From Chechnya to Ann Arbor
David Turnley returns
From the March, 2013 issue
A war correspondent has taken root at the U-M art school.
In his career as a photojournalist, David Turnley traveled to seventy-five countries, met Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, and the Dalai Lama, and covered the falls of communism and apartheid plus most of the wars since Vietnam.
Now Turnley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Detroit Free Press, is back in Ann Arbor. "I've always loved this community," says the blond-haired, blue-eyed Turnley over coffee at Sweetwaters. "I was proud to go to school here from '72 through '77. I felt like I'd found my tribe. And I always stayed in touch with my colleagues at the university and the Residential College."
His connection to his alma mater helped Turnley find a new career after he had a close call while covering the war Chechnya.
"We'd been getting shelled night and day for days," he recalls, "but this particular morning things were quiet. My colleague Jim Nachtwey and I were talking to a man outside a twenty-story building, and I got this twitch in my neck. You learn to trust your instincts after a while, so I said, 'Let's get out of here.' We went around the corner, and fifteen seconds later a shell landed and killed the guy we were just talking to. After fifteen years of covering war zones, I decided to give my guardian angels a rest."
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.
"It was always an immigrant town, and in the last fifteen years immigration was a thousand Mexicans to work in the tree farms and mattress factory," Turnley adds. "And it was always a town that played football because the men were so damn tough."
Turnley spent a year and a half filming in Shenandoah. He went to every high school football game and to the bars afterwards with the coaches. He went to the Heritage Parade and the Thanksgiving Santa Drop, where Santa Claus drops out of an airplane and lands by parachute in the high school football stadium.
"I also got to know one of the young men who was involved in the fight, and I spent time in Mexico with the mother of the young man who was killed," continues Turnley, who has a nineteen-year-old son. "I felt like having spent so much of my career trying to understand people around the world, now I was trying to understand my own people."
The Michigan Theater showing won't be the first or last for Shenandoah. "It's on the festival circuit now," says Turnley. "I won best director for a documentary at the Atlanta Film Festival, and we're looking at getting licensed by Netflix in the next few weeks. But we're still looking for theatrical release."
Not that Turnley is likely to quit his day job. "It's a tenure-track position," he explains, "and I came here with a vision of creating a life here. I remarried two years ago, and my wife and I have an adorable red-haired, blue-eyed, ten-month-old daughter named Dawson. I still get out there, but this is my home base."
[Originally published in March, 2013.]