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David Turnley to discuss race, equality in documentary 'Shenandoah'

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Sean Czarnecki, Daily Film Editor
Published March 21, 2013

In 2008, an undocumented immigrant named Luis Ramirez was beaten to death by four white, star football players in Shenandoah, Penn. — a tragedy now immortalized by the upcoming documentary that shares its name with the town.

Scheduled to show at the Michigan Theater on March 27, “Shenandoah” is as much a documentary about the victim as it is about the coal-mining town itself. And for five years, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and filmmaker David Turnley, and RC and Art & Design professor, labored to capture this painful moment, this volatile re-imagining of Americanism — what the film’s tagline calls “The American Dream on Trial.”

Turnley was sure to tread his words carefully. Several times, he started, stopped, double-backed and skipped forward just to recount this American story with the same precision and respect displayed in the craftsmanship of the film itself.

“The challenges of working-class communities and where we stand as a nation today in real terms with regard to our values as an immigrant nation,” Turnley said, “are all seriously important questions and realities to where we are as a country.”

Both Turnley and his twin brother Peter grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind. — a very segregated city at the time — with an idealistic spirit instilled into them by historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.

After sustaining a football injury, Peter went into the inner city of Fort Wayne to photograph the lives of people there.

“When I started looking at these photographs, it was then I realized what is equal, what is human dignity,” Turnley said. “And when I discovered photography, it gave me an opportunity to use the camera to do those things, to actively seek to engage with the world we live in and all kinds of different people.”

“I picked up a camera and sort of never looked back.”

Turnley went on to work at the Detroit Free Press for 18 years, where he covered Apartheid South Africa for three years. He worked in Europe and all over the world until finally coming back to the United States from 1996 to 1997 to study filmmaking at Harvard.

“I wanted to live in a world that wasn’t divided, in a world that was ... ” Turnley trailed off, thought to himself a moment and continued, “I thought life sort of meant the world we live (in) is meant to be celebrated and explored. And I wanted to be part of that big world.”

In 2008, then-Illinois Senator Sen. Barack Obama campaigned for the American presidency under the slogan, “Yes, we can!,” which originated from Latino American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. Inspired by what he viewed as the inclusive vision long aspired toward by the leaders he grew up with, Turnley worked with the presidential hopeful as the campaign photographer for several days.

“And then at some point in the spring of 2008, President-elect Obama, at a fundraiser, made a statement that in times of crisis, the working class across the Rust Belt clings to their guns and religion,” Turley said. “And it made me think, once again, here we go: His vision is an inclusive America, but in fact, there appear to be many Americas.”

At this, Turnley, who was briefly a walk-on for the University Football team, was compelled to make a film about the working class in a place of people about whom his father and grandfather spoke, where they play tough football.

“It was always fascinating me when I grew up hearing about the tough football in these industrial steel-mill/coal-mining towns,” Turnley said.

As fate would have it, a friend contacted him and told him about a place called Shenandoah: a town where the population of Hispanic people is significantly lower than the Caucasian population, and the average income somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000.

The town itself rests in the folds of coal-mining country.