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Conversations with Alabama Filmmaker Max Shores

by Penne J. Laubenthal

Max Shores, a native of Winfield, Alabama, is a thirty-year veteran of documentary production. His documentaries tell compelling stories about life in the southeastern United States.

Shores' work has been screened at the Memphis International Film Festival, Crossroads Film Festival, Rome International Film Festival, Real to Reel Film Festival, Southern Fried Flicks Film Festival, Secret City Film Festival, Oxford Film Festival, Appalachian Film Festival,Indie Grits Film Festival, New York City Food Film Festival, International Film Festival of England, and the Globians Documentary Film and World Culture Festival of Germany.

As a result of his research for The Amazing Story of Kudzu, Shores is considered one of the world’s leading scholars on the kudzu vine. He also traced the 1540 route of Spanish conquistador Hernando Desoto across the southeastern U.S. for his documentary In Search of Desoto’s Trail, and he documented the history of what was once called the "wickedest city in America" in Up from the Ashes: the Phenix City Story. In The Chief: Calvin McGhee and the Forgotten Creeks he told the sad, yet triumphant story of a Native American group left behind in Alabama when others were forcibly removed to Oklahoma in the 1830s.

Shores' most recent projects include Songs inside the Box, and Scrambled Films, a documentary about three teams participating in a 48 hour film competition. Between July of 2005 and release of Scrambled Films, Shores completed two other documentaries, presented his work at 12 film festivals, and won five awards.

Songs Inside The Box is a documentary film that takes viewers to the world's largest concert of cigar box guitar music and provides a unique glimpse into a popular hobby and growing movement of self expression participants call the cigar box guitar revolution. This unique music documentary will be coming to Alabama Public TV in 2009. It was shot at the 2007 Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza in Huntsville, Alabama, and was screened at the Fingerlakes Celebration of the Cigar Box Guitar on October 3rd in Canandaigua, NY

Max, you have just returned from a gig in Tupelo, Mississippi, right?

Yes. Pat Rasberry who has served as the head of the Tupelo Film Commission, a division of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, for many years, is the director of the Tupelo Film Festival and that is the context in which I first met her. Pat invited me to screen the Richard Johnston documentary recently as a part of an Independent Film Series she coordinates. The Independent Film Series is sponsored by the Tupelo Film Commission.

Tupelo is familiar territory to you because your documentary on Richard Johnston (not to be confused with Robert Johnson) won an award at the annual Tupelo Film Festival a couple of years ago.

Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour is my documentary about the amazing Memphis street musician and one-man-band, Richard Johnston. It has been featured at several film festivals and has won five awards, including second place in the feature documentary category at the Tupelo Film Festival in 2006. More screenings are coming up. (pictured are Richard and Max at the Tupelo Festival)

Forgive me but I can never hear the name Tupelo without asking if you had a meal at Vanelli's. I am a huge fan of Vanelli's.

Yes, we had a great time at the screening, including an enthusiastic audience with lots of questions after the film, and dinner at Vanelli's!

Speaking of food, your documentary about barbecue was shown in New York early this summer at the New York City Food Film Festival. Did those New Yorkers learn a thing or two about southern barbecue?

Holy Smoke over Birmingham is a mouth watering documentary I did about Birmingham, Alabama, barbecue restaurants. It was broadcast on Alabama Public Television several times and was featured in the New York City Food Film Festival in June where 750 New Yorkers gathered at Water Taxi Beach to eat barbecue and watch the film.

Now that sounds a lot better to me than popcorn. While we are on the subject of things edible, I have to ask you about kudzu. Your film about that bane of the south attracted national attention.

Yes, I've eaten kudzu, too! The jelly made from kudzu blossoms is delicious!
Several years ago I did a documentary on kudzu, a vine that grows widely in the southeastern US. The Amazing Story of Kudzu was distributed to public TV stations nationwide and I guess I'll never live that one down! The story of how kudzu became so widely distributed in the US is truly amazing.

Growing up in the south I saw plenty of kudzu and ate my share of barbecue but also, when I was very young, I saw a disturbing movie called The Phenix City Story. You recently made a documentary about Phenix City, Alabama, as it is today.

Up from the Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City is my documentary about an Alabama city that had a reputation for being "the wickedest city in America" until the National Guard crushed a crime syndicate there in 1954. The documentary was nominated for an Emmy Award.

The south has many prestigious film festivals, including the Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi and the Lindsey Film Festival in Florence, Alabama. I presume you will be attending a number of festivals in the coming year.

I've had the honor of participating in several film festivals in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. Oxford is a favorite for sure along with Tupelo, the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson and the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival in Florence, Alabama. My work has been screened at some festivals which I couldn't attend, but I try to visit festivals across the southeast when possible. I really appreciate the people who make these events possible and they are a great asset for the cities in which they take place.

You have referred to your position as a producer-director at the University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio, as “the coolest job in the world.”

I have the freedom of an independent producer without many of the budget headaches. I get to choose topics for which I have a passion, and the University provides the budget, equipment, and talented professional personnel. On top of that, I get to work with a group of eager students in support positions.

So what do you do when you are not making films, besides spending time with your wife and daughters?

I love blues music and enjoy taking pictures at concerts.

Your excellent work has certainly not gone unnoticed. I particularly enjoyed the article about you in this month's Tuscaloosa Magazine. I hope all the Swampland readers will read the article and check out your home web site and your MySpace page. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with Swampland.

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