Lee documentary to present 100 years of university history
One hundred years of Lee history is being brought to life by faculty and students in a feature-length documentary set to debut at the school’s Centennial Celebration.
The film will show how the Church of God Bible Training School that started with just 12 students in 1918 evolved into the thriving university it is today.
The process started almost a year ago. Director of Media Services and Assistant Professor of Communication Jeff Salyer, Assistant Professor of Cinema Beecher Reuning and other communications faculty were exchanging ideas over coffee when the plan for the documentary was conceived, according to Salyer.
“It started out as us talking about pitching a documentary that wasn’t just a bunch of talking heads discussing the history of Lee but was compelling, impactful, that entertained while it informed and potentially inspires,” Salyer said.
From there, it was just a matter of getting the right people behind it. They pitched the idea to Vice President for Information Services Jayson VanHook, who took it to President Paul Conn. The team then received the go-ahead and the funding to make the project a reality.
However, Reuning said no one foresaw how substantial of a project the documentary would be.
“It’s hard…at the beginning of an idea this big to know how you’re going to do it,” Reuning said. “This is a really big collective effort. The credits list is going to be insane.”
To determine what content to produce, the team first had to dig into Lee’s past. Salyer said the team compiled information from a variety of local resources.
“We did a deep dive into the history of Lee, which included reading all the memoirs of people connected to Lee, talking to our local historians as well as long conversations with Dr. Conn,” Salyer said.
Through historians such as Director of Library Services Louis Morgan and Professor of History John Coats, the team was able to produce a list of significant people to interview for the film. According to Salyer, they wanted people who had lived the Lee experience and could share their perspective.
“We dove into what stories mattered the most and constructed a timeline around that,” Salyer said. “Then we asked, 'Who could speak to those things?'”
Some of these interviews include Carolyn Dirksen, who taught at Lee for 50 years; Evelyn Walker Holcombe, one of the oldest living alumni; and Hazel Edwards, one of the first African-American students integrated into Lee.
These interviews, according to Reuning, provided the framework for the rest of the documentary.
“Based on the content from the interviews, we decided how to proceed,” Reuning said. “It was always evolving into what it is now. Part of being on track is being flexible and adjusting as you go.”
A mix of narrative and footage intertwines visuals with the stories told in the interviews. This required a collaboration of students, faculty and professionals to create the final product.
For the main characters, the team held auditions and cast who they deemed fit for the part. Actress Julia Denton, known for her roles in “The Fundamentals of Caring” and “Geostorm,” plays Nora Chambers in the film.
Additionally, numerous Lee students volunteered to be extras in scenes. Freshman digital media major Victory Giet plays the role of a student in 1918 going to her first day of classes at the Bible Training School. Later in the film, she is shown as a freshman on move-in day at Lee University in modern times.
Giet said the experience reminded her that time doesn't always mean change.
“Really, Lee is still the same in a lot of ways,” Giet said. “We’re still going off the same fundamental values.”
Condensing 100 years of stories into a documentary less than two hours long is no simple feat, and the producers said they hope viewers realize they included as much history as possible.
“I hope people know we’re hitting the big moments but realize there’s hundreds of moments that are just as important that we can’t cover because of the limitations of the medium,” Salyer said. “The pressure is there to tell the story the right way. Lee is a complicated story. It’s a long story, and to try to get it into a compact narrative, there’s things we can’t go into details about.”
Despite the challenge of the time crunch, Salyer said, while many students know the popular stories like Nora Chambers, viewers will be surprised to see stories they’ve never heard of before.
The documentary was designed with Celebration in mind. Homecoming weekend during the centennial year is a huge platform to honor Lee’s history, and the team said they aim for the film to bring a greater appreciation to the university's past.
“I want people to know who we are and why Lee has sustained for 100 years and what that means for our future,” Salyer said. “Knowing who we are, what we’ve been, and what we’ve been through will inform us and push us forward into the unknown.”
The Dixon Center will host the premiere of the documentary on Friday, Nov. 2. Tickets for the event are for sale on the Centennial website.