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Film Turns Eye (and Ear) on Core Sound

There’s a natural rhythm to life in the Core Sound region of Carteret County, an area of vast coastal marshes along North Carolina’s outer banks punctuated by small fishing villages. Accessible only by water for much of its history, the tight-knit community has nurtured generations of fisherman and boat-builders; families of strong traditions and even stronger links to the sea.

“Many of the people who live there have roots that go back to the 1700s,” says Neal Hutcheson, who first visited the area in 2005. “The roads and bridges came through 70 years ago, but even now it’s remote.”

Hutcheson, an Emmy-winning documentary producer for NC State’s Language and Life Project, found the area by luck rather than design. Vacationing with a friend near Beaufort, he struck up a conversation with some local residents.

“I heard the dialect and it was stunning,” he says.

L.J. Hardy sorting shrimp.
L.J. Hardy sorting shrimp in Neal Hutcheson’s new documentary, “Core Sounders.”

And so, the weekend getaway turned into a seven-year effort to capture the people, language and culture of the region. The result, a new film called “Core Sounders,” premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 14, at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. The screening is free and open to the public, but you should reserve a seat online.

The Edge of the End

It turns out that Hutcheson found Core Sound just as the area was facing threats to its centuries-old way of life. Real estate development was beginning to encroach on the pristine environment and–worse yet–drive up property values and property taxes.

But that wasn’t the only problem.

“The local fishing industry was being challenged on all sides,” Hutcheson says. “Water pollution was resulting in lower catches and expenses like gasoline were going up. At the same time, prices were depressed by the rise of globalization and the introduction of imported fish from Asia and Latin America.”

If he wanted to capture the region’s rich culture, Hutcheson realized, there was no time to lose.

“They were on the edge of the end,” he says.

Shrimping in the rain.
Shrimping in the rain in the waters of Core Sound.

But the people of Core Sound got a reprieve, in a backhanded way, when the recession hit in late 2007 and the real estate boom went bust. In the years since, residents have been organizing to protect their coastline as well as their industries. They’ve formed a fishing cooperative to improve access to markets and lobbied local government officials for tighter controls on development.

“They are a fiercely independent people who have learned to work together for their common interest,” Hutcheson says.

Working on the Water

During production, the filmmaker worked alone, rising early and spending hours on the water with local fishermen, camera gear in hand, to learn about their lives.

“The way they fish is highly intuitive,” he says. “They have a very nuanced knowledge of the ecosystem and the way it works.”

Neal Hutcheson in his office.
Neal Hutcheson editing in his office in Tompkins Hall.

And except for the time he almost lost his camera into a net hauling up a catch of flounder, it was an enjoyable experience.

“They’re a pretty rough bunch. Most of them are hardworking and hard-playing,” he says. “But I felt very warmly welcomed by them. They want to get their story out, to share who they are and what their lives mean to them.”

Embracing Language

Hutcheson has produced five documentaries for PBS in collaboration with English Professor Walt Wolfram: Indian By Birth (2001), Mountain Talk (2004), Voices of North Carolina (2005), The Queen Family: Appalachian Tradition & Back Porch Music (2006), and The Carolina Brogue (2008).

Shot of video box with picture of fishermen.
“Core Sounders” will be shown on UNC-TV.

Wolfram, a renowned linguist and director of the Language and Life Project, says the work is important because of the role language plays in society.

“A lot of people grow up feeling ashamed of their language,” he says. “We want to change those attitudes. You should embrace your language as part of your culture, part of your heritage, part of your experience.”

The work is also important because many of the languages and dialects the project documents are disappearing.

“There’s a feeling of nostalgia in all of us in terms of preservation,” he says. “We capture what we can to  preserve the legacy and then move on. But we realize that things will never be the same.”

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  1. Wonderful project. i have known many of the “island greats”. Will a DVD be available? if so please give details.