Leslie Baxter ’11
Hometown: Jackson, Tenn.
Thesis Title: “TVA: A Family History”
Advisor: Dr. Dan Klingensmith, professor of history
The dozens of books and online journal articles I have read concerning the Norris Dam this past semester have provided me with several ideas of how to design my documentary. At times I become lost in the information and do not understand how I will successfully create my thesis by April. While all the information I have gathered is important, not all of the facts I have gathered can be presented. Focusing too heavily on the Tennessee Valley itself would destroy what I originally planned to do in the beginning: share my family’s story. Besides, there is plenty of research available about TVA as a company; however, there is less information about who Franklin D. Roosevelt named the Forgotten People. My family is only a small part of the story, but it provides two very separate views of the Tennessee Valley Authority. As much as I despise TVA for destroying my great-grandparents’ land which had been in the family for years, I cannot help but feel grateful that they provided jobs for my other set of great-grandparents. My goal in creating my documentary is to present both sides of TVA through the stories of my family. This is the easy part. I have the resources, and I can interview my grandparents. The difficult task will be creating a film that is interesting, informative, and organized.
When I first decided to challenge myself to produce a documentary as my thesis as opposed to the traditionally written thesis, I was enrolled in Mr. Trevathan’s documentary film class. Consequently, I had already been exposed to various types of documentaries. I knew what I liked about particular documentaries and what I found boring. For instance, ten minute segments of a person speaking without any pictures to break apart the monotony is dull. Music is also a critical component. If it does not reflect the mood or tone of the subject, it is unsatisfactory. Just as important is the narrative which glues the pictures, film, and interviews together. Before starting this project, I believe it is important to view other documentaries about the TVA. Patricia Ezzel, TVA’s official historian, provided me with the documentary Built for the People. It was helpful in providing me with an example format.
When Leslie Baxter ’11 started thinking about her Senior Study in history, she conceived of it in images, not text. In particular, Baxter’s goal was to examine the effects of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Norris Dam on her maternal and paternal grandparents and great-grandparents. Instead of handing in a ream of paper to her advisor, Dr. Dan Klingensmith, she gave him a DVD disc. Entitled “TVA: A Family History,” Baxter created a documentary film that incorporates video interviews with her relatives, archival photographs and footage, text, music and voiceover.
Klingensmith said that Baxter’s was not the first history Senior Study that used film as its medium. In fact, as a freshman, Baxter became aware of 2007 alumna Ashleigh Oatts’ Senior Study, which was a video project using still photos. This planted the seed. Later, after taking Kim Trevathan’s ENG349: Documentary Film course, she decided on her research topic and chose to create a film as the finished product.
Although she gained some experience creating short films in Trevathan’s class, Baxter raised the bar when she switched (by necessity) from PC-based software to Mac-based iMovie, bought her own camera and learned, among other things, how to convert sound from old cassette recordings to files she could use in her film, a process that also required new software. Though she claims not to be technologically inclined, Baxter taught herself to use the new software and hardware, relying mainly on the help of online tutorials and Mac blogs.
She credits her parents with providing the financial support required to procure the technology to produce a film. They were glad to do so, she said, “because the project documents my family history.”
Klingensmith advised Baxter on the content of the film and the overall study, as well as helping her narrow the scope of her research and limit the length of the film to 45 minutes. He said he advised Baxter on matters such as pacing, sequence and what made the most impact in the materials she had gathered for the film.
Klingensmith described his advisee as a highly motivated student and was impressed with her ability to solve most of the technical problems herself. In the end, he said, “she exceeded her own expectations” in meeting her deadlines for the final project, despite a steep learning curve and considerable obstacles.
To add to the complications of learning new programs and how to use a new camera, Baxter’s computer crashed during the project – a setback that she took in stride despite the expense of a new computer and the time it took to get back on track.
Apart from Baxter’s ambitious goal of presenting her research through film, the content itself raised questions of considerable complexity. Klingensmith noted that Baxter started out the project a bit conflicted about TVA’s role in her grandparents’ lives. One set of grandparents experienced loss as a result of the building of the dam, their farm bought out by TVA and flooded by Norris Lake; the other set gained employment as a result of this first TVA project.
Baxter went to great pains to provide historical context for the TVA’s creation, its mission and its role in reshaping and changing an impoverished region. She does this with a concise voiceover that accompanies compelling archival footage, such as Franklin Roosevelt signing the TVA Act.
Her film becomes a kind of case study about the success and failures of TVA. What emerges from the film is Baxter’s balanced, well-informed view of the federal agency that changed so many lives and drastically altered the landscape of the region. But what Baxter also accomplished was to dramatize the emotional and personal side of the story, her grandparents’ testimony enabling viewers to understand, in a direct way, the dam’s effect on the lives of individuals.
Early in the film in a voiceover, Baxter succinctly states her goal: “It is my hope that this short documentary will provide a voice for the common man, as well as preserve a small portion of history – my history.”
“Initially, my grandfather was hesitant to participate. He does not like to be the center of attention, and he is very soft spoken,” she said. “After seeing the final film, though, he was glad that he had helped.”
Baxter said that in addition to their testimony, her grandparents helped with all of the research, including going through family photos and unearthing documents such as land deeds and marriage certificates.
“Their help,” she said, “made the project memorable. I learned so much more about my grandparents in that time, and I grew closer to them as a result.”
Klingensmith said that one thing he learned in working with Baxter on the project was how a family can have conflicted feelings about historical events and that history is still alive in this area as it regards TVA. He said that Baxter went into the project “thinking that TVA had defrauded her family and came out with a more nuanced view.”
Baxter is currently completing her first year of graduate school at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. She will graduate in December 2012 with a Post-Graduate Master’s in Teaching (PG/MT).
Already she has been able to employ the knowledge and skills she acquired in completing her Senior Study. This past summer, she completed a two-and-a-half hour documentary on the life of a family friend’s father, a project for which she was paid. In addition, she employed her skills in one of her graduate school classes, “Teaching with Technology.” She feels confident, she said, that “the documentaries I created [in the course] can be used in the classroom and will take no time for me to create a short digital story to introduce a new lesson.”
After graduation, Baxter said she hopes to teach overseas (Asia is her first choice) for a few years, “as well as get involved with a mission organization that ministers to young [trafficked] women.”