After 22 years, it’s a wrap for East Austin Stories: UT RTF ends long-running documentary shorts initiative – Screens
Tymir, full-time student, Uber driver and subject of “Hustle,” one of UT RTF’s latest East Austin Stories
366K. This course code in the UT Radio-Film-Television prospectus has unlocked careers for many filmmakers. These were the four numbers that signed up the students for the upper division documentary production class. Few names have been more synonymous with this program than speaker Andrew Garrison, and you can’t say Garrison’s name without thinking of one of this department’s most important initiatives: East Austin Stories.
It’s cinema as ethnography, with each short documentary capturing an element, an event, an individual within the rich and unique culture of East Austin. However, he was inspired by Garrison’s experiences outside of Texas, as a lecturer in Ohio and as part of the Appalshop collective in rural Kentucky, and his surprise at seeing so few non-white faces on campus. when he joined the UT staff in 1997. His solution, which he launched in 2000, was to send students to the community east of I-35 with a simple instruction: find a story and tell it. Over the next 22 years, the program spawned more than 140 short films, each focusing on a microcomponent of the Eastside, from gentrification to disputes over school closures, from lucha libre to roller derby. The first 138 are already online (Garrison noted that they started putting the movies on the Internet in 2004, before YouTube, giving UT lawyers a headache to figure out if it was even legal), and next weekend sees annual live screenings in East Austin of this year’s projects. These will be the last Garrison will oversee, as after 23 years at UT, he is finally retiring.
Is this the end though? After all, there will always be more stories to tell, even if Garrison isn’t the one encouraging the students to record them. And while the program itself is complete, its spirit will live on in the filmmakers who were inspired and whose visions were shaped by the process. Filmmakers like Chelsea Hernandez, whose 2010 short about the Salas sisters, “Our Guadalupe,” would eventually lead to an Emmy nomination for her South by Southwest-selected PBS documentary, Building the American Dream; or Huay-Bing Law, who watched the Austin Yard Art Tour (“Yardists”) and a little girl’s relationship with her grandmother (“Road to Grandma’s House”). It’s not even just documentarians: Andrew Cadelago, who co-directed “La Casa Lopez” (one of Garrison’s first and still favorite shorts), went on to work as a host for Netflix and Pixar.
As for Garrison himself, he will be working on a project with a longer history than the East Austin Stories. In 1984, he traveled to remote Clinchco, a mining community in that southern pocket of Virginia that geographically and culturally might as well be in Kentucky. There he interviewed Earl Gilmore, a locally renowned gospel singer who inadvertently addressed the documentarian on camera. Realizing that exposing a black man as gay would endanger the singer’s life, Garrison saved the footage (more than 30 rolls of film) even after Earl’s release and even after his death in 2000. Now Garrison has says he would finally have time to complete Gilmore’s story in his next documentary, Because I’m here. And if someone decides to continue East Austin Stories, maybe there will be more never-before-seen lives like his that will be recorded.
UT RTF Presents East Austin Stories Thursday, May 12: Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Hall, 1206 E. Ninth, 7 p.m.; Kenny Dorham’s Garden, 1106 E. 11th, 9 p.m.
The complete East Austin Stories archive is available online at rtf.utexas.edu/east-austin-stories.
Learn more about Because I’m hereincluding how to donate to support its completion, to carimhere.com.