Documentary focuses on fiddling

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By Shannon Watkins

How do you make an award-winning documentary about the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention?


Well, for starters, it helps if you’re local.

Sisters Julie Simone, who lives in Los Angeles, and Vicki Vlasic, who now hails from just outside Detroit, both grew up in Hillsville. They remember a time when their TV only got two TV channels, on which they saw “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” Though both left the Twin Counties to explore the world, Simone also remembers another childhood pleasure.

“It was a big deal every year to go to Galax and go to the Old Fiddlers’ Convention,” says Simone, an actress and now filmmaker. “I started thinking about what a great thing it was. I went back and was just amazed at the generations playing together and kids playing instruments instead of holding phones… One thing I know from moving away from there, is there’s just so many wonderful things going on in that community and so much talent that people aren’t aware of.”

She continues, “I thought it would make an amazing documentary and I started thinking about how to make it happen. Me and my sister started talking and we decided to do this.”

While the first footage for “Fiddlin’” was shot in 2015, Simone says “it’s been sort of an ongoing process.” They also shot at last year’s convention and picked up some additional footage at last year’s HoustonFest.

“Vicki and I were the filmmakers,” says Simone. “I’m the director, she’s the producer, but we’re both writers, and we wore all the hats on the project.”

A very specific type of interaction gets noted a lot by those who’ve seen the film, she says. “People at film festivals comment time and time again how wonderful it is to see the elders and youth have this relationship though music,” says Simone. “I feel like the music keeps these people so connected, and just the fact that older generations are interested in passing it along to the youth, and the youth are interested in carrying it forward.”

Getting underway took a couple phone calls and leaning on local influence.

“It was quite a process,” Simone recalls.

They started trying to connect with the Galax Moose Lodge, sponsors of the show since 1935, and left a message with Tom Jones of the lodge, one of the behind-the-scenes forces of Fiddlers. With no response, “I left another; this time I mentioned Vicki and I had grown up in Hillsville,” Simone said.

Jones knew their mother, and everyone knew their grandfather, Edgar Semones, who ran Sunnyside Store. “Once they realized we were locals, we were welcomed by everyone. If you’re local, even if you leave, your roots are still in you.”

Jones got the filming approved with the Moose Lodge, then arranged for the sisters and their crew to get into the convention “and then it was a family affair — cousins, nieces, and my mom was making food for everybody.” Their director of photography and sound engineer were hired guns from North Carolina, but otherwise, says Simone, the crew consisted of relatives, including their children.

“I would say there were about eight of us, and everybody was doing everything,” says Simone. “I was an actress before, and I had worked with film production crews where we did every aspect of filmmaking, so I had the knowledge of how to sort of put that together.”

Passing It Down

And, of course, it’s not just the technical end of filmmaking that concerned the sisters, but the story itself and where it would go.

“Interestingly, what we initially thought was, it would be about the fiddlers’ convention and the 80th anniversary,” she says. “But when we started shooting, we realized the people there were more interesting than the convention itself. We realized this is where the story is, particularly the kids that are so talented; most of them play by ear. It sort of evolved and changed as we went along and it changed as we got into the editing room.”

She adds, “The hardest thing with a documentary is finding the story. We realized with this, it was many stories woven together. It’s a little different than other documentaries — there’s no protagonist, no drama, no tension. It’s uplifting. We wanted to make it a celebration of the people, the place, the music.”

Well, not a lot of tension, perhaps, but a little bit for viewers who weren’t at Felts Park or didn’t check the list of winners: “I sort of bumped into [young guitar prodigy] Presley Barker, who ended up winning at the fiddlers’ convention that particular year,” taking first place in the adult guitar division in 2016. The movie focuses a lot on the relationship between renowned Grayson County guitarist Wayne Henderson and Presley. “The two of them end up in the guitar competition. The prodigy and the mentor.”

Knowing who won is beside the point though; it’s the relationship, and the friendly sharing of a musical legacy between Barker and Henderson, that deepens and underlines the film’s themes, and provides a specific instance of its subject matter.

“We also talk about the JAM [Junior Appalachian Musicians] program, that’s part of it; Helen White is a part of it. The JAM program, music being passed down, with the backdrop being the fiddlers’ convention,” says Simone.

Critical Acclaim

It’s touching enough that two locals came back from distant points to reconnect with their roots and show the world what’s waiting in the Twin Counties — could you ask for anything more?

As it happens, Simone and Vlasic have gotten rather a lot, in fact: multiple awards at multiple film festivals, which is where people go to shop their masterworks around, garner attention and possibly sell and have them professionally distributed.

“The situation that we’re in right now is, we just started submitting to film festivals in March,” says Simone. “We have to complete our credits, but we do have a film festival cut,” currently at 96 minutes, but the sisters hope to get it down to 90.

“Fiddlin’” will be in a film festival in Macon, Ga., Aug. 16-19; and in the Full Bloom Film Festival in Statesville, N.C., Sept. 13-15. A local showing in Galax is set for later this month.

“We have to do ‘private screenings’ now because we haven’t sold it for distribution yet, and it can only be shown at festivals,” she says. “Basically, you do that to get some traction built and people interested.”

And as it happens, “Fiddlin’” has received plenty of interest. “We have won an award at every film festival we’ve been in. [We were] just in the Reel to Reel Film Festival in King’s Mountain, N.C., where we won the award for Best Documentary on July 27.”

At their first one, the San Luis Obispo Film Festival in California, “we spent five days and nights with our film editor just to get it ready…We sold out all three screenings and won the Audience Award for Best Documentary.”

No mean feat, given that they were up against some big-budget celebrity work, including a film by actor Jeff Bridges (of “The Big Lebowski” fame) called “Living in the Future’s Past,” about humanity’s place in the earth’s ecology.

“The film, for whatever reason, is really resonating with a lot of audiences,” said Simone. “I think it’s because there’s a lot of negativity right now, and we try to keep the film positive and uplifting and nonpolitical. As one audience member stood up and said, ‘this film is authentic and inspiring and humbling,’ which I love. At another screening, a woman stood up and said, ‘this movie makes me love America again.’”

(A longer list of the film’s accolades can be found on its website, which is currently being rebuilt, at fiddlinmovie.com.)

Passion Project

“This was a passion project for my sister and I,” says Simone. “Most people donated their time, but the editing and post [production] costs of making a film were much more than we ever anticipated, and most people stop the whole process when they realize how much it is going to cost to just finish the film.”

A grant from the Rogovy Foundation, as well as a Kickstarter campaign and donations from family and friends, helped finance it.

“We have some investors on the film. They all were aware coming in that it is almost impossible to make your money back on a documentary, but believed it was an important project and it became something that they also wanted to be a part of,” says Simone.

She continues, “My sister and I have worked tirelessly on ‘Fiddlin’’ for the last three years and have high hopes for it, but also understand the realities of documentary filmmaking. What we hope is that this film will show audiences the beauty of this area, as well as the talents and humility of the folks who live there and will perhaps take them for a short while back to a simpler time.”

Simone concludes, “We wanted ‘Fiddlin’’ to be uplifting and inspiring, while trying to keep the primary focus on what was positive and what people are doing right. So far, the film is really resonating with audiences. There was a lot of talent there. It really just shows you what they are like. I hope the people there will like it.”

“Fiddlin’” is set to be shown at the Rex Theater in downtown Galax on Aug. 23, at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.