A Place Isn't Just a Place
Photo by Louis Hine, National Archives
“It’s not often you see one of these in people’s living rooms,” smiles Jamie Koelker, pointing to a high-tech sound recording booth ensconced in one corner. His wife and partner in filmmaking, Christi, is pouring their guest a glass of tea, mixing it with some sugar and lots of ice—a traditional gesture of Southern hospitality offered in an abode where the daily ebb and flow is quite non-traditional. Life at this residence in Kalmia Hill is spontaneous, on the cusp, dynamic. We’re talking about the creating space of two Aiken filmmakers whose marriage of talents has birthed high-quality, compelling documentaries that shed new light on Southern historical landscape.
How the Koelkers came together—and back together again—is destiny at its finest. At the University of South Carolina, Christi was a media arts major and Jamie a marine science student, who eventually turned to the artistic freedom and expression afforded by the camera. He took an elective photography course in Christi’s department and received an assignment to do a multimedia project, documenting a field trip to facilitate loggerhead turtle nesting in Kiawah. “I came back and told the story visually,” says Jamie. “At the end of that semester, I switched majors and have been in visual media ever since.”
Post-graduate life, however, drew a physical schism between the two. Christi went to Dallas to work in film and commercial photography; she married a photographer and assisted productions all over the country. After divorcing, she settled in Southern California, where she used filmmaking to teach literacy skills to second language learners. In the meantime, Jamie’s career took him to places like Saudi Arabia and Washington, D.C., where he helped craft one of the most impressive documentaries on the Hubble Space Telescope.
In 2001, while still in California, Christi sparked an idea to do a film on Salley, S.C., and, in pursuit of production advice, she contacted none other than former classmate Jamie, who was working at Edge Media in Aiken. This re-connection on a business level led to a re-connection on a personal level and, within a year, Christi moved to Aiken and married Jamie soon after.
Christi quickly discovered Aiken as a Southern gem of a town ripe with filmmaking opportunities. Partnering with several museums, she conducted video histories of local residents to collect the stories of those who had personally witnessed important moments in Southern history. She also began producing short films with USC-Aiken professor Dr. Maggi Morehouse about the African American diaspora. Overall, however, the couple’s first projects together were, as Jamie puts it, “somewhat grueling” and included a 400-episode science series and a 250-episode literature series for Holt, Rinehart and Winston Publishing. Christi researched and wrote all 400 of the science episodes, requiring her to do everything from creating a dichotomous key to charting the behavior of pill bugs. These projects categorize under a highly academic genre of film that is less theatrical in comparison to the docudrama that would later seize the Koelkers’ creative energies in a way that has driven them to master the niche and develop a brand of true artistry.
When USC-Aiken Vice Chancellor for University Development Dr. Deidre Martin wanted to make a film about the historic Pickens-Salley House on the campus, she came to Christi. Since Jamie was resigning as president of Edge Media in 2008, the timing of USC-Aiken’s pitch was impeccable. The Koelkers formed Storyline Media and together helmed the historical documentary Edgewood: Stage of Southern History. Written and directed by Christi with photography directed by Jamie, Edgewood won the 2010-2011 Grand Award in the film and video category from CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) for the broadcast docudrama.
A masterpiece representing a pivotal point in Storyline Media’s development, Edgewood is a grand showcase not only of the Koelkers’ filmmaking vision but also of their separate yet complementary skills working in aesthetic tandem. As what she terms a “story architect,” Christi researches beyond the more widely-known historical facts to unearth a story that brings an intriguing and revealing angle to a moment, person or event. “I peel away the layers,” says Christi. “There’s always a deeper, more complex story underneath the surface. As photographs, letters and other artifacts are excavated over the course of a few months, connections emerge that were never before apparent. There’s a strange phenomenon—which always happens in our work—that the story emerges when it’s given the right conditions.”
Weaving the narration and interviews together with movement, color and sound is Jamie’s visual timing and keen manipulation of light. In Edgewood, there’s a quick scene in which the narrator is talking about better times blossoming at the Pickens-Salley house. As this is being said, the camera focuses tight on a small parlor table set with a silver dish holding a withered magnolia. A woman comes and replaces the flower with a spry, fresh one, whose ivory petals softly glow in the subdued sunlight pouring through the lace parlor curtains. It’s a small but powerful touch that is the difference between good filmmaking and great filmmaking; that is, production designed out of passion, creativity and thoughtfulness.
“After Edgewood, someone came to me and said, ‘Now that house will never be destroyed. It’s not just boards. It’s where these people were,’” says Christi. “We love what we do. Our vocation is our avocation.”
“This is our life,” adds Jamie. “Because of what we do, we can live wherever we want. This area is not a hot bed of film production, but for our last two productions and the next two, we are living where so much American history happened.
“I’m not talking South Carolina; I’m talking Aiken/Edgefield. The lead secessionists were Edgefield guys. Here was a microcosm of the Civil War story at large. Aiken is a unique place for biographies of characters.” This very region, he continues, is robust with wrenching tales of skullduggery, intrigue, fighting spirit, stories that not many people know about but need to be told. “When we are finished with a movie, our greatest hope is that viewers will recognize how important their own lives and decisions are right now in the present,” says Jamie.
Currently, the Koelkers are documenting a University of Illinois archaeological expedition in Edgefield, where students have excavated the Pottersville kiln where Dave the slave potter worked. “The short of it is, out of this briar thicket in the middle of a hay field in rural South Carolina emerged something no one ever expected to find,” says Jamie. “Architecture emerged that should bring this site national landmark status.”
In addition to gathering footage for the upcoming documentary, they’ve created a video channel to post field reports for the expedition’s colleagues around the country (Go to www.vimeo.com and search “Channels” for Storyline Media). This fall, Jamie will travel to Illinois to document the lab work, which includes the mass spectroscopy, reconstruction, and CT scanning of some 30,000 Pottersville artifacts.
Another Koelker film to be on the lookout for is Horse Creek Valley...A Tale Worth the Telling, set to broadcast September 22 on SCETV’s Southern Lens, ETV’s independent film series. This one-hour broadcast documentary, provided in part by a grant from The Humanities CouncilSC, covers 13,000 years of history in an extraordinary valley in South Carolina. Part of the film focuses on a special and rare form of clay, found in Horse Creek Valley, that was used to produce stoneware and the captivating face jugs that give us insight into slave culture and artistry.
Christi holds up one of the large face jugs that she has on display at home. “I love this,” she smiles. “Gary does such a good job.” Gary Dexter is a local potter who is one of few to create authentic face jugs using the same techniques employed in the 1800s when Pottersville was operational.
And so this is how filmmaking comes full circle for the Koelkers. What they learn and what they find along a given production journey becomes part of their living space and part of their life perspective. A place isn’t just a place; an item isn’t just an item. There is meaning that fingers out in different directions, ultimately threading every one of us into the historical tapestry.