Documentary Debut: On Making ‘Searching for Shawnee’

Filmmaker Doug Swift goes mining for the natural and cultural wealth of Shawnee, Ohio, and captures residents working to improve their community one step at a time.

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The Daily Yonder is pleased to present the online debut of the short documentary “Searching for Shawnee,” directed by Doug Swift, with music by Brian Harnetty and Shawn Burgett.

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“Look at this,” said Darcy Higgins, as she held jewelweed leaves in the creek water to show how they turn silver.  A few minutes later she pointed to goldenseal and explained how it is used to treat colds and upper respiratory infections. Up the hill, she saw thistle, which stings, but is very nutritious and can be boiled into a lovely green vegetable dish. I’m filming everything and there’s so much.

Search For Shawnee Scene
Source: Searching for Shawnee / Doug Swift

Darcy is from Rural Action’s education division, and she’s leading youth from Shawnee, Ohio, on a hike around Lake Tecumseh in the Wayne National Forest.  

Later, editing on my computer, the camera points at a boy turning over rocks looking for crawfish. I can hear Darcy in the background: “Oo. What do you think happened here?” This feels like such a wealthy place, but it’s Perry County, and everyone knows Perry County is one of the poorest in Ohio.  

I spent five weeks filming in the old coal mining town of Shawnee, Ohio, and its surrounding area.  I knew I wasn’t making a traditional film, with a main character and a dramatic story arc. But I felt something powerful worthy of exploration, and it had to do with the contrast between economic poverty and wealth of ecology, history, preservation, and creativity.

Searching For Shawnee Still
Source: Searching for Shawnee / Doug Swift  

Not that you see this wealth at first.  Buildings look like they are about to fall down, and if you do look into the history, what you find first are tale after tale of extraction and exploitation; the nature is pretty enough, until you see slag piles of coal, and a creek running orange, still stained by the industrial work a hundred years earlier.  Regardless, many people around here have to make daily hard choices about whether to pay for rent, food, or health care. 



See Related Story: The Sounds of Rural America,
by “Searching for Shawnee” music contributor Brian Harnetty.


But there are also these fascinating historical events. Visitors come because their people were from here. Volunteers show up to cut a new trail through the woods that will explain the varied history of the ecology. A musical composer came because he had family from here, and he hung around to make soundscapes that plumb the spirit of the place.

I used that music by Brian Harnetty as the soundtrack of this film, and it felt very much like we were collaborators listening, watching.

There is a feeling to Shawnee: its hidden past can suddenly emerge to shine a clarifying light on the present; in places, its ecology can restore itself in astonishing ways.

The fact is there’s not a simple heroic narrative arc for Shawnee in this moment—or for a lot of rural communities like it.  But there is heroism in the quiet, steady activism to improve a place against all odds. I hope this film captures that story.

Doug Swift is an independent filmmaker covering subjects in southeast and central Ohio. His films have appeared on CET TV, 100 Days in Appalachia, Between Coasts and numerous festivals and public showings.  He teaches in the Narrative Journalism program at Denison University.

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