The author with her Grandmama on her farm outside Rock Hill, South Carolina.
The author with her Grandmama on her farm outside Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Two Cultures, One Filmmaker

She grew up in a bicultural family with deep roots in South Carolina. The product of two rich storytelling traditions, she now captures on film the dualities of the South—and of her own life story.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Almost a decade ago, when I was about a year into my exploration of the South and its stories and the people who tell them, my publication took on two summer interns. One of them was Maddie Stambler, whose words you are about to read and whose films you are about to watch. We spent many hours that summer talking about the intense contradictions bound up in telling stories about the American South—how we can love the place and simultaneously hate it, that tension brilliantly captured in just six words by my longtime friend Patterson Hood, a fabulous Alabama songwriter and the co-leader of the brilliant Drive-By Truckers since 1996. His words?

“The duality of the Southern thing.”

I probably preached that line to Maddie until she was sick and tired of hearing it. And I know I did more talking to Maddie than I did listening to her. In those days, I too often talked when I should have listened. Thus, I did not learn about all the dualities in Maddie’s own life. But I know those dualities have turned her into a fine storyteller and maker of documentary films. This week and next, you’ll see two of her films—the first, Living Legacy, made at the end of her graduate studies at Duke University, and the second, Who Fights for You?, made earlier. This week in Salvation South, we’ll begin with an essay from Maddie and Living Legacy, and she’ll be back next weekend to present Who Fights for You?

—Chuck Reece

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I grew up in a bicultural family. Christianity and Judaism. Southern and Northern.

My maternal grandparents are Presbyterians from South Carolina, and my paternal grandparents are Conservative Jews from New York. My parents are liberal nonconformists who left the insularity of their respective upbringings, their paths first crossing as college students on an archeological dig in Israel. When my parents married, my mother converted to Judaism so my sister and I would be raised in one religion. And they settled in Cleveland, Ohio.

Thus, I am a Jewish girl who grew up in the Midwest. But my relationship with the South is tight—I’ve lived here for more than a decade now—and I have struggled for years to understand my relationship to this region. My grandmother’s farm outside Rock Hill, South Carolina, is one of the few places where I feel able to grapple with where I come from.

When I drive to my Grandmama’s house, the kudzu vines that engulf the trees along the highway come to life around me. All my life I’ve seen different shapes in their intricate twists: a dragon breathing fire, three preachers in conference, a horse galloping in the wind. As I pass abandoned barns and silos scattered along these rural roads, I wonder who once inhabited these spaces.

The local dump signals my turn. I see Buddy’s trailer; his yard is perpetually scattered with the remains of his failed inventions. Then there’s John out riding his chestnut Saddlebred. He gives me a welcoming nod as the farm’s gravel driveway comes into view. Solid evidence that I’m home.

When I’m picking fresh okra with my grandmother in her garden, my heart space expands. I breathe in the fresh, hot air, soaked in the remarkably familiar and pleasing scent of horse manure and hay. My mind roams wild as my imagination tells stories of the land while Grandmama tells me stories of her community’s past. A historic lunch counter sit-in at McCrory’s Five and Dime by the Friendship Nine; a Freedom Ride turned bloody at the local Greyhound bus station—John Lewis, among others, beaten nearly to death. As we harvest these vegetables cultivated in the same soil where seeds of the Civil Rights Movement were sown, I grapple with the South’s complicated past and how this region has played a major role in shaping our complicated present.

Grandmama and I together envision a better South—one that welcomes diversity and reckons with its painful history. A South infused with the empathy and wonder she modeled for me as a child.

Grandmama and I together envision a better South—one that welcomes diversity and reckons with its painful history. A South infused with the empathy and wonder she modeled for me as a child. Where the principles of our community are based on dignity, respect, collaboration, empowerment, and justice.

“It’s the little kindnesses that matter,” she always told me. “I try to compliment someone every day.”

Grandmama has been gone for over a year now, but her legacy is forever rooted in the land and in my heart.

Photograph by Maddie Stambler
Photograph by Maddie Stambler

I have been influenced by the cultures of both sides of my family. My maternal side descends from a relative who fought for America in the Revolutionary War and my paternal side descends from Jews who escaped the Russian pogroms and the Holocaust. My father’s parents are the first generation born in the United States. The rich storytelling traditions of my Southern and Jewish heritage attuned me to the stories that exist all around me. While dinner table discussions on the farm seamlessly blended horse breeding with memories of school desegregation in the South, the stories on my Jewish side were often characterized by a unique form of humor. A clever joke that frequently delivered thought-provoking commentary on the Jewish experience of exile and persecution followed by an exaggerated shoulder shrug we understood to mean “what can I tell ya?”

My relationships with my grandparents—both sets—were always marked by distance, making our biannual visits more precious. Every Passover, when the Jewish side of my family gathered, my grandfather always told the story of when, as a boy, it was his job to handle the symbolic opening of the door to let in the Prophet Elijah, the messenger of hope and redemption. He opened the door for Elijah and nearly fainted when he found a neighbor standing there. The neighbor only wanted to borrow some sugar, but my grandfather mistook him for the prophet. The exquisite details he would infuse into the narrative would light up my imagination. And he’d change those details every year.

It was l’dor v’dor—Hebrew for “from generation to generation.” The passing down of traditions, values, and stories.

It was l’dor v’dor—Hebrew for “from generation to generation.” The passing down of traditions, values, and stories.

When I was nine, my parents bought me my first CVS flip camera to document our vacation at the Grand Canyon. I immediately fell in love with the thrill of recording videos. My sister and I would use the playback function so much I worried the camera might break. After that, my video camera became my most prized possession—precious cargo on every trip. One of my parents would never fail to remind me to pull out my camera and hit record while my inquisitive older sister asked our grandparents questions about the events of their lives. As a shy kid, listening was the easiest way for me to learn, engage with the world, and show others I cared. The sound of my grandparents’ voices became a portal into another time that I wished to know and understand fully. My fascination with documentation and memory turned my grandparents’ stories into the materials of my first documentary films.

The cultural values of Judaism are an important part of my identity and perspective on the world. The rich linguistic heritage of Judaism was reinforced in every card my Jewish grandmother wrote to me in Yiddish. I was a “shayna maidel” (a pretty girl) and my father was a “mensch” (a good person). The concepts of “mitzvot” (good deeds) and “tzedakah” (charity) were ingrained in me as a young child in Synagogue and Hebrew School. My parents echoed these sentiments in the way they encouraged my sister and me to be empathic and compassionate as we encountered the world outside our home. As a storyteller, these core ideas have been a guide for me. The more stories I put to film, the more I recognize the importance of open-mindedness and partnership in the creative process. Inviting community members to take part in my projects as both subjects and creative collaborators has become a core fixture of my practice.

In my twenties, as I navigated the beginning of my career, I struggled to find my voice as a storyteller. Though my education gave me valuable knowledge and critical thinking skills, there was little room for exploring my personal roots and identity. Documentary filmmaking helped me investigate my individuality. Picking up my camera and asking questions about the experiences of those around me became an important avenue for my self-discovery. Because of the cultural duality in my family, I gravitated toward stories about intersectionality.

My fascination with the South stems from the myriad contradictions that exist here. There’s so much I love about this place—the friendly people, the hot summers, the bounty of a well-tended garden—but there’s also so much change to be made. I hope to be a part of that progress.

The South is always on my mind. It’s in my DNA. I take it with me wherever I go. And that’s why I’ve decided to dedicate my career to documenting its dualities.


About the author

Maddie Stambler is a documentary director and producer. She graduated from Duke University with a BA in Storytelling, an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, and a Certificate in College Teaching. Maddie's 2021 directorial debut, Who Fights For You?, premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Short Documentary at the BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. The film is about her childhood best friend who is an African American pastor with cerebral palsy. Her 2023 MFA thesis film, Living Legacy, tells the story of the Historic Russell School, the last remaining Rosenwald School in Durham County, North Carolina. Most recently, Maddie co-directed The Unknown Metal Box. The film is a stranger-than-fiction mystery exploring photography, memory, and loss.

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