“I truly believe that one of the greatest gifts one person can give another is, quite simply, to listen.” – Randolph Benson, Project Creator & Course Instructor
One small town.
Despite popular misconceptions, the overwhelming majority of North Carolinians live in towns of 5,000 people or less. We are a state of small towns. In fact, NC has the second-most number of small towns in the country.
But all is not well. The mass exodus of manufacturing abroad as well as urban flight has devastated small towns. Many are on the verge of disappearing forever.
Anytown USA, created and taught by Randolph Benson, is an annual filmmaking production and editing course in which one small town is featured. Intermediate to advanced continuing education student filmmakers each tell a story of their choice within the town. Together the short films form a nuanced, intimate portrait of communities as they struggle to survive.
In non-fiction storytelling, access is everything.
Benson has formed a long-standing partnership with the N.C. Rural Center, an organization that has been intimately engaged with small towns across North Carolina. This relationship has helped maximize the critical components of successful documentary filmmaking:
- An intimate knowledge of potential stories within each town
- Assistance from community stakeholders and leaders
- Trust of story subjects
By allowing people in small towns to tell their stories, audiences have gained a much deeper understanding of the impact of political, social and cultural issues on their friends, neighbors, family members and fellow community members who live just a few miles away.
“We are a conservative community. We don’t trust outsiders. Some townspeople were worried the filmmakers would make fun of us, but the students really got to know us. We became very attached to them, and really missed them when the course was over. The films brought the town together, with pride and excitement. For a town that was on the brink of collapse just a few years ago, that was absolutely amazing.” – Susan Eggleston, Mayor, Star, NC (’12)
“We felt that if we don’t be part of Anytown, USA, our history will be lost. The documentaries brought out what Robbins really is! The people loved them. Every one of the students did a great job. Thank you!” – Lonnie English, Mayor, Robbins, NC (’15)
“The documentaries brought our community together. Young, old, black, white, newcomer, native. The crowd that viewed the premiere was one of the most diverse gatherings in the history of the town. And the stories were about all parts of our community. Students were very professional in their interactions with the subjects, and we’ll use the films as a resource to share who we are.” – Alice Butler, Mayor, Roseboro, NC (’16)
“We also have a program called Anytown, USA coming out of Continuing Education. Each spring, the instructor, Randy Benson, decides on a town of 5,000 people or less in Central North Carolina, and the students in the class go to that town and do a similar kind of program: They find out the stories that residents want to be told, work with residents to tell those stories through film, and there’s a community screening at the end of the semester. Oftentimes these small towns are wary of outsiders, but once they build strong relationships with the students and the instructor, there’s an exciting alchemy that happens. That class has run for nine successive spring semesters, and we’ve heard repeatedly from mayors and rural economic development coordinators how important this is for people to have opportunities to tell their own stories on their own terms. Oftentimes these screenings are the most diverse gathering that’s happened in the town in a long time in terms of old and young, different races and ethnicities, people who are newcomers and people who have been there for generations, all coming together.
– Wesley Hogan, Director, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University