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Sunday, March 18 at Midnight Southern Belle

(Rochester, NY) – It has been said that in order to understand America, you must first understand the Civil War. Over the next four years, as the country commemorates the event that defined a nation, what we choose to remember — and hope to forget — of our past reveals much about who we are in the present. Southern Belle is a story about how people use history to create their personal identity and to shape their values and guiding ideology. On the eve of the 150th year anniversary of the Civil War, Southern Belle documents the divisive historical memory of an American subculture and challenges viewers to consider how a romantic portrayal of the past affects current attitudes on the race, gender, and class issues that continue to define and divide America today. Southern Belle airs Sunday, March 18 at Midnight on WXXI-TV/HD (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11).

The Civil War may be long over, but the spirit of rebellion is hard to extinguish, even in something as innocent as a girls’ summer camp. Southern Belle, a documentary film by MakeWright Film partners Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley, is a unique, insider’s look at the 1861 Athenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South attempts to rise again.

Every summer, young women from around the world eagerly sign up to become that iconic and romantic image of southern identity: the Southern Belle, replete with hoop skirt, hat, and gloves, singing the region’s anthem, Dixie. The camp is held at a historic headmaster’s home in what was originally a four-year college for young women from 1850-1920. Never before have cameras been allowed to closely shadow the students and teachers during this intensive week of historical reenactment.

The teachers, all of whom work without compensation, hope to instill genteel manners and build pride in Southern heritage. They have carefully selected this time period so they can share the “truth” with the next generation about why the South seceded from the Union. For them, the Civil War had little to do with slavery, and everything to do with states’ rights and unfair taxation.

Critics say that by promulgating a Southern identity that erases emancipation as a cause of the Civil War and glorifies a disempowered female image, the camp experience whitewashes history and misinforms the next generation. Orman, a high school history teacher, says, “I’m not sure that everything has to be balanced…the kids…who come to high school already know all the bad about slavery. It’s been taught to them and taught to them and it needs to be because slavery’s wrong. But there is a good side too, you know, there was a part of life that was happy.”

Southern Belle presents a crucial examination of how historical memory is formed and shared in popular culture by presenting viewers with a series of thought provoking questions: What does it mean to reenact a past that represents only part of the story? How do the young women understand their history if they experience a romantic and nostalgic version of a belle’s life? What happens when the rough edges of history are smoothed out of existence?

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