From Chechnya to Ann Arbor
That led to a Nieman Foundation Fellowship at Harvard in 1997 to study documentary filmmaking, and that led to three full-length documentaries: The Dalai Lama: At Home and in Exile, La Tropical, and the most recent Shenandoah, the story of a tough town in the coal mining country in Pennsylvania. And that led back to Ann Arbor, where Turnley became an associate professor at the U-M School of Art and Design and the Residential College last year, and where Shenandoah will be screened at the Michigan Theater on March 27.
The idea for Shenandoah came five years ago when Turnley took photographs for the first Obama campaign for a few weeks. "This was when Obama made the comment in San Francisco that he thought was off the record about small towns in Pennsylvania where they cling to their guns and religion. And I'd grown up with guns and religion. I grew up in Fort Wayne playing tough football against teams from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and I thought: 'I've got to do a story about a coal mining town where they play tough football and use that as a way to look at the realities of the working class today.'"
Turnley settled on a town "after a friend called me and told me I've got to go to Shenandoah, Pennsylvania: four local football players were accused of beating to death an undocumented immigrant. I felt like that was where I was meant to go, and when I got there it was like the movie Deer Hunter. This town had been one of the most booming coal towns and the home of the Molly Maguires and the labor movement. And it went from 40,000 people in the thirties to 6,000 people today with a desperate economy.