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Filmgoers turned out in droves for the world premiere of “Hillsville 1912 — A Shooting in the Court,” at the Rex Theater last Thursday.
Rain didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, but some walk-ups seeking tickets on the night of the show found that there already was a capacity crowd inside the downtown Galax theater for Rick Bowman’s documentary about the gun battle between members of the Allen family and court officials.
But a faulty projector did bring the curtain down on the documentary prematurely.
The 53-minute documentary, intended for broadcast on PBS or the History Channel, has been Bowman’s labor of love for the last eight years or so.
He found an enthusiastic audience for the premiere in the Twin Counties, as well as for the live music provided by Mike Conner and John Miller, who participated in making the soundtrack.
Interviews with local historians like Ron Hall and Ron Leonard are interspersed were photographs of early Hillsville and shootout participants Bowman found at the Library of Congress.
Narrator David Heath kept the documentary moving along, linking the interviews together.
The film also worked to set up the social dynamics at the time — the change in local politics after the Civil War, the independent spirit that rural residents like the Allens felt and the idea that lives then were more rough and tumble.
“A lot of men at that time didn’t take anything off anybody,” Bowman said. “And I think, at the time, they settled their own differences.”
Victor Allen, a descendent of the family involved in the shootout, watched the documentary and afterward went out with Bowman for a long talk at a nearby eatery.
Allen took no offense at the film’s unflinching look at the anecdotes recalled about the shootout participants.
(That doesn’t mean he agreed with all of them — like the claim that an angry Allen family member poured kerosene on a cow’s back and set it on fire.)
In fact, Allen appreciated seeing the filmmaker’s perspective. After watching the documentary, he decided he could recommend it to others.
“I’m proud to see somebody’s taken ahold of this,” Allen said. “It’s been kept quiet for too long.”
Family members didn’t talk about the incident while Allen was growing up. While his classes covered the settling of Jamestown and Pocahontas in the 1700s, no lesson was given on local history.
Allen had to learn about the shootout by reading the books by Sidna Allen and Rufus Gardner outside of school.
He expects his classes could have had some lively discussions about the shootout.
Though it’s tragic, the incident is the only thing that’s “put Carroll County on the map,” Allen said, and he doesn’t mind people talking about it.
History’s there to either show what worked for people in the past or point out the mistakes that should be avoided. “We need to learn from it and go on.”
Allen’s serving on the shootout’s 100th anniversary planning committee getting ready for the commemoration next year.
“Some people don’t like the truth, but I find it always works for me,” he said.
Many attendees left with copies of the DVD, Bowman said. Some told the filmmaker they would go home and watch the remaining 15 or 20 minutes they missed after the projector went down.
“I was pleased everybody was enjoying the film and having a good time with the music and everything,” Bowman said.
He understands that the operation of the historic 1930s-era Rex Theater is largely a volunteer matter. To try to lend a hand, Bowman said he will donate the proceeds from the September show to the theater.
“It’s a historic theater in a great community,” he said. “I love trying to support something like that.”
Bowman will now take the documentary on the road to film festivals with the hope it will be seen and picked up there.
While doing research on film festivals, he realized that there aren’t many in Virginia outside of one held in Charlottesville each year.
That gave him an idea. He’d like to come back to Galax to hold a film festival here, perhaps specializing in Appalachian culture, highlighting the music and history.
Bowman also plans to return for another showing during the 100th anniversary in 2012.
The sold-out crowd shows there is a high level of interest in the courthouse shootout, said Ray Kohl, Galax Visitor Center director.
“I thought we’d have a good crowd — I didn’t think we’d sell out,” he said.
Those who didn’t get to see the documentary — or those who attended, but missed the end — have three more chances.
Kohl has scheduled two more showings this Tuesday and Thursday. He’s also planning another date in early September featuring the documentary and a return musical visit by Conner and Miller.
Attendees of the premier merely need to bring their ticket from the first show for admission to one of the upcoming showings, Kohl said.