THE HOLLERIN’ CONTEST AT SPIVEY’S CORNER: Kooky & Heart-Warming

*Editorial Note: This documentary short won the Best Documentary prize at the first Drunken Film Fest, organised by Film Inquiry’s Jax Griffin. The documentary selections were hand picked by Arlin Golden, another contributor to the site*

Every American community is home to countless strange pastimes and traditions, but many of these events don’t fully adapt to modern American life.

Such is the case with the National Hollerin’ Contest in North Carolina, which after 47 years, crowned it’s final champion earlier this summer after many failed attempts to get the younger generation interested failed. Outside of kooky local news reports, interest fully died out.

A Fading Way of Life

Even without this prior knowledge, Hollerin’ Contest at Spivey’s Corner, a documentary short depicting the lead up to the 2014 National Contest, feels like a document to a fading way of life.

Directors Brian Gersten and Liv Dubendorf have nothing but total respect for their subjects, who any other documentary would likely portray as crazed middle American kooks, the type of characters who seem to have just walked off the set of a Christopher Guest movie.

Luckily, they are portrayed with an empathy that not only makes the bonkers subject around them endearing, it makes it sad to see their passion generate so little interest in the modern era.

THE HOLLERIN' CONTEST AT SPIVEY'S CORNER: Kooky & Heart-Warming
source: Brian Gersten & Liv Dubendorf

For the uninitiated, hollering is the most ridiculous thing imaginable. As many of the interviewees are happy to inform viewers, it was an old form of communication between farmers, that then morphed into a comedic chant thanks to an old radio DJ. Growing in popularity, a contest was launched and the rest is history.

The documentary isn’t a portrayal of characters in denial about the ridiculousness of hollerin’; every single one of their statements is peppered with a knowing sense that what they are doing can be seen as silly. However, as the tradition of hollerin’ is such a key cultural landmark in many small communities, all they command from the audience is respect for trying to keep it alive.

Each of the interviewees makes a lasting impact. One interviewee, Robby Goodman, was a childhood champion, who gained notoriety for his Police Academy style skill of being able to mimic the wail of a police siren with his holler.

THE HOLLERIN' CONTEST AT SPIVEY'S CORNER: Kooky & Heart-Warming
source: Brian Gersten & Liv Dubendorf

Then there is Iris Turner, a former champion who gained brief nationwide notoriety after appearing on late night talk shows performing her award winning hollers to the nation. She’s back in the contest to reclaim the title, but mercifully, the documentary doesn’t pit this as a comeback narrative.

Instead, she is a former star returning to the scene of her biggest successes. The minor tragedy is that after delighting packed crowds years earlier, now she’s wailing to a half interested, half empty barn with a decidedly muted response. She hasn’t lost her hollerin’ powers, the audience have just lost their interest.

Local Heroes

The main focus of the documentary is on Tony Peacock, a five time national hollering champion who feels exactly like the sort of character that former Talking Heads vocalist David Byrne obsessed about in his sole directorial effort, True Stories.

The movie doesn’t portray Peacock as a local hero outside of his incredibly niche field; at one point, it is noted that the neighbours only realise hollerin’ season is upon them when they can hear his increasingly loud bellowing. It is one of the many signs of the fading impact of hollerin’, when even the people living next door to a national champion seem unimpressed and vaguely annoyed by his talents.

THE HOLLERIN' CONTEST AT SPIVEY'S CORNER: Kooky & Heart-Warming
source: Brian Gersten & Liv Dubendorf

With his softly spoken South Eastern accent, part of the joy of seeing Peacock holler is noticing how his vocal chords can somehow do the unthinkable: how can a man with that voice produce sounds like that? Of course, you can easily see footage of him performing on YouTube and the film has far more interesting stories to tell.

This isn’t just a depiction of some talented hollerers in their element, but a testament to a bygone era when this bizarre talent was a cultural touchstone in many small communities and how it feels to be successful in an art form that has long since been deemed irrelevant to modern culture. The use of archive footage helps illustrate that these people used to be national phenomenons. Little do they know that their down-sized festival is one of the last chances they will ever get to perform for an audience.

Even though the run-time focuses entirely on the feel-good nature of the contest, it can’t help but be infused with a melancholy due to the undercurrent of themes regarding how audiences appreciate different art forms. The hollerers may often regard their pastime as silly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to continue performing in national contests, even if audience interest is proving to be dwindling.

If somebody’s passion or chosen art form is deemed irrelevant by contemporary cultural interests, does it mean that it isn’t worthwhile? The documentary doesn’t answer, but you end up warming to the characters so much you hope they find a bigger audience sooner rather than later.

Conclusion

Perfecting a tight rope balance between a feel good slice of Americana and an elegy for a dying way of life, directors Brian Gersten and Liv Dubendorf have created an unashamedly populist documentary about one of the most niche subjects imaginable.

You will definitely try to holler after watching this, and will be eager to watch an entire documentary feature tracking these characters.

Which documentaries manage to make niche subjects entertaining?

Click here for more information on the Drunken Film Fest.

 

Does content like this matter to you?


Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.

Join now!

Posted by Contributor