The 14th annual Sidewalk Film Festival is bigger and better than ever with over 200 films, 7 venues and 3 awesome days for film lovers of all varieties. From August 24 through August 26, downtown Birmingham is the destination for the avid film buff or the casual movie fan who just wants to catch a good flick. There are even many family offerings for those who want to bring the kids along. Grab some popcorn, sit back and enjoy the show.
Kevin Turner is the American Man
Former pro fullback fights ALS and dreams of changing the game that may have planted the disease in his brain
by Katherine Webb
When Kevin Turner was five years old, he says, he was dying to play football. It was 1974 in Prattville, Ala., and the Pop Warner league’s rulebook clearly stated a boy had to be six to sign up. So Kevin begged his dad, Raymond. He begged and begged, and eventually Raymond, a car salesman and an Alabama football fan who spent weekends watching games with his son, loaded the begging boy into his truck. They drove 20 miles up Highway 31 to Marbury where Raymond signed his son to the roster.
“I played from 1974 every year up until 1987,” Turner says, “when I was a freshman at Alabama, and I was red-shirted.”
You don’t have to be an Alabamian to know what that means. You don’t have to be a fan of the game to know that what Turner went on to do as an athlete—winning his high school state championship, starting as fullback 41 consecutive games at Alabama, and later completing eight pro seasons for the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles—is remarkable.
But Turner is as quick to tell you about his folks as he is his feats on the field.
“Growing up in Prattville was, especially in the late 70s and 80s, probably not unlike most towns in Alabama,” Kevin says. “You knew pretty much everything about everyone. I was an only child. Both my parents worked. I thought we were very happy. You know, heck, I used to think we were rich. I didn’t know any different. Life was rosy.”
Turner’s dad was in the auto business for 40 years, his mom an operations supervisor at Meryl Lynch in Montgomery. When Turner was eight, his dad took over as coach for his Pop Warner team. Today, grown men in Prattville pass Raymond Turner in the grocery store and call out to him, “Hey, Coach.” While Kevin Turner believes his relationship with his parents would have been beloved regardless, he recognizes the role football played in bringing them together. (Turner’s mom didn’t miss a game until he played in the Japan Bowl.) When speaking of his parents, Turner’s Southern drawl is tinted with a tone of compassion that comes only when we speak of those we revere.
“There’s nothing extravagant to say about my childhood,” Turner says, “except that I remember when we went to the high school state championship, it was like we shut the whole town down. Everyone came up to Birmingham to watch us. I never thought of playing pro ball—well, sure, I thought of it, I dreamt of it. But kind of the way I did it, I looked forward to the next thing, always working toward the next thing. In junior high, I had my eye on high school. And like that, on and on. My goal was simple.”
This is a determined man.
This is a man who fulfilled boyhood dreams.
And this is a man who never dreamed the consequences of his athletic pursuits might take away his simplest physical functions and bring him—in lieu of a phenomenon—to his death.
Thirty-six years after that first game in Marbury, retired and at his home in Vestavia Hills, Ala., Turner says he noticed something wasn’t right with his body. “My left arm was getting weaker, especially my grip in my left hand,” Turner says. “I couldn’t play guitar anymore. My fingers wouldn’t do what I told them to do.”
Turner went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the degenerative disease made infamous in America in the 1930s when baseball player Lou Gehrig was diagnosed.
Turner thinks his own diagnosis, in part, is due to the 25 years he spent crashing into other men on the football field. Scientists and doctors are still working to connect the links between brain damage and ALS. Now 43 with three kids, Turner spends his days as spokesman for the Kevin Turner Foundation, raising awareness about the disease and the dangers of repeatedly incurring head injuries.
“Looking back on it, after learning a lot more about other player’s stories and what they’ve gone through after football—you know I had similar problems,” Turner says, referring to the struggling years he had after retiring. “I just kind of had this depression that I couldn’t get rid of. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I didn’t know anything was wrong with me except for the fact that I knew something had changed.” Turner can’t help but wonder if the injuries he sustained during his career contributed to bringing on that change.
His last year in the NFL, 1999, Turner was 30. “My body was falling apart,” he says. In eight pro seasons, Turner had shoulder surgery, knee surgery, back surgery, broken fingers, broken hands, broken toes, sprained ankles, degenerative discs and hernias. “The stuff you’d expect,” he says.
Twice during his pro career, Turner was knocked out on the field. There is no way to quantify the number of lesser blows his brain endured. In both knockout instances, he returned to the game within 15 minutes. Turner’s dad was in the stands in 1994 when New England beat Cincinnati 31-28, and Turner was first knocked unconscious. “You don’t have to do this, you know,” Raymond Turner told his son. “You can come home and sell cars with me.”
“All the injuries were just part of the game,” Kevin Turner says. “I even knew then—as I got up in age—there would be consequences for this. But I never in my life would have thought of this. I was willing to sacrifice my body and willing to work through it. What I never realized was the damage I was doing to my brain.”
HBO Sports correspondent Jon Frankel realizes the risk. Interested in the aftermath of an athletic career, Frankel regularly covers stories concerning head trauma. Although there are many athletes whose lives no longer resemble what they once were at the height of their physical capabilities, warriors on our dream fields, Turner’s story is fascinating to Frankel.
“Kevin Turner is a poster boy for so many of the trappings that befall former athletes, especially former NFL players,” Frankel says, “with depression, divorce, personal bankruptcy, addiction to painkillers. Kevin can check off every one of those. Not every guy can. And on top of that, he gets a diagnosis of ALS.”
On August 17, 2010, HBO Sports aired a report on athlete head trauma. The New York Times ran a related story the following day. Frankel’s friend who lives in Birmingham saw both stories and called Frankel to say, “There’s a guy in my community who is just beginning to go public.” That guy was Kevin Turner. A few days after chatting on the phone, Frankel flew to Birmingham to meet Turner, ultimately following him for a year, filming what would become the documentary American Man. The title is taken from the name of a song Turner wrote on his guitar. The film is set to show in Alabama in August at the Sidewalk Film Festival.
Neither Frankel nor Turner has hopes to ban football. Their goal in making the film is to better educate parents about the uncertainty of brain trauma and to call for stricter regulations on the field. Turner is pleased with the NFL’s decision to push kickoff to the 35-yard line, which often puts the ball in the end zone, preventing the full-speed collision of the special teams.
“There are a lot of able-bodied people walking around who played football,” Frankel notes. “I’d be nervous for someone to use this story as the ‘perfect illustration’ of why the sport should be banned. That’s not what Kevin would want.”
Despite both men’s love of the game, there is obvious tension in the telling of this story. In 2011, Turner pulled his oldest son, now 14, from the game, only to let him return to tryouts this season.
“The movie is a portrait of Kevin Turner, the man,” Frankel says. “A lot of accounts in the media are after the fact, after a guy commits suicide or is already locked in his body. In a very distant way, we were watching it unravel on TV. You didn’t get to see someone living with it. You know, trying to pick up a glass.”
“Trying to pick up a glass,” because ALS will take that ability away from a person. According to the American ALS Association, the disease begins most often with muscle weakness in a limb or in difficulty breathing and swallowing. There is twitching and cramping in muscles, especially hands and feet. Speech grows “thick” and becomes difficult to project. Swallowing is a chore. Eventually, the paralysis spreads, leaving the person “locked-in,” relying on a ventilator for survival; however, because the disease only attacks motor neurons, a person is still entirely capable of the sensation of touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing. Not to mention what makes us human at all, the sensation of thinking, of traveling in our own minds, of dreaming.
Ingenuity allows someone like Turner, now two years post-diagnosis, to continue daily life. Turner has approached strangers in hotels, requesting, “if you’ll just get the belt started, I can finish it,” so that he could use the restroom. Still able to drive because of specialized knobs on his steering wheel, he cannot pump his own gas and relies on other drivers to assist him. With lessened pinch strength, he struggles with utensils. Using his teeth to clench the bed sheets at night, he tucks himself in to sleep.
“My kids are a big help. Three really, really great kids,” Turner says. He has two sons and a daughter, the oldest entering ninth grade this fall. “And my good friends and family. The film to me is about the power of love and friendship.”
There are 30,000 Americans currently living with ALS. Although the disease is highly variable from patient to patient, life expectancy is usually two to five years after diagnosis. There are exceptions. The young guitar virtuoso Jason Becker was diagnosed at 19. Twenty-three years later, he’s still alive, still making music, but instead of deftly fingering his six-string, he manipulates software with his eyes.
Turner is optimistic. “I’ve never been one of those guys who gets up at a press conference to thank God for the win. I don’t think he really cares who won a game,” he says. “But after getting my faith back together, my priorities, I feel a ton better. Even though I have ALS, I’m going to be here for a long time.”
Had Turner’s parents been equipped with the knowledge he now has about brain damage, they might have made different choices for their son. Turner says his time playing for Alabama and in the NFL was a dream. He says football afforded him opportunities he otherwise would have never received. He’d do it all over it again—mostly. For now, while Kevin Turner’s body allows it, while his lungs and his legs are still strong, he’ll take each day as it comes, with thanks, on and on, like the boy determined to make the next level in the game he loved so dearly.
Where the Land and the Man Connect
Andrew and Rashmi Grace spent a year eating locally and uncovered the economic grief of Alabama’s farmers
by Katherine Webb
Filmmaker Andrew Beck Grace and his wife Rashmi are the subjects and creators of the documentary Eating Alabama. Grace, in his early 30s and rapt with nonfiction storytelling, teaches documentary film-making at the University of Alabama. Rashmi is co-founder of the Druid City Garden Project in Tuscaloosa.
Their film debuts locally at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival in August. Its screenings in other states have earned the film high praise, including the “Top Grit” prize at the Indie Grits Film Festival in South Carolina.
This praise proves the pitch goes beyond nostalgia and stunts. Andrew Grace knows the pitch is a gimmick. (I’m willing to bet a few of you do, too.) We are now all too familiar with the set-up—which isn’t to say we are all too ready to move past it. A good hook, after all, is still a good hook. The Happiness Project. Julie & Julia. Supersize Me. No Impact Man. These are a few of the blogs, books and films that adopt a similar premise: subject participates in one activity for x amount of time; subject records findings.
I spoke with Grace about his food and film experience as he drove north to Asheville with his family.
“It’s starts with Walden,” Grace said, referring to Henry Thoreau’s 1854 book that documented the two years Thoreau spent living in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. “This idea of going out and trying to do something and writing about it or documenting it. Some endeavor with constraints or confines. Now it’s can the Kardashians survive in the Sahara? But Eating Alabama is a personal story about my grandfather. It’s about my connection to the land, my lack of connection to the land and what that means to my generation.”
Grace and his wife Rashmi, like many young Americans, are of the suburban generation. They were raised in Huntsville, Ala., a city known for its engineers and scientists and their contributions to missile defense. Andrew Grace’s grandfather left his family’s Kentucky farm to work in defense contracting, which led his family to the inevitable disconnect from an agrarian world.
Andrew and Rashmi were raised in the supermarket world.
“One of my favorite meals growing up was chicken breast smothered in potted dried meat, smothered in some Campbell’s soup concoction,” Grace said. “My mom is an amazing cook, and she did a good job making sure we had a well-balanced meal. It was the Southern way of cooking. Well, Southern way of cooking post-1960. Like many working families, they just fed us with what they could prepare quickly.”
Despite the draws of suburban ease, Grace believes certain knowledge carries over for generations, such as what food is in season. Summertime recalls memories of sliced tomatoes. And although the film is in pursuit of connecting Grace with his paternal grandfather, the one who left the farm for the city, the one who once ate locally and seasonally without giving a second thought to the practice, Grace remembers this other old family story. “My maternal grandfather had a big personal garden,” he said. “My mom wanted to carry that on. I was late for a week or so, and she went out to plant tomatoes to stimulate labor. Once she was busy with work and kids, she didn’t have time for a garden.”
After Grace and his wife dug up their front yard in Tuscaloosa to plant their own garden for the film project, his mother invited a friend over. The friend brought his tractor.
“I had never grown food,” Grace said. “I was curious about how it was that we had created an agricultural and culinary system in which I didn’t know anything about where my food came from. So what if we reversed that? And learned everything about where our food comes from. How ludicrous would it be?”
The film follows Andrew and Rashmi as they learn to garden and harvest, as Andrew attempts to hunt, as they travel the state speaking to farmers in search of our food’s origins.
“During that year of local eating, after we navigated some hurdles, and took some silly trips—I say silly because it was totally unsustainable—like driving 700 miles to go grocery shopping, hitting all these farms in south Alabama, we soon discovered farmers growing food in our own back yard, and it became sort of easy to eat locally,” Grace said. “So that’s when the story changes. The story is really about why is it so hard for local farmers to make a living in Alabama.”
“It was clear that not everyone who lives here could live that way,” Grace said of eating locally, of eating the way our ancestors had for generations. “There’s not a local food economy anymore. Rashmi and I had to create a pathway. Why did we get here when my grandparents ate seasonally and locally? We wanted to look at farmers, big farmers, small farmers around the state who are struggling just to survive.”
He discovered the incredible debt new farmers incur and spoke with old-timers who doubt the ability of young people to make a living off the land.
As Alabamians, we share a collective past, a collective memory, so to speak. The rolling landscape of the northern regions of our state is as engrained in a Jackson County native as the sandy flatlands of the south are embedded in the residents of Baldwin County. We are both arrogant and ashamed when it comes to our history. We all have a great-grandfather known for his trigger finger. A great-grandmother whose jet-black hair was undoubtedly an indication of her Cherokee descent.
No wonder the most curious among us yearn to connect with the very land beneath our feet.
If our people settled this red dirt far enough back, they came from the farms of other worlds, and for generations onward, they tilled the land, raised beds in the generous soil and grew crops to sustain a nation’s hunger.
And then what happened?
Grace isn’t entirely sure, but since pitching the film, both his life and work have been an attempt to answer the question.
Opening Night Film:
Best friends Nick (Alex Karpovsky) and Darryl (Tarik Lowe) are a film editing power duo hired to rework a movie in crisis. But what should have been business as usual has taken them into a personal tailspin of their own. After some professional run-ins, Nick’s seemingly innocent attraction to the film’s flirtatious starlet sparks questions about his own stable relationship, and wannabe player Darryl falls hard for tempestuous pop dancer Liana (Melanie Diaz), who may have a game of her own to play. All of this takes place while the editing team tries to navigate the neuroses of the film’s director (Kevin Corrigan), his dubious choices, and a new gig that tests the limits of their friendship.
The film, co-written by Lowe and director Daniel Schechter, is a smart New York buddy comedy with genuine humor and heart. Indie renegade Karpovsky perfectly pitches Nick as the quintessential nerdy know-it-all failing to heed his own advice. A funny, authentic take on modern relationships, Supporting Characters is a truly masculine romantic comedy.
The film features: Lena Dunham (HBO›s Girls), Alex Karpovsky (HBO’s Girls, Gayby, which is also screening at Sidewalk 2012), Arielle Kebbel (90210, Think Like A Man, John Tucker Must Die).
SEE THIS FILM: Supporting Characters
Friday, August 24, 8:00pm.
(which includes admission to the Opening Night After Party)
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
It’s not a death metal band, an extreme diet club or historic dominoes association—the Bones Brigade was a talented gang of teenage outcasts. Unmotivated by fame or popularity, they completely dedicated their lives to a disrespected art form. For most of the 1980s, this misfit crew headed by a 1970s ex-skateboard champion blasted the industry with a mixture of art and raw talent, becoming the most popular skateboarding team in history. The core unit of the Bones Brigade built an empire that covered the world. They dominated contests, made hundreds of thousands of dollars, created the modern skateboard video, reinvented endemic advertising, pushed skate progression into a new era and set the stage for a totally new form of skating called street style. There’s nothing comparable in today’s skateboarding.
In April 2004, an unusual thing occurred at the McDonald’s in Mt. Washington, Ky., a rural suburb 18 miles outside of Louisville. A man called the manager there and told her that an employee – who fit the description of an 18- year-old female employee to a “T” – had stolen a customer’s purse. The man, who identified himself as a police officer, gave the manager two choices: have the girl hauled down to the police station and booked, or follow his instructions implicitly to help him locate the evidence he needed to process the case until officers could arrive there at the restaurant to take over.
What happened over the next three ½ hours seems almost too incredible to believe, with the manager, the girl, the manager’s boyfriend and others blindly and obediently following the direction of the caller to put the teenager through everything from a humiliating strip search to a sexual assault – all in the name of “cooperating with the law.”
Even more amazing is that the Mt. Washington case was not the only one. Incredulously, more than 70 such calls occurred throughout the country over a nearly 10 year period, with the caller putting the victims through ridiculous paces – to which they all submitted themselves voluntarily, not wanting to go against the wishes of a “police officer.” It was not until after the Mt. Washington case was an alleged caller apprehended, a 38-year-old Florida prison guard/would-be cop.
A few years ago, writer/director Craig Zobel came across an article about the curious case, and he says, “It stuck with me.” A filmmaker’s brain ever-intrigued by unusual relationships, Zobel couldn’t help but wonder about the dynamic between the manager and teenager. “I just kept wondering what it could have been like, in order for things to get as far as they did? And what was the guy on the other side of the phone saying?”
With no tapes of the phone conversations in existence, Zobel couldn’t resist writing down ideas of what he could only guess had taken place, verbally. Eventually, he notes, “I realized this could be a cool little potboiler of a story,” completing a script in just a month’s time shortly thereafter.
The results of Zobelʼs and the cast’s handiwork is a riveting, frightening story. “The success of a movie like this is so execution-dependent,” says David Gordon Green. “You can’t screw it up; you can’t turn it into a TV movie. But it was in deft hands with Craig – it makes you very uncomfortable and challenges the audience to believe things that sound unbelievable.”Craig’s main goal was to try and understand what happened there,” Healy says. Zobel agrees. “I wasn’t making this movie just to have a new ʻproductʼ in the marketplace. We all had a question, one that me and a bunch of my now-friends had about the world, and we tried to answer it in some way that made sense to us.” Adds Green, “I’m looking forward to watching the audience squirm.”
ETHEL is a feature-length documentary about the remarkable life of Ethel Kennedy, told by those who know Ethel best: her family. Directed by her Emmy® Award-winning daughter, Rory Kennedy, the film features candid interviews with Ethel and seven of her children. The film is a personal portrait of Ethel’s political awakening, the life she shared with Robert F. Kennedy and the years following his death when she raised their 11 children on her own. Intimate, funny and deeply moving, ETHEL offers a rare look inside a political dynasty strengthened by family bonds, a compassion for others and a wisdom forged from both hardship and triumph. The film is scheduled to be seen on HBO in 2012.
An Affair of the Heart
An Affair of the Heart is the story of the Grammy-winning musician/songwriter who continues to write, release new music, and perform 80-100 concerts a year. He’s also an occasional actor on such shows as General Hospital and Californication.
Produced and directed by Sylvia Caminer, this is also the story of the fans that Rick Springfield has connected with over his 30+year career — a multi-generational cross-section from all over the world. Discover what it is about Springfield and his music that drives his fans to such religious devotion. What meaning has he had and does he have in their lives? How do loved ones feel about this undying devotion? What does Springfield think the connection with his fans is ultimately about and what it’s like to be the source of such a timeless “affair of the heart.”