“It looks like a bomb went off!” the local news reporter exclaimed.
My family and I had spent the entire day hunkered down in my aunt’s basement in Russellville, Alabama. Even though my family's home was 12 miles away in the town of Phil Campbell, we always tried to take shelter from extremely severe weather outbreaks in my aunt's basement as it offered the best protection from a tornado. Before the power went off we knew that our whole county was under a tornado warning, but it wasn’t until the electricity was restored that we were able to turn on the news, and hear those dreadful words spoken by the reporter.
Phil Campbell was hit by an EF5 tornado, its 200-plus m.p.h. winds wiped almost half my town off the map. This is where I grew up, where I played Little League Baseball, where I graduated high school. This was my history, and now much of it was gone.
Our town lost 27 residents that day, one of them a little boy named Ethan Knox. Ethan lived with his grandparents just up the road from my church, and he frequently attended a children’s class I assisted with there. Ethan was ripped out of his grandmother’s arms when the tornado slammed into their home. Just a few weeks before I had played dodge ball with Ethan at church; a week later that church was destroyed and this ten-year-old boy was being buried in his Little League uniform.
Needless to say, these were trying times for me and for my community.
How does I’m with Phil fit into all this? A few months before the April tornado, I was looking for a short documentary project to keep myself occupied, something to do other than the wedding videos I was shooting for freelance pay. My old college roommate emailed me a quirky news story about a guy named Phil Campbell from Brooklyn, New York who was trying to organize Phil Campbells from around the world to meet him in Phil Campbell, AL that June for my town’s 100th anniversary hoedown.
I jumped on the idea and soon began working with Brooklyn Phil Campbell; it seemed like a fun project. I started out by covering Rita Barton, a Phil Campbell resident who was organizing the hoedown (I knew Rita from church). Rita’s planning meetings were going well, the convention was -- to everyone’s great surprise -- getting international media coverage, and the townspeople were all anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Phils.
However, after the tornado decimated our community, all those plans fell by the wayside. The convention, hoedown, and documentary were the last things anyone was thinking about. They felt so trivial and unimportant. Our attention was focused exclusively on helping our neighbors.
Brooklyn Phil, though, wanted to keep going. He saw an opportunity to turn his seemingly absurd idea into something very meaningful to our town. And after the immediate crisis of getting emergency relief to the tornado victims had passed, he called me and asked me to keep filming. Whatever happened, he said, I had to keep filming. We had to find a way to turn this into a story that we could somehow use to help my town.
So I kept filming. The Phil Campbells raised money from their cities and towns around the world, and they came to Phil Campbell, Alabama, and I saw the kind of story I could tell, a story that covered the tornado’s devastation but which, more importantly, showed how people from all walks of life will step up to help strangers in a time of crisis.
I’m with Phil is an inspiring story, an extremely important story that I realized I had to tell.
After more than two years shooting, editing, revising, and revising again, the film is nearly complete. I am overjoyed to bring I’m with Phil to a larger audience, and sharing behind the scenes stories like this through our website. I truly believe this film will have a very positive impact on those who see it and bring some support to my still-struggling hometown.
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In the words of a friend of mine, you’re either with Phil or you’re against him. I’m with Phil, are you?