williams said she “didn’t quite get why people were so attached to that building, coming by weeks and months later to take a brick, staring at the ruins and crying.” What, for instance, caused longtime resident Wade Martin to declare, “The mill, the way I thought of it was the big, red, thumping heart of Swannanoa. When it beat and was pumping and working good, the whole community was good.”

For Williams, the only way to truly capture that mystery and keep it was through sound, imagery and the compression of chosen shots. She made the transition into video and film. Her video production company is Mountain Girl Media.

“You have to figure out how that story mirrors something inside of you,” she said. “That’s the spine, the heart and the soul. That’s the story you’re eventually telling.”

Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic profile of people who are drawn to the Swannanoa Valley.