Filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Turnley has documented the human condition in 75 countries all over the world.
His renowned work has brought him within arm’s reach of world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. He now returns to Fort Wayne, his hometown, to discuss issues going on in his country’s own backyard.
“I make films because I don’t feel like I have all the right answers. I just feel like I’m part of a conversation that is important to our country and to all of the communities our country consists of,” Turnley says by phone.
Cinema Center is showing Turnley’s recent film “Shenandoah,” a documentary about a struggling, working-class community in the midst of controversy as four of the town’s white high school star football players are charged with the 2008 fatal beating of Luis Ramirez, a Mexican citizen who illegally immigrated to the United States. A discussion with Turnley will follow both showings of the film Saturday.
“I am very interested in what the people in my hometown think of the film, and what their response will be,” he says.
The film focuses on Shenandoah, Pa., a formerly bustling town where thousands of immigrants from Europe settled to work in the mines. Even with the declining coal mining industry, the community is fiercely bonded to their immigrant heritage and high school football team.
“In so many towns across the country, they are very challenged by the fact our country has very much lost our manufacturing base and industrial base. So many of the jobs that employed people across the country are now gone,” he says. “When I arrived in an immigrant town in which four of the town’s sons had beaten an undocumented immigrant – clearly, we had an important and dramatic story.”
Turnley first documented the lives of the working class in his first photographic documentary, “McClellan Street.” He started the project with his twin brother, Peter, at the age of 17 while students at Elmhurst High School. The brothers spent two years documenting people living in a small Fort Wayne neighborhood in the 1970s.
“I’ve always had a tremendous respect for the working class across the country. They have contributed greatly to our country,” Turnley says.
The initial inspiration for Turnley’s film came from working briefly as a campaign photographer for President Obama during his first presidential run in 2008. During a fundraiser, Obama tried to explain that the resentment of small towns came from rapid job declines with little government intervention. With the country in the midst of a recession, he said it wasn’t surprising that they “tend to cling to guns and religion” in a time of crisis. Turnley said the comment made him consider how the country is made up of these small, fraught communities.
“My dad and my grandfather played football and they always talked about these tough football players in coal mining towns and steel mill towns like eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania. I always wanted to do a story about a coal mining town, where they played football, and look at the challenges of the working class today in America,” he says
While scouting towns in Pennsylvania, a friend told him about the news story regarding the death of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah. Turnley drove three hours from New York City to the town and “knew immediately it would be at least a year of my life.”
“It ended up being the last five years of my life,” he says.
The film has received glowing reviews since its 2012 release. Jonah Crismore, Cinema Center’s executive director, says “he has heard nothing but great things about the film and that it has been selling out all over.”
He says it was exciting and a bit surprising when Turnley happily agreed to come to Fort Wayne to discuss the film.
“There’s a certain perspective that only a filmmaker can give you,” Crismore says. “Especially with the debate on undocumented workers going on, you can have a healthy discussion.”
It has been two years since Turnley was in Fort Wayne, and besides catching a bite at his favorite hometown Mexican restaurant, La Margarita, he’s looking forward to watching the film with a fresh audience.
“You work very hard when you make a film like this. It was five years of my life,” he says. “I like very much to sit with an audience and feel the pulse of the audience.”