Mama Bears and the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers

The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers connects filmmakers with audiences across the region. Jordan Young, South Arts' Director of Media Arts & Design Manager, discusses the impact of indie films and the story of Atlanta-based filmmaker Daresha Kyi's Mama Bears.

Mama Bears screening at Aperture Cinema in Winston Salem, NC.
Mama Bears screening at Aperture Cinema
in Winston Salem, NC.

Could you introduce yourself and your role within South arts?
I'm Jordan Young, Director of Media Arts at South Arts. For the last seven years, I have supported and advanced the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers, a program connecting independent filmmakers and their work with communities across the South.

Could you give me a little more in-depth explanation of Southern Circuit? And talk about what Mama Bears is and how it relates to Southern Circuit?
Sure. Southern Circuit is a legendary, one-of-a-kind program that has been around for 50 years. It has always served the purpose of getting independent filmmakers in the room with community audiences for screenings and conversations around powerful stories, important topics, and the art of filmmaking. It is nationally lauded as an innovative model for independent film distribution and impact, working antithetically to the market trends that have been pushing folks towards individualized streaming experiences. Southern Circuit reemphasizes the community potential embedded within a medium as powerfully relatable as filmmaking.

Mama Bears screening at Global Education Center in Nashville, TN.
Mama Bears screening at Global Education
Center in Nashville, TN.

Mama Bears is a great example of this. Mama Bears is a film by Atlanta-based filmmaker Daresha Kyi about an organization that started as a Facebook support group of parents, primarily mothers, seeking help in reconciling their religious, traditional beliefs with the queer and trans identities of their children. This Facebook group, calling themselves the Mama Bears, ended up becoming a forum for parents to celebrate and advocate for their LGBTQ children that snowballed into a larger coalition of similarly minded volunteer organizations who are invested in providing love and affirmation for those that may have been denied that support in their upbringings and present lives. The film celebrates this active community, and the Southern Circuit tour helped spread and amplify that love at such a critical time.

For me, I think it's a shining example of how relevant and immediately impactful this program can be.

That sounds amazing. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more on how the film coincides with the Atlanta community. Did you feel that the film had a particularly strong impact during its screenings in Atlanta?
Absolutely. Atlanta's history is so rich, generally recognized as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and the gay capital of the South. And for all its issues, Atlanta is a much safer space than a lot of the surrounding area for LGBTQ+ people - you have folks who have been able to live their lives and be celebrated here for decades. Atlanta is also a Black city, and that intersection isn't lost in our history. So to have these conversations here is part of this much larger legacy of people learning to both change the culture and embrace being themselves.


Mama Bears screening at Jengo's Playhouse in Wilmington, NC.
Mama Bears screening at
Jengo's Playhouse in Wilmington, NC.

That’s a great impact. This was the first time since the pandemic that Southern Circuit toured in-person, right? How was that transition and impact on this year’s tour?
Yes, this was our first full in-person season return. You know, this program has always been about getting people in the room together. While our screening partners were able to pivot quickly during the pandemic and find entirely new audiences by offering films virtually, it was always clear that everybody involved wanted to be back together again as soon as it was safe to do so. Film is a communal experience. When in-person screenings started coming back, there was a whole new level of appreciation for the local, in-person focus of the program. Screening partners were also able to invite those online audiences into the fold for their in-person screenings.

As we reach the end of our time, I wanted to ask you a more overarching question. What role does independent film and media play in our region?
That's a great question. Independent filmmakers in this era of media consolidation play an invaluable role in revealing social truths to the greater public and stoking imperative conversations. When most media is bought, critical perspectives and stories are bulldozed over. Independent filmmaking, specifically documentary, provides this social and cultural purpose that can't be understated: giving important stories and voices the attention that they deserve. That’s one lens. 

Mama Bears screening at Jengo's Playhouse in Wilmington, NC.
Mama Bears screening at
Jengo's Playhouse in Wilmington, NC.

The pandemic jumpstarted a lot more conversation around equity and sustainability. Independent filmmakers are some of the scrappiest creatives there are. They're having to think about and manage so much. The life cycle of an independent film can be a decade plus. For folks that don't have the means to throw at that, they're having to make these projects piecemeal, taking other gigs to fund themselves, cashing in favors and wielding connections. That resilience, stamina, and creativity is indicative of their passion to help these stories be told. 

Looking outward, the South has long been a cultural scapegoat for regressive thinking and backwards behavior. In reality, that is often weaponized as an excuse to not make eye contact with the issues that are at the center of the great American crises. Independent filmmakers in the South are working hard to correct that image. It's by us for us. We tell our stories. To combat that image, embrace our regionalism, and make it clear that we not only deserve to tell our own stories, but that our stories are critical parts of the global conversations.

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