On Oct. 27, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival presented its Reel South Best Short Documentary Award to “Cotton Plant.” The film, which clocks in at just over six minutes, takes an atmospheric look at the small town where one of Arkansas’s five medical marijuana cultivation facilities will locate. Director Matthew Michaud moves his camera slowly and deliberately, using aerial shots from drone-mounted cameras to capture the town and the sprawling Delta farmland and woods that surround it. As the images unfold, Willard Ryland, Cotton Plant’s mayor since 2014, narrates the hardships of the town’s past and his hopes for its future.
Ryland and his wife, Angela, moved back to town in 2010 with a mission to help remedy the decades of economic blight that have closed the city’s schools, driven out its businesses and decimated its population. Out of the many initiatives the Rylands have spearheaded to try to bring new industry to Cotton Plant, Bold Team LLC’s investment in the growing facility has been one of the few to pan out. Now, as construction of the plant picks up speed and draws attention from media and investors alike, Mayor Ryland is leading the city through the fraught waters of its newfound notoriety. Sitting down after the film’s HSDFF premiere for a Q&A with this writer and Michaud, Ryland remembered that he was initially wary of Michaud’s request to film in Cotton Plant.
Ryland: I have a niece who’s an attorney, and the first thing she told me was to be cautious. Because not everybody that calls you or emails you will have a good intent. Some people will have the intent of taking advantage of you, so I kind of erred on the side of caution to make sure that I didn’t just accept everything that came at me.
Michaud: Of course, you have to. Probably most people are well intentioned, but especially with an issue like this there will be people who have their own interests. But, yeah, I knew someone was going to shoot this film, and I just wanted to be the one to do it.
Matthew, you’re based in LA. How did you stumble onto this story from Arkansas?
Michaud: I direct commercials. I do mostly documentary-type commercials and am very comfortable working in the doc world. But it’s usually, you know, branded stuff for companies. I love it very much, but I do look for more fulfilling opportunities to express myself as a filmmaker. So, for a while I had been thinking, “I have to do something that I really care about, not just something selling soap or whatever.” I had a lengthy list of stories that I thought I could be interested in, and I just kept going through them and trying to think of the angle. And then I saw [Richard Fausset’s] article in The New York Times and it just clicked. I can’t say exactly what drew me to it so much, but I really credit the journalist and photographer with painting a great portrait of the town. It really drew me into that world.
The only other thing was wanting to hear the mayor’s voice because there was no video or audio component to the article. I think I found a video of you [Mayor Ryland] speaking on Facebook somewhere, and I said, “Oh, my God, he’s got a great movie voice!”
Ryland: I had never recognized that!
I think the film is really successful at capturing a downtrodden place in a way that still feels respectful and hopeful. How did you navigate that?
Michaud: Well, I felt it had to be a big story, and it’s a very small canvas. We’ve got very few people in the film, there’s only one voice in the film, and it’s a small town by nature. That’s what the story’s about, it’s very localized. But I felt that there were also enormous, universal themes to this film that we had to communicate through the filmmaking. So that led to things like using wider camera angles and drone shots, which give a more environmental effect. When we have a shot of Mayor Ryland in the school, and it’s not just a close-up of him with a shallow background. You feel the whole school. You feel the whole town.
In the film, you mention some of the background causes behind the town’s economic hardships today — namely, integration and white flight. If you were to build a bigger project, what kind of angles would you approach that form to piece together a bigger picture of Cotton Plant?
Michaud: There was so much. Race is a big one. That was the thing, as I was editing, that I wished we had more time or another angle to delve into a little bit. We weren’t there for very long, but I was there long enough to get a sense of the town’s history of school integration and the way that the white population left almost immediately afterward.
Ryland: Yeah. You know, before integration, the community was racially polarized, of course, because everything was separate. And here it is, 50 years later, and it’s almost still the same. However, there’s a little bit better mixing and communication with young people. It has progressed over the years, where we get along fine in the community, but there are some subliminal things that still happen, even though here it is 2018.
How do y’all foresee this partnership and project moving forward?
Michaud: I don’t know. The story is still going on in the town, it’s barely started.
Ryland: I think it has started. The spark has been lit. And once you light a spark, it can blossom into a raging forest fire, and I hope that that’s what will happen with this community. I’m already looking at a snapshot of Cotton Plant five years from now. Five years from now, people in Cotton Plant won’t have to drive to another community to go buy a pair of socks. Right now, you can’t buy a pair of socks in Cotton Plant. You can’t buy gas in Cotton Plant. You can’t exchange money in Cotton Plant. I suspect that, within five years, there’s going to be a tremendous story of progress, of a thriving community. I think what the New York Times indicated was that it was a dying community. I think in five years, that won’t be the story.