New documentary ‘Our Movement Starts Here’ chronicles legacy of Warren County’s environmental justice movement

By Catherine Komp,

NC Local Newsletter Editor

Forty-two years ago, residents of Warren County, NC stood up to the state’s plan to dump 10,000 truckloads of toxic PCBs in their community. Black women like Dollie Burwell mobilized neighbors to defend their right to safe drinking water and farm fields. Civil rights leaders like Dr. Benjamin Chavis and Walter Fauntroy joined the multiracial, grassroots coalition that put a spotlight on environmental racism. For six weeks, demonstrators sang and marched and laid their bodies on the road to block lines of dump trucks. Law enforcement arrested more than 500 people, including children.

While the campaign couldn’t stop the toxic landfill authorized by then Governor James Hunt, this rural, predominantly Black community captured national attention and sparked the environmental justice movement. 

A new film, Our Movement Starts Here, documents this critical part of North Carolina and US history and weaves a throughline to today’s climate justice efforts. Producers and Directors John Rash and Melanie Ho spoke with more than 20 participants of the 1982 protests, attended the 40th anniversary events in 2022 and combed through archival footage and photography for the film. 

Our Movement Starts Here premieres Saturday May 11 at 1:00 pm at the NC Museum of History’s 2024 Long Leaf Film Festival. Ahead of that, the filmmakers organized a special, public preview in Afton this Thursday at 6:30 pm at Coley Springs Baptist Church, the site of the original organizing and protests.

I had the chance to chat with John (who’s originally from Avery County) and Melanie about their documentary, engaging the community in the production process and their efforts to create more primary source material for others to use in the future. They’re both directors/producers with the Southern Documentary Project at the University of Mississippi where they also teach film. 

Before we dive into the Q&A, John and Melanie are available for interviews about the film and are open to working with community organizations, bookstores, coffee shops and other places that are interested in hosting a screening. Get in touch by emailing John at

Filmmaker Melanie Ho interviews Reverend Bill Kearney. (Photo courtesy: John Rash and Melanie Ho)

Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. 

NC Local: First, could you share some background on the Southern Documentary Project?

John Rash: It’s an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi that originally started out as just a storytelling institute. The Center has another institute that a lot of people know, Southern Foodways Alliance, and they’re sort of our sister organization, and they obviously tell stories about Southern foodways. Southern Documentary Project is more of a catch all storytelling institute that mostly deals in film, but occasionally it’s multimedia storytelling, audio storytelling, photography.

There’s also the academic aspect of the Center teaching the documentary track courses in the Southern Studies curriculum. So we have a documentary track for students who are getting their degree in Southern Studies and starting in 2017, we added an MFA in Documentary Expression. So, Melanie and myself and the other folks who work at Southern Documentary Project are the core teaching crew for that MFA program.  

NC Local: What sparked the idea for Our Movement Starts Here?

John Rash: I went over to eastern North Carolina in 2018, thinking about making a film about CAFOs and looking at what’s happening in Duplin County and the industrialization of hog and chicken farms in that part of the state. I had spent a couple months starting to build contacts there, building relationships and interviewing some folks.

Then I ran into another film crew who were working on the film, The Smell of Money. They were pretty far along in their production and had been working with the exact same people that I’ve been working with. So at that point, I started thinking about other things that I had heard about North Carolina and environmental justice and seeing if there was a pivot and had remembered someone mentioning Warren County.

But, even being from North Carolina myself, I wasn’t familiar with this history. I decided to go up to Warren County to meet some folks. The more I learned about the story and also discovered that there had never been a film or even a book about this history, it seemed like the need was to tell this story and not to have a duplicate film about the CAFOs in Eastern North Carolina. 

I think Our Movement Starts Here actually becomes a great companion film for what’s happening in eastern North Carolina in terms of starting to ask the question, “Why is this still happening in the very place where the struggle started to become articulated 40 years ago?” 

Warren County residents during the 40th anniversary march and commemoration events. (Photo courtesy: John Rash and Melanie Ho)

NC Local: The film includes a lot of footage from that 40th anniversary celebration, which is really powerful but also you’ve clearly dug through newspaper archives and old newsreels. Where did you start with your research and what direction did that take you?

John Rash: For my personal research, the Dumping in Dixie book was the first place that had a written account of the events in Warren County that I could refer back to.

Jenny Labalme’s photo is on that book and she was gracious to give us access to her photos that really make the film a visual film and not just a talking head film. (Editor’s note: Labalme photographed the 1982 protests when she was a student at Duke.) And there was a Washington Post article that had been published around the time that I started looking at this. 

That was kind of it, that was all that was out there at the time. So it really started to become about mining these primary source interviews, using our skills as oral historians and working with the community and thinking about this as a community story. For us, the research really is just being good listeners and spending the time to let the community itself tell the story rather than us dictate our version of the story.

By the time Melanie came on board, we were working with the folks who had started to organize the 40th and maybe Melanie can talk about some of the archives that those folks gave us.  

Melanie Ho: A couple of folks with UNC’s Special Collections Library, like Biff Hollingsworth and Stephen Fletcher, were putting together an exhibition on the protests. It included a lot of Jenny’s photos, photos from other photographers, a video of some of the archives and they had an event.

We went to film the event but we were also in touch with them and they shared a lot of the archival work that they were already doing, a lot of the organizing that they’ve been doing with finding the history, reaching out to folks, finding the newsreels from places like NBC, and more local archives.

So we got a lot of information from them and they were really generous to share all of it with us. 

John Rash: What’s interesting is they were taking the same approach as us, working with the community. They put together a committee to go through the archive of folks who were originally involved in this history or folks who were involved in the community in Warren County now from the Warren County Environmental Action Team and had them help curate the exhibition at UNC.

And it was through their input that they were able to reach out to folks and identify people in the photos. The librarians at the Wilson Library at UNC were tremendous collaborators for this film and saved us probably years of research because of what they had already done in preparation for the 40th Anniversary.

From there, we were able to reach out to folks and obtain even more archives. The Wilson Library had a lot of things that were text heavy and we were looking for things that were visual. So working from what they had already spent a couple of years putting together, we were able to hit the ground running in terms of obtaining video and audio that helped to make our film a film.

NC Local: Could you both talk a little bit about building trust with the community members? 

Melanie Ho: John had already established a connection with folks prior to the pandemic, and I was introduced to some people who John had already been in community with. There were times where we interviewed people together, but then there were times where people were available at the same time, so we had to split up.

I spent some time with Reverend Bill Kearney on my own while he was in the church. And just being upfront with “We just want to tell your story. So if you’re comfortable with sharing your time with us and space with us, we want to be able to archive that, we want to share your stories.” I think people want to be heard and they know we are people that want to share their stories. 

We joined some of the Warren County Action Committee’s Zoom meetings prior to coming, so I think they were familiar with us and what we were doing with the film. I wish we could have been there more, it’s always great to be embedded in a community more when you’re making a film. But just being there, being present was how we were able to build community with folks.  

John Rash: And I’ll say on the back end, we had a preview screening of a rough cut of the film just for the folks who appear in the film back in January while we were still working towards the final cut. We wanted to get some feedback from them in terms of how they were represented, how they felt about the storytelling. That was really useful and I think really showed them that we weren’t just going to go and put this thing into the world on our own without having their input. 

Part of the reason that we want to have a screening in Warren County before it shows at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh as part of the Longleaf Festival is so the folks in Warren County can come and see the film before anyone else in the world does.

A lot of filmmakers want to be precious about their premiere status and the first time people see it should be at the film festival, but that community screening, honestly, for us is the ultimate goal— to bring the film back to the people in that community, both the folks who are in the film, but also the folks who continue to live there and allow them to see it and see how we’ve attempted to tell their story before we take it to far off places where they’re not able to join us.  

NC Local: What kind of feedback did the community give you with the rough cut?

In general, it was positive. We had to have a discussion about the idea of never being able to tell each individual story in full when you make a film, that there’s always going to be parts of the story that get omitted when you tell a community story like this. 

There’s over 20 people that appear in the film and they all have their own individual experiences and memories of this history. Plus you have all the folks who were part of this, over 500 people who were arrested, whose stories aren’t in the film. That’s where it does unfortunately start to become our version of the story because we’re making editorial decisions so we had discussions about “we really wish we could have put it all in there.” 

That really was the loudest voice that came back from the community: “I really wish you could have included this anecdote or really wish you could have included this story.” But no one seemed to feel like they were misrepresented or that the parts that did make it into the film were inaccurate. 

There were a couple of stories that came up that we hadn’t even heard about until the feedback screening. It’s just so difficult and such a big story and there’s so many people involved. Even for us to cut 20 interviews into an 80 minute film, you realize it could almost be a mini series if you wanted to go that route with it. 

NC Local: Have you thought about different formats or platforms to share other parts of the story and promote the documentary? 

Melanie Ho: We have a lot of material on our website, including hours-long events. Duke had an event where Ben Chavis, Catherine Flowers and Cameron Oglesby were in conversation with each other. UNC had a conversation with a lot of folks that were a part of the events that happened and the 40th Commemoration had the march and a few other events. 

We captured all of it with some students from our program and it was part of a class for them to come and capture the events. So they got to be a part of it as well. 

We’re thinking about working with North Carolina’s PBS to do an hour long cut of the film. That would be a different iteration of what’s going to be available through the film festival circuit for now.  

John Rash: I’ll just follow that up and say, absolutely, we’re trying to think about how to make the story more accessible, but also allow those people who want to dig into it with more detail. 

One of the great things about us being at a university and working with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and being connected to a university library is we can put all of these interviews in full into our university archive, both as text, oral history-type archives, but also the videos that could be used for creative projects in the future. 

Part of what we do at the Southern Documentary Project is, we make films, but the raw materials for those films can also have a life later as part of the university archive. We feel great about that because as storytellers ourselves, the archives that we had to get for this film, we wouldn’t have had a lot of them without the folks at the University of North Carolina. We had to buy some from CBS, and I think that if we can give that gift back to folks where they can actually come to our library in the future and get the archives from this project for free, that allows folks who come behind us to maybe retell the story in new and interesting ways. 

NC Local: What was your North star for this film and what do you want viewers to take away? 

Melanie Ho: I think the community was at the forefront of my mind, having a film that was in community, for the community.

John Rash: For me, I’ll say this is the most ambitious and kind of overwhelming project that I’ve ever undertaken, just in terms of the number of voices in the film, the importance of the history, really being nervous about doing it justice and honoring the folks’ story. 

The community part was hugely important to me. The fact that we get to show the film to the public at the North Carolina Museum of History is already a tremendous honor. Melanie’s heard me say, part of the push for us to even attempt editing all of this material was, can we try to screen this in North Carolina close to Warren County. So to be right there in Raleigh, just an hour or less away from the community where all of this happened at such an important venue is already just huge. And from there, anytime that we get to screen it, any new eyes and ears that we get to have a conversation with is just icing on top of it for me. 

Filmmakers John Rash and Melanie Ho with Reverend Bill Kearney (center). (Photo courtesy: John Rash and Melanie Ho)

NC Local: You end the film with some powerful words from environmental justice advocate and journalist Cameron Oglesby, connecting the influence and support of elders on this next generation of leaders. What kind of impact do you hope this film might have on the work that’s yet to be done? 

Melanie Ho: If you had to categorize this film, it would probably be a historical doc, but I think it exists as much in the present and the future as it does in history. It was important for us to think about Cameron as a person who represents both the present and the future, especially within the film itself, she’s passed the Sankofa Bird which is that representation where she’s continuing the work, she’s continuing working with the folks that have been very active in the past like Ben Chavis, and is thinking of ways to kind of light the flame in the younger generation. Because this is really something that the younger generation has to think about and has to work together with each other and with folks in the past to continue thinking about ways that climate justice and environmental justice are being navigated. 

John Rash: The title of the film, Our Movement Starts Here, to me represents the prescience of this story and the impact that it could have on the future. “Here” can be relative, right? The movement starts with each new atrocity, each new generation that faces these struggles. 

For us, it was really important not to just be gazing backwards, but to think about how this story hopefully can inspire and communicate the very thing that led me to the story, which is how can this still be happening in 2024?

And that’s unfortunate but at least this generation has the Warren County protests to look back on for a template and if nothing else, maybe just inspiration in terms of what’s possible when folks who have very little organizational training are faced with an immediate danger that they need to respond to.

Learn more about the film Our Movement Starts Here and the Southern Documentary Project and find the full schedule for the 2024 Longleaf Film Festival.

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