Films Capture Everyday Life in Depression-Era South

A collection of depression-era films from small NC towns is available at Duke

Before there were “selfies” and YouTube, there were “Movies of Local People.” For a nickel or dime, Depression-era moviegoers across North Carolina and the Piedmont South could see themselves on the big screen at their local movie house whenever traveling cameraman H. Lee Waters came to town.Now Waters’ films can once again be enjoyed. A large collection of them has been digitized and made freely available online by the Duke University Libraries, which began collecting them in the 1980s. Hundreds of hours of digitized footage offer a rare glimpse of everyday life in the Piedmont South during the Great Depression, often in rich Kodachrome color.Herbert Lee Waters (1902-1997) was a studio photographer in Lexington, North Carolina. In 1936, he began supplementing his income by filming ordinary people going about their daily lives in small towns around the region. Waters worked with local movie theaters to screen his silent 16-mm films, which would be shown before the feature presentation. Audience members who flocked to see the latest Groucho Marx or Alfred Hitchcock film delighted in seeing their friends and neighbors on the same screen, and Waters received a percentage of box office proceeds for the pre-show entertainment.Between 1936 and 1942, Waters produced 252 “Movies of Local People” across 118 communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. It is the only collection of its kind by an itinerant American documentary filmmaker of the era.Waters’ small-town imagery included children playing at school, people shopping on Main Street and workers arriving and departing from mills and factories. Waters, who was white, was also one of the few filmmakers of the era to capture candid scenes of African-American life in the segregated South. In 2004, in recognition of his contribution to American filmmaking, the Library of Congress selected a Waters film for inclusion in the National Film Registry, a list of films deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” to American culture. Shot in 1941, “Kannapolis, North Carolina” is one of the 91 films now available on the Duke University Libraries website (http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hleewaters).According to Craig Breaden, an audiovisual archivist in Duke’s Rubenstein Library who worked on the film digitization project, Waters was “an accidental documentarian” and a resourceful entrepreneur. What started out as a clever scheme to make a living during tough economic times now stands as “a grand gift to the citizens and scholars and artists of the region,” Breaden writes in a blog post announcing the digitized collection.Waters’ films are also the inspiration for a forthcoming show from acclaimed composer, singer and violinist Jenny Scheinman. On Friday, March 20, Duke Performances will present the world premiere of “Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait,” an original film and music commission incorporating footage from Waters’ films and a live score by Scheinman, at 8 p.m. in Reynolds Theater on Duke’s West Campus. Scheinman will be joined onstage by singer, guitarist, banjo player and North Carolina native Robbie Fulks and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Gjersoe. For tickets and more information, visit dukeperformances.org. To browse and view the H. Lee Waters Film Collection online, visit the Duke University Libraries Digital Collections website.

Below, Jenny Scheinman scores a short film of Kannapolis by H. Lee Waters.

'Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait' trailer from Duke Performances on Vimeo.