CROSSING THE RIVER: Guest post by filmmaker Emilie McDonald

Filmmaker Emilie McDonald (Photo credit: Tia Schellstede)


Emilie McDonald is an NYC-based filmmaker who graduated from Vassar with a BA in film and drama.  She wrote and directed the short narrative film “Other People’s Houses” in 2010 (Big Apple Film Festival, NewFilmmakers, Blue Sky Film Festival & Flicks in the Garden) and was co-writer and producer of the short “My Elena” (2008).  She is currently in a development on a feature film based on the true story of a doctor she knew as a child, a Bronx-born Jewish doctor who relocated to rural South Carolina in the 1950’s (semifinalist Tribeca All Access 2010; semifinalist Creative Capital 2011).


 Emilie McDonald here.  I’m a female filmmaker and mother to a young child and am based in NYC. I basically grew up in the back of a VW bus, traveling throughout the U.S. and Mexico with my mom and younger brother.  We lived among Cherokee basket weavers in North Carolina; traditional Navajo communities in Farmington, New Mexico; generations of farmers in Oregon; and native residents in Mexico.  I learned to adapt to many different situations and to find connection with many different kinds of people.  It is my goal to continually put people and situations in my films that aren’t often in the limelight, and to seek to understand the misunderstood.

Place plays a large part in the films I write.  South Carolina is one place I lived as a child and has always stayed in my memory as a mesmerizing place that feels like it has frozen in time for decades.  I feel a deep personal connection to the South and to South Carolina in particular as I have dear family there who are among the warmest people I’ve ever known in my life.  I am continually compelled to write scripts that are set there.  There is a languishing, old-fashioned feeling that lends itself to imagination.  Downtowns continue to look as they did in the 1960’s.  Country roads feel as they did when I was a child.  There is a slower, genteel pace that is both appealing for those that are accepted, but alarming for those who are not.  It is a place that is fascinating to me in its contradictions.  There are folks in South Carolina who are fighting for equality and tolerance and always have been (my feature film BUCKLE MY SOUL which I plan to make next is about this very subject), but there are those few who decades later are still holding on to the old Jim Crow laws.

Tree (Photo credit: Emilie McDonald)

South Carolina will be the location for my next film, a short narrative film called CROSSING THE RIVER, which will be shot in rural South Carolina in March 2012.  The film is sadly inspired by a true story and is about a young bi-racial girl who is traumatized when her family is targeted by a cross burning.  This extreme act of hatred is carried out by two white boys who come under the influence of a racist man.  The film explores the points of view of both the victim and the perpetrators, and seeks to reveal how someone can be influenced to do something morally unspeakable.

A year ago, I met my friend Martha’s grandsons Tyler and Landon in South Carolina, and immediately felt that they would be compelling onscreen.  A short time later, I received an article from a friend of my family who runs a civil rights watch group.  The article was about teenagers who were accused of burning a cross on a family’s lawn, and how the family was affected, especially their 13 year old daughter.  I was very moved by the story, and especially by how it was apparent that the girl truly believed that people were good and wanted to continue to believe it despite her experience.  When I later read that the two boys turned to the family in court and apologized, it gave me hope.  The seed of an idea for a powerful short film quickly developed.

Country House (Photo credit: Hunter Desportes)

I’ve recently become reenergized about telling this story, especially after reading a statistic from the Southern Poverty Law Center that estimates that 40-50 cross burnings happen in the U.S. every year!  I was startled and saddened by this, as of course I knew it happened (the incident that CROSSING THE RIVER is inspired by occurred in 2010) but not to that extent.  Most Americans assume that cross burnings are part of the U.S.’s past.  This lack of awareness is partly because these crimes are rarely reported nationally.  I feel it’s urgent to get the word out about this…it should not be happening in our country in 2011!!!!  All the more reason to make this film and release it widely!

When doing research on cross burnings, we discovered that this hateful act often targets bi-racial families.  The perpetrators’ intention is to send a message to the families that they are unwelcome in the community.  This act terrorizes families in their own homes and has a lasting psychological impact on its victims.  CROSSING THE RIVER is being made to bring to light the importance of putting an end to this hate crime.

“It is my goal to…seek to understand the misunderstood.”

We are thrilled to be partnering with WNCCEIB (Western North Carolina Citizens for an End to Institutional Bigotry), an amazing community organization and nonprofit in Western North Carolina that has been coordinating individual and community responses to hate activity, hate crimes and institutional discrimination on a shoestring budget for more than 20 years.  Our partnership will include promoting the organization’s work and mission and raising funds for WNCCEIB in conjunction with CROSSING THE RIVER film screenings.

I am working with a team to create an educational distribution component of the film, including a curriculum and teacher guide for educators to incorporate the film into their lesson plans, hopefully at colleges and high schools around the country and Canada.   We are interested in working with anti-racism and social justice teaching organizations such as Teaching Tolerance and Facing History and Ourselves, and will target film festivals that make a difference such as Media That Matters.  The film’s website will also link to anti-racism advocacy efforts happening all over the U.S.

Grant and Shawn (Courtesy of Anonymous)

It is important to note that cross burnings don’t just occur in the South (and as I mentioned earlier, there are many people in the South dedicated to eradicating racism).  There have been recent cases reported in New Jersey, Southern California, and Canada, to name only a few.  We are hopeful that ignorance can be turned to understanding, as challenging as that is, and CROSSING THE RIVER will reflect that.

I want to mention that I am extremely excited about working with an amazing team of women: producer and social justice advocate Tammy Arnstein, independent film producers Natasha Giliberti and Robyn Mackenzie, marketing director Andrea Rose, and editor Erin Fisher.  Of course I am looking forward to working with some amazing men as well, including my husband Bruce Smolanoff, (in the role of “Ted”) and Robert Kennedy doing sound design, but it is a pleasure to be surrounded and supported by women filmmakers.

Thank you for this amazing blog and resource, both illuminating and important for the global female filmmaking community!


To connect with this filmmaker and to learn more about her work (or to support it!) visit the following links:

Kickstarter campaign (five days left to go!)



“Other People’s Houses”:


Twitter:  @emiliemcdonald

4 thoughts on “CROSSING THE RIVER: Guest post by filmmaker Emilie McDonald

  1. I absolutely cannot wait for this to come out. Not anything to do with being from Camden either. Just my kind of movie. Good luck to you. I know it’ll do well!

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