By GUY D’ASTOLFO
A short documentary about a local woman’s effort to learn the truth about how her ancestor died has been accepted into the Cleveland International Film Festival.
“Arriving at Bessie” is an eight-minute film that follows Kelly Bancroft of Youngstown as she travels to Cleveland to retrace the steps of her great aunt Bessie Watkins in 1910. It is entered in the Ohio Short Films category, and will be screened April 4 at 8:45 p.m. at Tower City Cinemas.
Just 19 years old and living with her family in Mineral Ridge, Bessie took a train to Cleveland, where she would soon die under mysterious conditions.
Bancroft, is an instructor at Youngs-town State University, and also a singer and writer.
The film was made by her friend and colleague Craig Duff. Duff is YSU grad and Fowler Township native who lives in Chicago, where he is a professor at Northwestern University. He also is a former video journalism chief for Time magazine.
Bancroft first learned of her great aunt from her brother, who came across her name while doing genealogical research. They were intrigued because they had never heard mention of Bessie before. Bancroft combed government and newspaper archives to try to find out why she went to Cleveland, how she died and why her death was never investigated.
According to newspaper clippings from the day, officials suspected that Bessie died from a “criminal operation” – a code phrase in those days for an abortion.
For the film, Bancroft and Duff went to Cleveland in July 2016 during the Republican National Convention. The political convention, and the charged atmosphere that surrounded it, form the backdrop for Bancroft’s story and widen its social relevance because there were demonstrations for a woman’s right to choose.
Acceptance to the film festival is the second honor that Bancroft has received for her efforts to learn the truth about her great aunt.
Bancroft had first turned her efforts into a one-act play, which won the top prize at the 2013 Voices of the Valley new one-act play festival at the Youngstown Playhouse. “Arriving at Bessie” was the first play she wrote. Presented as a work of fiction, it has a narrator who speaks aloud as she pieces together the facts of her great aunt’s life and comes up with a possible scenario for her death. Actors are also on the stage, as a way of visualizing the narrator’s scenario of what happened in 1910. It offers a speculative explanation as to why she went to Cleveland and how her final day transpired.
The short film is not the same as the play; rather, it is solely about Bancroft’s investigative trip to Cleveland, where she finds the location of the boarding house where her great aunt died. In documentary style, Bancroft muses on the circumstances of her great aunt’s life and how the era determined her fate.
Bancroft said she was surprised and excited when she found out the CIFF selected her film – especially because she did not even submit it.
“[The director Duff] had sent the film to media outlets to see if there was any interest in it as a story, and the Jezebel website posted it,” said Bancroft. “That’s where the CIFF director saw it, and she contacted me to see if I wanted it to be in the film festival.
“I was satisfied with it just being on Jezebel.com.”
The website has a feminist angle.
Bancroft said the political climate is right for the film. “I was ready to put it to bed and forget about it, but it keeps coming back,” she said.
Bancroft and Duff have submitted “Arriving at Bessie” to other film festivals and are waiting to hear if it has been accepted.
Duff plans to attend the Cleveland screening with Bancroft.
An Emmy award-winning video journalist and documentary television director, producer and writer, Duff specializes in multi-platform storytelling and explanatory journalism.
He has been a professor of journalism at Northwestern since 2012, but continues to do video work for national news outlets, including NYTimes.com, WSJ.com and MSNBC.com. During his time in Youngstown, he acted in local theaters.
After reading the script, Duff immediately thought that it would make a compelling documentary.
He and Bancroft put together a trailer to help secure funding, but didn’t get any takers.
Then an idea hit him.
“When I saw that the Republican National Convention was happening in Cleveland, and that a key plank in its platform was directly linked to the cause of Bessie’s death, I asked Kelly what she thought about crafting the piece as a video essay,” said Duff.
“Kelly has an incredibly authentic voice and she’s a brilliant writer, so I used her words to guide the visual treatment of the subject. The result is kind of a melange of styles, and as an essay, it’s not a conventional documentary or news commentary. But I think that has a resonance and power that a more conventional approach would not have. In the end, what I hoped to accomplish was to represent and bring out Kelly’s voice – as a writer, storyteller and speaker.”
Duff worked for more than a decade at CNN, doing environmental programs and documentaries. His work took him around the world, from the deck of an aircraft carrier from which flight stories to Afghanistan embarked, to Vietnam where he looked at the medical impact of Agent Orange.
He went on to work for The New York Times on web-based documentary videos, including antiquities theft and the hunt for Saddam Hussein.
He has earned two national Emmy Awards: one from a CNN program on Mississippi flooding, and another for a series he created at Time.