St. Mary's City, Sotterley in the Documentary Spotlight

By Guy Leonard, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (Jan. 31, 2008)—When Andrea Kalin, of District-based Spark Media, was looking for scenic locales to shoot her slavery documentary “Prince Among Slaves,” which chronicles the life of an African prince forced into captivity, she was fully prepared to do most of her shooting in Mississippi where parts of the story actually took place.

But when her program manager mentioned a place called St. Mary’s City to her, things began to change.

“We didn’t even know where it is,” Kalin told The County Times. “We came out and saw it and immediately I turned around to my production manager and said this is unbelievable.”

Instead of having to go to Natchez, Miss. to film native village scenes from The Gambia, where her documentary’s main character is from, the woodland Indian vilage at St. Mary’s City turned out to be a perfect alternative.

Kalin found Sotterley a perfect setting for a Mississippi plantation and used the old state house in St. Mary’s City as a Masonic lodge in Boston in her documentary.

The documentary will have its debut on PBS starting Feb. 4.

Kalin never realized that so many historical resources critical to making believable documentaries about the past were just about one-and-ahalf hours away from the District.

The change in scenery saved her from all the logistical trouble of gearing up for a trek to Mississippi, though some seans were eventually shot there, she said.

“I was astounded at what was in our backyard,” Kalin said. “It was amazing that we could do so much there. “It was a Hollywood dream.”

The story “Prince Among Slaves” details the story of a 26-year-old man, a West African prince, and his enslavement and subsequent trip to America in 1788.

As one of the few survivors of the slave ship passage, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima finds himself forced to work on a Natchez Mississippi plantation cultivating tobacco.

Despite an offer of gold from his father’s coffers to Thomas Foster, the plantation owner and Ibrahima’s captor, Ibrahima would not return to Africa until about 40 years had passed.

During his time in America Ibrahima escapes his bonds but returns as a matter of survival and eventually becomes the focal point of a journalist’s efforts to chronicle his bid to attain freedom for himself and the family he has sired in his new home.

The documentary also details his trips throughout the nation speaking to large audiences about his plight and his efforts to raise enough money to buy his and his family’s freedom.

By the age of 67, Ibrahima makes a final trip back to Africa, which is filmed at Point Lookout State Park, but falls ill and dies before he can reach the land of his birth.

The documentary also has more from St. Mary’s than just scenery, Kalin said.

“We also got all our extras from your community,” Kalin said of casting calls at St. Mary’s College. “We had a tremendous experience in the St. Mary’s area.”

Marty Sullivan, director of the colonial museum at St. Mary’s City, said that the notoriety the documentary provided for one of the county’s most historic sites would be much appreciated.

“We think it’s a good thing for us,” Sullivan said. “We’re so unspoiled compared to other older places like Jamestown.

“It generates income not only for us but for the surrounding community.”

But the documentary will not be the only showcasing of St. Mary’s City’s valuable resources.

The History Channel is also including the city’s grave sites near the chapel as part of an exploration of grave practices hundreds of years ago to give a better insight into how people lived.

A similar Smithsonian Institute project, called “Written in Bone,” will also present research from St. Mary’s City.

Sotterley’s director Michael Lane was happy that Sotterley was portrayed in the documentary and hoped that more such interest would come in the future.

“The documentary provides an alternative way to show off Sotterley Plantation to the public,” Lane said. “It illustrates that historic sites can provide an authentic backdrop for film productions. “As far as a documentary about Sotterley, that is a dream for the future.”

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