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The Abstract

6 Must-See 21st Century Documentaries About Life in North Carolina

A farmer in overalls in front of a barn petting a calf
Image from The Last Barn Dance, directed by Jason Arthurs and Ted Richardson.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Marsha Gordon, a professor of film studies at NC State. This post is part of our NC Knowledge List series, which taps into NC State’s expertise on all things North Carolina.

North Carolina has a long history of filmmaking, dating back to the silent era. As someone who often teaches courses on nonfiction filmmaking, however, I’m struck by how many wonderful documentaries have been produced both in and about North Carolina in recent years. These films often screen at film festivals, but too often fly under the radar for most potential audiences – especially when they don’t receive a theatrical release, which is often the case.

These six memorable documentaries, released within the past two decades, masterfully capture the spirit of the place we live. This list could be 10 times as long and still not do justice to the wonderful documentary films being made about our state, but it’s a good starting point for those who want to see a sampling of the best work being made about North Carolina’s past, present and future.

Bright Leaves (2003), Dir. Ross McElwee
Ross McElwee has made a career out of making engaging first-person documentaries that weave together the filmmaker’s personal story with the history of larger ideas about life in the South. With great humor and intelligence, Bright Leaves connects the legacy of N.C. tobacco and Bull Durham to a 1950 Hollywood melodrama starring Gary Cooper and Lauren Bacall, to North Carolina social and political history, to McElwee’s own family and what it means to be a filmmaker turning the lens on a place that you happen to call home.

Information and a “teaser” clip can be found here:

Moving Midway (2007), Dir. Godfrey Cheshire

Image from Moving Midway, directed by Godfrey Cheshire.

In many ways a quintessential story about life in the South, expertly told, Raleigh-born film critic Godfrey Cheshire narrates a personal story about the moving of his family’s plantation home, located not far from Raleigh. But the story turns into something much more complex than the moving of a building. First and foremost, Moving Midway is a riveting tale about the South’s uniquely complicated legacy of slavery, property and family. It is also a reminder of the important, but almost always invisible, histories that lurk behind every corner of the landscape – including parking lots and strip malls – which show no signs of their fascinating, troubling, and knotty pasts. This is a documentary film full of revelations.


Rocaterrania (2009), Dir. Brett Ingram

Renaldo Kuhler. Photo courtesy of Brett Ingram/NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

If you lived in Raleigh in the 1990s, you might have noticed an eccentric gentleman with a long gray beard walking the city’s streets, especially around the North Carolina Museum of Sciences, wearing an outfit reminiscent of a boy scout. The museum is where Renaldo Kuhler worked as an illustrator for thirty years. By night, Kuhler wrote and drew thousands of pages about an imaginary and astonishingly complete world, Rocaterrania, with its own language, political system, clothing style, architecture, geography, and culture. With great sensitivity, Ingram explores Kuhler’s life and work, reminding us that everybody has a story to tell if only we’d take the time to ask and listen.

Information and teaser:

The Last Barn Dance (2014), Dir. Jason Arthurs and Ted Richardson

This memorable and beautifully shot short film documents dairy farmer Randy Lewis, who struggles to keep his Alamance County farm afloat. The crux of the film revolves not just around dairy farming but around a 50-year-old barn dance tradition that may come to a close if Lewis can’t keep the farm afloat. This NC story reminds viewers of how traditions are made – and lost – especially in times of cultural transition and economic upheaval.

Information and teaser:

All Skate, Everybody Skate (2016), Dir. Nicole Triche

There is a skating rink on Topsail Island that Miss Doris has been running for over 50 years. Nicole Triche captures the spirit of the rink and its feisty proprietress, while also documenting this independent business and its significance to the patrons who spend their leisure time and dollars here. A portrait of a person, a place and a passion, All Skate is intimate and joyous, reminding us of the vibrancy of human enterprises and spirit that lurks all around us.


Teacher of the Year (2017), Dir. Rob Phillips and Jason Korreck

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s really like to be a teacher in a North Carolina public school, then this is the documentary for you. At times moving, heartbreaking, exhausting and inspiring, Teacher of the Year (co-directed by NC State alumnus Rob Phillips) follows Leesville High School teacher Angie Scioli as she struggles to balance the demands of her teaching and personal life along with her activism on behalf of teachers in the state. This is the kind of eye-opening viewing experience that will make you think seriously about how the best teachers in our state are often stretched to the breaking point by wanting to do what’s best for their students and for themselves.

Teaser and information: