James Preston was a man searching for answers.
The Presidential election had exposed the jagged edges of a deeply polarized America. For Preston, a filmmaker and South Carolina transplant, this chaos in national politics raised fundamental questions about what keeps things from falling apart. What fragile thread holds a local community—his community of Athens, Georgia—together?
As he embarked on this contemporary quest, he drew inspiration from antiquity. An austere likeness of the Greek goddess Athena stands sentinel over the courtyard facing the Classic Center. Inscribed on its pediment is the ephebic oath, a vow associated with the induction ceremony for young men joining the Athenian military. The final clause stopped him in his tracks, “In all these ways we will transmit this City, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”
Preston wanted to make a film about the people doing this work of improving the community. The first installment of his documentary series, Athens Rising: The Sicyon Project, premiered at Cine in June of 2018 and is now available to stream on Amazon. The second installment, Athens Rising: Transmittance, premiered at 2019's AthFest. He plans to complete the final two films of the tetralogy over the next 3 years.
From its conception, it was an ambitious project. He knew he couldn’t offer an exhaustive panorama of the city, so he’d have to narrow the aperture. He wanted to move past the clichéd presentations of the past. The film wouldn’t focus on the politicians or financial interests governing the city. That meant getting out of the university’s shadow. “There is so much more than a bulldog,” remarks poet Celest “Divine” Ngeve near the end of the documentary.
What captured his imagination, rather, were artisans and activists who have put a unique stamp on the city.
He had in mind people like Chef Garret McFalda and Peter Dale. McFalda, profiled in Athens Rising: The Sicyon Project, served as Executive Chef for Heirloom Cafe. Dale, a protégé of Top Chef celebrity Hugh Acheson, Dale went on to found The National, Condor Chocolates, Seabear, and Maepole. This is a normal trajectory for a restaurateur on the make. What set Dale, an Athens native, apart was a willingness to let others make these businesses their own. He helped lay the groundwork for a new generation of chefs to succeed.
Then there’s artists like Broderick Flanigan, a painter whose artwork highlights the contributions of black Athenians to the city’s history. Growing up in public housing, Flanigan experienced a different side of Athens than the university students, tailgaters, and concertgoers see. He now spends his time in a constellation of different programs mentoring young African American creatives.
Preston soon realized it wasn’t just individuals reshaping the city; it was also the institutions they were building. His second installment, Athens Rising:Transmittance, opens with footage from Canopy, a trapeze studio that’s gained a national reputation. In the film, he profiles Nuçi’s Space, a haven for budding musicians, this nonprofit offers services ranging from cheap rehearsal space to mental health counseling. Lyndon House and Athica helped establish niche spaces for the visual arts.
He promises to explore makers and movers in the city’s business community in the third film of the series. “Making money and doing good aren’t mutually exclusive,” Preston gamely points out. He talks about one of his potentially featured companies, Rashe’s Cuisine, as a model. In addition to serving up Caribbean fare at pop-ups and catering events, Rashe’s nonprofit The Culinary Kitchen of Athens will provide a commissary kitchen and retail space to upstart food vendors looking to get licensed for retail.
The final chapter of Athens Rising (tentatively titled Athens Rising: Generations) will cover another important dimension of the city’s identity: the arts. Its main intention is to document established artists who could live anywhere in the world but choose to live in Athens to pursue their creative endeavors. It will also address how Athens is cultivating the next generation of creatives through children's programming.
Like many artists who gravitate to the Classic City, Preston was drawn by the thriving music scene. His work has brought him into the orbit of a burgeoning hip hop culture now adding to a musical legacy that includes REM, Pylon, the B-52s, and Of Montreal.
That territory is familiar enough. But Preston wants his documentary to tell a different kind of story about Athens music, one that interweaves artistry with the social fabric of the city. He’s interested in how the performers are raising their kids, what they’re doing to educate others, and what larger impact they’re having on the community.
This intersection of music and politics recently made national news when Athens elected Mariah Parker, a twenty-six year old doctoral student who raps under the stage name Linqua Franqa, as a county commissioner. Images of Parker being sworn in on The Autobiography of Malcolm X flashed across media outlets nationwide, prompting reactions from outrage to enthusiasm. This is chronicled in Athens Rising: Transmittance.
Preston thinks the controversy around Parker raises important questions that can’t be ignored. “If someone does something that makes you uncomfortable, you should ask why,” he reflects. He pointed to former mayor Nancy Denson’s reaction to Parker’s unusual request for the oath of office as exemplary. “She was curious. She took the time to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And she ended up accepting [Parker’s request] because she understood what that meant.”
Ultimately, that’s the kind of curiosity Preston wants his film to evoke. He seeks to look beyond clichéd interpretations of Athens, and to see the city differently.
Asking these searching questions made maintaining critical distance impossible. As an artist himself, he felt challenged to do more than just chronicle the work of the performers and community organizers in film. Preston plans on starting a program to apprentice a new generation of aspiring filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds.
“There are years that ask questions, and years that answer,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote. If 2016 asked the question, 2019 may just have started to supply some answers for Preston.