In 1909, after blowing almost all the profits for his best seller, “The Jungle, ” on lavish communal quarters in New Jersey, Upton Sinclair decided to try out a different kind of utopia, a place in the South named Fairhope. He pitched a tent on the bluffs of this Single-Tax colony, put his own burned-out Helicon Home Colony behind him, and worked on a new book, “Love’s Pilgrimage.” A decade later, a year after the publication of “Winesburg, Ohio, ” fellow writer and utopian-seeker Sherwood Anderson was in the market for an inexpensive, inspirational refuge away from the hustle and bustle of Chicago. He staked out a cabin on that same Eastern Shore, polished the manuscript for his novel “Poor White, ” and took up painting after meeting an artist friend in town, the father of American studio craft Wharton Esherick. Also hoping for tranquility and like-minded thinkers, another associate of Sinclair’s, lawyer Clarence Darrow, recuperated here in 1925 after the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Darrow enjoyed the place so much, he returned to build a house for his younger sister.
Reformers and artists, visionaries and vagabonds, radicals and rascals of the past had good reason to consider the scenic stretch of land overlooking Mobile Bay as the ideal retreat. That is still true today.
“Fairhope’s roots aren’t deep by Southern standards, ” says Fairhope Film Festival (FFF) cofounder Phillip Norris. “The village wasn’t even incorporated until 1908. But our intellectual and imaginative underpinnings are wide ranging. This is one of the most unusual and beautiful small towns in America, with a history as a Deep-South waterfront resort, vibrant artists’ colony, and paradise for progressives and conservatives alike. You couldn’t make up a wackier mix. Did I mention the first librarian was a nudist?”
Settled in 1894 on pastureland, Fairhope began as a demonstration project to live out the philosophical tenets of Henry George, an amazingly popular political economist, the Elvis of his day. Twenty-eight pioneers and their children established one of George’s proposed Single-Tax colonies, which at first permitted no private ownership of land. Some of the original plans were modified, but the colony and its enlightened model of community still thrive. It is
the oldest, largest, continuous Single-Tax utopia in America. (A smaller one survives in Arden, Delaware.)
“We’re the next generation of dreamers and crusaders, ” says FFF executive director Mary Riser. “To preserve this unspoiled, iconic town, we have to tap into the cultural economy. The original Single-Taxers understood that. The place was abuzz with drama, art, music, lively debates and lots of shenanigans among the free thinkers and advocates of free love. It was hip decades before the beatniks.”
Riser, who has directed a successful local cinema series for fifteen years, and Norris, a Harvard fellow and former president of the University of South Alabama/Baldwin campus, who never got over his undergraduate crush on cinematography studies, collaborated on the festival’s format.
It is conceived as a film lover’s film festival, offering participants the opportunity to see world-class award winning flix in a one-of-a-kind, picturesque location over a four-day period. The focus is on national and international film festival competition finalists of the past year: the “best of the best” in cinema arts. Notable foreign and feature films, documentaries and shorts—many that never made it to the big box theaters or were only there briefly—will be selected for appreciative audiences. Although the festival will pull out all the stops, Southern-style, to host opening and closing events and parties, the emphasis will be on the art of filmmaking and the experience of seeing exceptional films. Directors, actors and screenwriters will participate in the screenings both in person and via live electronic transmission.
The four festival venues, within walking distance of each other, will be located in Fairhope’s famous, flower-filled downtown area, convenient to restaurants, hotels, locally owned shops and the town bluffs, which boast sweeping views of the 413 square mile Bay.
“We want to show visitors a slice of the South they’ve never pictured, ” says director of operations John Gautier, “and the welcome mat is out for locals.”
“The people of the Gulf Coast have always loved a good story, ” adds Riser, who anthologized many of those stories in the collection “Literary Mobile.” “We’re inviting film fans to meet us on the Bay’s front porch this fall to catch a breeze and 40 select movies they won’t forget.”
Stars on the Water
When it’s midnight down in Mobile/
Moonbeams on the bay/
They come from miles around to dance the jukebox down/
And dig the good time sounds they play.
–songwriter Rodney Crowell, “Stars on the Water”
Fairhope native Jimmy Buffett knows of what he sings in his hit tune “Stars on the Water.” The Alabama Gulf Coast is famous for its rollicking beachside bars and music. The 20th annual Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival coincides—even harmonizes, you might say—with the nearby Fairhope Film Festival. An easy 25 minute drive from the film venues, the gathering of Grammy-award winning composers and hopefuls will be staged at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. November 7-17. fbisf.com
Nov. 7 – 10: Fairhope Film Festival, fairhopefilmfesitval.org
Fairhope resident Judy Culbreth, a former editor at Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal and Working Mother magazines, is editorial director of Mobile Bay.
text by Judy Culbreth • photos by Sherry Stimpson Frost