words: Marcus Coker images: ST Films
In 2012, Brenda Yelvington went to see a movie in Fort Smith, Arkansas called Undefeated, a documentary film about the struggles and triumphs of a Memphis high school football team. “Within the first ten minutes, I knew I was supposed to make a documentary about the Northside band,” says Brenda.
At that time, Brenda’s daughter was in the band at Northside High, one of the two public high schools in town, and Brenda had become involved taking pictures and helping manage their Facebook page. “People think they know Northside, and people think they know band,” says Brenda. “I discovered that I didn’t. These people aren’t teaching music; they’re teaching life. And I knew I needed to shine a light on that.”
Still, she wasn’t sure how that was going to happen. “I had never done any video before,” says Brenda, whose background then included being a certified public accountant, a college-level accounting instructor, co-owner of the recording studio Omega Sound, and music director for the local Young Actors’ Guild (YAG).
“After seeing Undefeated,” says Brenda, “I began composing. I have a background in music, and one day I walked by the piano, sat down, and started writing something. I realized it was going to be the main melodic theme for the film score. And I saw the opening for the movie, the music playing and the drum majors walking out on the field. Interspersed between that, I saw kids getting ready for their performance.”
For the next year, Brenda worked on the main song for the film, keeping it recorded on her phone. “I spent about six months talking myself out of doing it. How can you do this? You don’t know anything about this. You’re crazy. But I felt like I had no choice. The idea wouldn’t let me go.”
After mentally committing to the project, Brenda and her husband decided that they would finance it personally. To that end, they formed a production company called ST Films. “I learned that I’m a storyteller,” says Brenda, “and that’s what ST stands for.” Next, she started thinking about who could help her film and edit. She decided on Chris Middleton of Branchout Studios in Fort Smith. “Chris had filmed Les Miserables for YAG. That’s all I knew about him. But I talked to him about the project, and he agreed.”
Next, Brenda approached Gordon Manley, the head band director at Northside. “I brought him and his wife over to the house, and we watched Undefeated, and I told him what I wanted to do. He waited a day and called me back and said, ‘I’m in.’” From there, Brenda talked to the superintendent for Fort Smith Public Schools and the principal at Northside. Each time, the response was the same: “What do you need from us?”
In the fall of 2013, the band at Northside had 240 kids in it, and Brenda had to get releases (legal documents granting consent) from all of them before she could begin filming. As the school year started and the story for the film began to develop, Brenda chose specific students to be featured.
Because Brenda wants the band members to be the first to see the film, she isn’t ready to reveal which students are being featured, but she gladly talks about them in general. There’s one kid Brenda says has dabbled in gang activity, but is also a hard worker that finds a better home in band. There’s a natural leader, the one that other kids will follow whether he does right or wrong. There’s a girl weighed down with family responsibilities, and a family that’s struggled financially to ensure their children can go to college.
For the entire 2013/2014 school year, Brenda and Chris and their crew followed the kids to football games, competitions, scholarship auditions, and, eventually, graduation. All told, they logged 150 hours of footage, which they are currently in the process of editing.
In the film, the kids face life with all its ups and downs. They strive to fit in, to find their place. At an All-State Band competition, they huddle around a TV monitor in a cafeteria, waiting to find out if they made it in. Some are elated because they did. Others, broken that they did not.
Brenda says that often the students don’t see their own potential. One student is quoted as saying, “I don’t know what they see in me.” But, like a drumbeat, there’s director Gordon Manley in the background, reminding the kids, “Be yourself and handle yourself with quiet confidence. Now this is important. Have confidence in yourself, ‘cause you’re gonna do just fine.”
Brenda says, “It’s really just about people and relationships. It’s human. It’s the human experience. It’s not all a bed of roses, but you’re gonna connect with these people. You’re gonna like these people, and you’re gonna want their lives to turn out well.”
For months after filming, Brenda and Chris watched the footage they’d shot. “We’d sit in the dark and eat Werther’s candy. We probably ate ten bags.” Brenda took notes on the footage, and an assistant created a 5,000-line Excel sheet that categorized all the movie clips. Since then, they’ve been editing. “It takes about a week to put together three and a half minutes.”
Currently, Brenda and Chris have edited about thirty minutes of what should end up being a ninety-seven minute documentary. The edits include the opening scene, which has come together just like Brenda saw it in her head three years ago. The music she wrote plays, the kids get ready, and the drum majors take the field. “The first song I wrote is called ‘Heartbeat.’ One of the band directors said, ‘The heartbeat of the band is the relationships developed in the pursuit of the performance.’ And that’s life—the relationships developed in the pursuit of the performance.”
Brenda keeps the quote on a wall in her office. Beneath it, there’s another one that reads, “No one lives forever except through what they leave behind. “All these kids, the band directors, all are leaving something behind. And that’s why we’ve decided to call the film Leaving a Legacy.”
Chris says, “The scary part about it all is that we are not making up characters. We’re putting these kids in the spotlight, showing them on their good days and their bad days. For me, it’s been an honor to watch them succeed despite any struggles they’ve faced.”
“Look at the trust they have put in us,” says Brenda. “The camera sees everything. And we have the responsibility to make sure we tell a truthful story, and at the same time not betray the trust put in us. And it has to be entertaining, not just for the people involved. It has to be good independently of anyone knowing these people. It’s a line we walk every day.”
If all goes as planned, Brenda and Chris will finish the film by the middle of this year. “I keep saying May,” says Brenda, “but it could be August.” After that, Brenda hopes to premier the film at Northside. “I need to research the rules for film festivals because some of them require that the film be shown for the first time at their festival. But once I figure out the rules, I’ll be showing it locally.”
In the best scenario, Leaving a Legacy will be picked up at a film festival, promoted, and distributed. But Brenda plans to explore other options as well, including public television and Netflix.
Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into a project like Leaving a Legacy, especially if you’ve never made a movie before. And whereas Brenda is excited for the release of the film, for her, it’s less about potential success and more about simply shining a light on something the world needs to see. “There’s something incredible going on over on the north side of town, and the world needs to see it. And that’s however you define the world. It could just be the 240 band kids and their parents, and that’s fine with me. If the film just impacts one person, I’m happy.”