Q and A with a Documentary Filmmaker during a Historical Anniversary Celebration
Melinda Holm is a documentary filmmaker focused on capturing the beautiful and important moments in life. As a long-time fan of Sony cameras, she used the PWX-X70 to capture the 50th anniversary celebration of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama. We conducted a Q and A to learn more about her experience:
How did you get your start in filming?
My father gave me my first camera when I was 10 or 11 years old. We were going through the Suez Canal. That’s where I took my first pictures. A few years later, at the University of Oregon studying theatre and American culture, the director of my theater repertory company offered a film class one semester, and I thought — three easy credits.
I signed up and loved every moment of it – from writing the script, to filming, to getting the actors and editing – all of it! So I started taking as many film classes as I could and then moved to Paris to try and get into a French film school. I ended up working as an intern on a few movie sets before coming back to New York where I got a job at the fabled repertory movie house, the Bleecker Street Cinema. One day, a coworker suggested I check out video production, and I did. The rest is history.
Was the Selma production your first historical documentary?
No, I actually traveled to Japan to document the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That project confirmed my love for video production. Interestingly, I asked a friend what kind of camera I should buy to film it; he told me to buy a video camera, and I ended up with the Sony Hi8. I immediately fell in love with the camera, and still have it to this day. I actually used it as recently as 2010. Those analog cameras make a beautiful soft pastel picture.
Tell us a little bit about your project and how you became involved in it.
It’s about the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Fifty years ago, African Americans in Selma and other parts of the south faced many obstacles, including being fired from their jobs, and even violence, when they tried to register to vote. A handful of courageous and determined people started the voting rights movement in Selma that grew to a huge movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others, culminating in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The backstory: Many years ago driving cross country, I saw a sign for Selma and decided to stop. My car suddenly developed cruise control and wouldn’t stop. At the next rise in the road, I pulled over and turned off the key. Three men immediately stopped to help me. I was on the road again in minutes. The next day, (it was the 24th of December), driving in the pouring rain, I passed a few cars stopped on the side of the road. I resolved to stop for the next car I saw. Imagine the surprise of the young black man who came running up to the car to see me. We reached the Richmond bus station with minutes to spare for him to hop on a bus to Baltimore and get home to his family for Christmas.
This event was very meaningful to me, and it created a soft spot in my heart for Selma. It was a place where I was shown kindness and able to show kindness to others in return.
A few years later, I participated in a 10-day peace walk from New York to Philadelphia. The people I met along the way were amazing. It got me thinking – who in the South had done this same work back in the 1960s and what were they doing now? I rejoined the peace walk in Selma and met some of the local people and heard their amazing stories about participating in the marches back in 1965.
About two years later, I heard on the news that the mayor of Selma who dated back to the Voting Rights Movement had been unseated by a black man. I heard the voices of some of the people I had met talking about the election. It inspired me to go back. I realized these people had such extraordinary stories that weren’t being heard, and it made me want to capture them. At the 50th anniversary of the march, I wondered who would show up and what their feelings were about voting rights today. The project developed organically from there.
Did you have a plan of what you were going to shoot when you went back to Selma?
I didn’t really have a set plan. I went in by myself to capture as much as I could, and at the end, I had over 12 hours of footage. I shot a variety of scenes both inside and outside so the light was constantly changing. The PXW-X70 was so adaptable – it captured the different lights beautifully.
One night in particular, there was an acapella group performing in the church. I filmed it, but I was pretty far back so I wasn’t sure how the sound quality would be. But the camera picked up the sound perfectly – the voices of the singers sounded absolutely amazing.
How did you decide on the PWX-X70 for this project?
I’ve used a number of Sony cameras in the past and have been impressed with them. I’m a one-person production team and I carry a lot with me, so I wanted a camera that was small and portable and capable of capturing great sound. The XLR mike inputs were very important to me.
The PXW-X70 is compact and easy to carry; I had it with me at all times. It’s also very intuitive – I picked it up and started playing around with it, and it was incredibly easy to use.
Because I didn’t work with a crew, I didn’t have a lot of extra lights or microphones. I was interested in seeing how the camera handled picking up sound and shooting in the different light. It did an amazing job, and the pictures are gorgeous. The camera has a very sensitive lens which I was happy about, and it really helped with the darker, interior shots.
Can you tell us a bit more about the types of images you captured?
Alabama is just beautiful; I took a number of landscape shots around Highway 80, which is a winding ribbon of a road. It’s flat in some places and then there are the most luxurious trees in other places.
The rain gave off a nice mist, and it wasn’t until I saw the footage on a computer screen that I saw how subtle the tones and colors are – and of course, with the grey from the rain, those colors really stand out. The bright red umbrellas and orange raincoats of people all around stood out so vividly and the camera really highlighted these colors.
I also did a number of interviews with community members and visitors and the footage is beautiful. I used the focus aid to really hone in on the peoples’ faces even in bright, outside light, and the footage looks amazing.
Being at the anniversary event, I could feel the energy and the new hope from younger generations and I really tried to capture that in my film.
Preview Melinda’s piece here: