"Cane Fire"

The documentary “Cane Fire” will be the first digital offering of the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers offered by the Clayton Center for the Arts, beginning Sunday.

Aside from a few scattered performances that can be counted on one hand, the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus has been a shell of its former self during a year that was suppose to be an anniversary.

The cultural arts and performance center opened in the spring of 2010, and in the fall of that year began its inaugural season of events that follows the college’s academic year. COVID-19 sidelined any observances last year, and after continuing to reschedule and rework a season that was slated to begin last September, General Manager Blake Smith and his team eventually settled into what he’s referring to as a “break year.”

Despite the lack of in-person programming, however, the Clayton Center, like other entertainment venues and facilities around the country, has found ways to keep from being completely inactive, Smith added.

“The industry in general has just done such great work pivoting away from their norms, and the ability for agents and artists to still be creative and find mediums to get that creativity out to the public has really amazed me,” Smith told The Daily Times this week. “The sense of, ‘We’re all in this together’ has really been a great thing, and if somebody turned the COVID switch off today, I would hope those feelings and methods would become the new norm going forward.”

Case in point: The 2020-21 Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers, which continues with the final three documentaries in the series starting Sunday. Normally, the screenings are in-person events at the center’s Lambert Recital Hall and feature the films, followed by question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers themselves. Tickets are usually only $5, but because COVID-19 makes in-person gatherings risky, they’ll transition to digital screenings available at any point over a four-day period.

“The reception has been good, and in some ways, it’s really increased participation based on a broader availability due to technology,” Smith said. “Before, we would bring in the filmmaker for one evening, and if you were free that night, and you were interested, and it sounded appealing, and you didn’t have to deal with the rest of life, you could come out and see it and have a great experience.

“But doing it virtually allows us multiple showing dates, so if you really want to see that film but you’ve got something planned for that night, you can (still see it). It’s taken some time to build the support for this series, because Blount County isn’t known for film (screenings), but we’ve grown the audience from a very base level, and we now have solid supporters, and we’re pleased to be able to continue to allow them to watch the films this season.”

While screenings are free, registration to view them is required through the Clayton Center website at www.claytonartscenter.com. The final three Southern Circuit offerings include:

• “Cane Fire,” Sunday through Feb. 10: A documentary that “examines the past and present of the Hawaiian island Kauai” using four generations of “family history, numerous Hollywood productions and troves of found footage.”

• “Warrior Women,” March 7-10: A documentary that “tells the story of Madonna Thunder Hawk, a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who shaped a group of children into the ‘We Will Remember’ Survival School as a native alternative to government-run education.”

• “Socks on Fire: Uncle John & the Copper Headed Water Rattlers,” April 10-13: “Through stylized reenactments, family VHS footage, and colorful interviews, the docudrama follows a homophobic aunt and a drag queen uncle as they battle over their mother’s estate in Hokes Bluff, Alabama.”

The question-and-answer sessions also will be conducted virtually, and if there’s one regret Smith has, it’s that digital screenings can’t capitalize on the buzz of immediacy that follows a live viewing experience shared by moviegoers in the auditorium.

“It’s disappointing that we couldn’t bring filmmakers, but after it was tried in the fall a couple of times, we realized the logistics weren’t going to make it feasible for those filmmakers to do that,” he said.

But like everything else about his job during a pandemic, Smith and his team work with what they have. And right now, they’re looking ahead to the 2021-22 slate of performances, which will essentially take what originally was planned for this season and reschedule it.

“The season we had booked is almost nearly intact, and if things continue to improve with vaccinations, it really allows us to feel safe about offering these shows,” he said. “In an ideal world, we’re hoping to maybe get back on course in May, make a formal announcement and get back to business.”

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at wildsmithsteve@gmail.com.

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