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Captain of Souls: Rev. William White

Director's Diary - Fern Levitt

I have always been attracted to people of courage. It is their stories that as a filmmaker, I want to tell. I envy their tenacity and wish that I could somehow inject more of that quality into my character. But if I can't be a courageous person myself, at least I can tell those stories. That's what attracted me to the story of "Captain of Souls: The story of Reverend William White". I was looking for a story for Scattering of Seeds. I wanted to be part of that series. I had just finished directing a documentary on the Holocaust so I was not interested in further exploring my own Jewish heritage.

I have always been attracted to Black culture, probably because I see so many similarities between our two races. They understand bigotry, hatred and fear but they also understand survival and courage. I always felt that our two races held more similarities than differences. I called the Black Cultural Centre in Nova Scotia and spoke to the director, Henry Bishop. He immediately recounted the story of Rev. William White. "No one has ever done a story about Reverend White and it is time that they did", he said. He gave me the names and phone numbers of Reverend White's surviving children and I called hoping that they would agree to let me do a story on their father. I was nervous wondering if I would find them open to a white woman telling this story.

"It's about time that someone did a story about my father", Jack White told me on the phone and then proceeded to tell me his father's story. This son of slaves left his family behind in Virginia and came to Canada. He became a renowned minister and brought hope and inspiration to an isolated community. He was a gorgeous man, tall, charismatic and I knew I had found my story; coupled with the fact that the White family had enormous musical talents. This film took me to Virginia to record music at a small Baptist Church built by William's parents at the turn of the century. I became involved in the world of gospel music, envious that my synagogue would never offer me the thrill I felt listening to the voices of the church choir nor the enthusiastic response from the congregation. I knew that between the music and this man's legacy, I was on to something.

But most of all, it was the words of the people who still remember him, almost 70 years after his death, that inspired me. "He was a powerful preacher," recounts Francis Clements who attended his church services when she was only 8 years old. To this day, Mrs. Clements has vivid memories of Reverend White coming to her house and visiting her ailing father.

"I still miss him" Jack White told me, "I'm seventy-five years old and I still miss my father". What a legacy, I thought. How many of us will have that kind of legacy to leave behind?

Making this film bought me to a moment that I will never forget. When the film was completed, White Pine Pictures and I held a screening in Halifax for the Black community. After the film was shown, Henry Bishop came up to me and said "films like this bring a sense of pride to our community. Anytime you want to make a film about our community, you have our blessing".

I may have a noodle for a spine and in my fantasies wish that I could be Nelson Mandela, but at least I made this film and I will always be proud of that.

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