In 1993 Roy Kirkland and his partner Doug Sebastian were living in the tiny South Georgia town of Willacoochee, population 1,100, when they woke up one morning to find a charred, seven-foot cross on their lawn.
Local police suggested they ignore the event. A city councilman said he wasn't surprised at the harassment, because most people in the town were "anti-gay."
Things got worse. The two received death threats on their answering machine. Then their house burned to the ground.
Though they suspected foul play, an investigation by their insurance company turned up no conclusive evidence of arson. It also revealed that their insurers were reluctant to cover the loss, intimating that they'd burned their own house down.
The two abandoned the town, and didn't come back for years. Now they've returned to Willacoochee symbolically, with a documentary film that throws a harsh light on a town that seemed to tolerate hatred.
The documentary, "A Cross-Burning in Willacoochee," premieres Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in the Out on Film Festival at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. It has also been selected to be a part of the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival later this month.
Though the 104-minute film is deliberate and detailed, it is possible to detect the anger behind the project.
"I’m kind of mad at myself more than anybody, because I took so damn long to say something," said Kirkland, who now lives in Valdosta, and in between film projects, works selling furniture and antiques. "I was a coward, I ran, and never talked about it again."
But the story wouldn't let him rest. "It was something that ate at me for fifteen years," he said. Kirkland and Sebastian are no longer a couple, but they are partners in a fledgling film business, A Cross Pictures LLC. They've also developed a comedy.
Have things in Willacoochee changed since 1993? Kirkland said he doesn't know. The only time he's been back is to visit his father's grave, and to shoot footage, surreptitiously, for the documentary, some of which involved re-enacted footage.
"We snuck into town, on a Sunday, on a quiet day." He says he's not concerned how the town reacts to the movie. "I wanted to surprise the people that did this to us, the way they surprised us in 1993."
Sebastian, who also lives in Valdosta, says the town needs to understand the evil that was done.
"They were standing behind the citizens that were doing the wrong, rather than standing behind their citizens who were being wronged," he said.
Kirkland sees events happening in 2009 that prove bigotry is still with us, including the recent beating of a black member of the military at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. "It sickens me when I see things about the lady at the Cracker Barrel that got beat up. That kind of stuff sickens me."
"It’s coming out at, unfortunately, a time when bigotry is still strong," he said.
Out on Film, Oct. 2-8, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, $75 full week, $20 opening night, $10 single admission, 931 Monroe Drive; outonfilm.org/
For more information: www.acrossburning.com
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