Emanuel County takes Hollywood


Emanuel County’s heritage is as rich as the honey that its state bee produces. It’s so easy to fall in love with its backroad smells of honeysuckle, pine and a fresh cut field, and just as easy to melt into the slow words of a front-porch story told by a local elder’s southern drawl. These timeless mixtures encapsulate moments and memories of our history that’s long-gone and sometimes even uncover treasures long buried that deserve to be conserved and shared with the world.

It was through a moment like this that SCAD graduate, Joseph Elijah "Eli" McGowan, who earned his Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television, filmed and directed something beautifully true from a story written and produced by his wife, Emily McGowan, who is an Emanuel County native. Her version of the story was born through one that her father shared with her when she was just a child.

“My wife’s dad, John Paul Rogers, grew up in the Swainsboro area,” explained Eli. “Their family owns a small farm in Blun, where his parents, Arthur O’Neil and Helen, lived until they passed away. That’s where, as a kid, he found a German pfennig (penny) piece with a swastika on it by a railroad track and learned about the presence of POWs that served as agricultural labor in this area during WWII. My wife later built off that idea for the short story that became our film.”

The film that Eli is referring to is titled “August” and takes place in 1940s rural Emanuel County. The theme of the movie explores life here during that time of depression and war, and at the heart of the story is a young boy named Henry Blun, who has a very black and white way of viewing the world. At his sister Irene’s request, his family, who lives in what is currently the Blun community, houses a POW farm worker named August, then a series of heart-rending events transpire at the hands of Henry which ultimately create a negative butterfly effect throughout the remainder of his life.

“My grandfather was a similar age to Henry when his older brother was killed in WWII, and he also had a sister named Irene,” Eli shared, explaining the creative process for his film. “Interestingly enough, after he read our screenplay, he recounted for the first time how his father had explained that he had become homicidally angry during the last months of the war, when he would take his tobacco by donkey cart to the coastal North Carolina warehouses they delivered their crop to and see German POW labor. He was upset by young men, the age of his son, laughing and living.”

Eli, who was born in Alabama to a “southern family of preachers, teachers, and farmers,” had the rare chance to retrace the steps of his ancestors, which contributed to the film.

“When I was a few years old, my Dad joined the Army, and then we lived all over, including four years in Europe, where I got to retrace the steps of my great-Uncle Jesse, who pictures appears in our film, and who was killed on the first night of The Battle of the Bulge,” Eli said. “That helped history come alive for me.”

Additionally, Eli said that he and his team of producers wanted to explore the subject of “honor violence” in their film, which was “a way of life” in the south during that period. Honor violence is the act of harming, or in some cases even murdering an individual or outsider, by someone seeking to protect what they see as the dignity and honor of themselves or their family. These forms of violence are often connected to religion or other forms of hierarchical social stratification mostly due to the perpetrators' belief that the victim has brought dishonor or shame upon the family name, reputation or prestige.

“It’s part of the story of the South, and its victims included plenty of foreigners and other non-black minorities,” Eli explained. “Leo Frank, in Marietta, is a famous example of such an extrajudicial killing. Not addressed directly, we chose to depict the Blun family with lighter features than August - in our minds, their family originated in Germany and changed their name after the First World War. August, meanwhile, has darker features and could be a forced conscript, as many soldiers were.”

The true story, however, is that during the early 1940s, Emanuel County was understandably sharing the hardships with the rest of the country that The Great Depression and both World Wars had created. Even though Congress authorized military deferments for farm workers in 1942, agricultural employment had dropped by one million percent during World War II. This of course effected Emanuel County in its entirety because its economy was established on agricultural productivity and timberland.

During this time, Swainsboro established a POW camp or “prison” for German POWs who were used for agricultural labor. Emanuel County Historian, Missy Elder, explains that the camp was located on the property where the 4-H building currently resides, however another interesting theory lies in a structure of ruins that are located off West Main Street in Swainsboro on the property that currently belongs to local attorney, Jerry Cadle, and his wife Paula.

“This structure is about 90 years old,” Cadle explained as he took me on a tour around the square, concrete ruins. “This is what is presumed to be the bathhouse for the Civilian Conservation Corps that were here during the 1930s through the 1940s.”

Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. The CCC, or C's as it was sometimes known, allowed single men between the ages of 18 and 25 to enlist in work programs to improve America's public lands, forests, and parks. Many elder locals believe that these local ruins are the only tangible evidence that the German POWs were ever here.

“The POW workers were mainly used for peanut farming, which they hated working with, and even went on strike over,” explained Eli. “Overall, they were treated extremely well - traveling across the country in Pullman cars, sharing meals with the farmers' families, learning English, and more. Violence was only really seen from hardcore ideology S.S. officers who lashed out at fellow POWs who they felt were being too influenced by their time in the U.S. Many POWs stayed in America after the war, and some even married American women.”

Although the protagonists of the story are based on fictional characters, Eli explains that like the basis of the movie itself, one character from the movie was inspired by an actual Emanuel Countian, who earned his recognition for the person he was for others during those grueling times.

“Rufus was inspired by the real Rufus Cross, a neighbor from ‘The Promised Land’ that helped provide food and other support for my wife’s family so they could survive during The Great Depression,” he explained.

In addition to illuminating an important piece of Emanuel County history and tributing native, Rufus Cross, who is played by Caleb Avery in the film, Eli also filmed the entirety of his movie onsite in different places within and around the community, with the only location outside of the county lines being Historic Bark Camp Church in Midville. This adds a comforting touch of home and realism for local viewers and a vivid illusion of our reality for people not familiar with the area, essentially putting Emanuel County in the spotlight completely.

“We originally looked at Emanuel County because we thought about filming at my wife’s family’s property, but once we started scouting, we found an abundance of great locations,” explained Eli. “Swainsboro photographer Cal Avery, who runs a Facebook page called The Barn Hunter, helped us get in touch with both of the main locations we ended up shooting at in Twin City.”

The two locations that were used for the production of the movie are Cooper Henry’s farm, which is located in Twin City, and the Weatherford family farmhouse that’s also located in Southeastern Emanuel County.

“Notably, Mr. Cooper Henry’s farm, where we shot the bulk of our exteriors, including aging down the house between scenes by painting its facade, had German POWs doing agricultural labor on the property during WWII. All of the Blun family home interior takes were shot at the Weatherford brothers’ house in Twin City,” Eli said.

The film is only 11 minutes long but has earned the McGowans and their production team 15 wins and three nominations in Independent Shorts Awards and Indie Short Fest. They are also listed in an official selection of other festivals as well, including Spain’s Madrid Independent Film Festival, Venice Shorts in California, Serbia’s Belgrade International Film Festival, and North Carolina’s 29th Annual Twin Rivers Media Festival. They are additionally waiting to hear back from many other festivals, including Macon and SCAD Savannah.

“Yes, it’s eleven minutes long, but we hope it will help us sell the feature-length script we are developing,” explained Eli. “The feature would include more of Rufus’ family, life in the camp, a full love triangle, and document Irene’s dramatic escape from her family.”

Although “August” is a short film, the history and soul behind those 11 minutes of film span 80 years of our community’s history, which deserves recognition and to be preserved.

In the end, Eli explained that they wanted a hopeful message that love seemingly extinguished can give birth to new life, and forgiveness can be had after terrible mistakes.

“More people should consider shooting in Emanuel County!” said Eli, “We would love to come back and shoot here again because it has an enormous treasure of locations to offer productions of every size. We also hope that if viewers take anything from watching ‘August’, it’s that seemingly quiet places can have big stories from their past, and that love can overcome the mistakes that impact generations.”

For additional photos and still-frame shots from the film, please visit EmanuelCountyLive.com.