A good man may be hard to find, but a documentary about celebrated short story writer Flannery O’Connor proved even more difficult to find, for former Wisconsin resident-turned-Southern-filmmaker Bridget Kurt. But not for long: Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor, the first ever feature-length documentary about the writer, makes its television debut on PBS in more than a dozen U.S. cities this month, including Milwaukee.
Kurt, who moved from Wisconsin to Atlanta, Georgia seven years ago, rediscovered O’Connor’s writing after finding solace in her portrayal of displacement in the south, a sentiment that Kurt felt firsthand during those early months in Georgia. Although she notes the similarities between rural Georgia and Northern Wisconsin (both are populated by big-hearted salt-of-the-earth types and pickup trucks, for instance), Kurt felt the first tremors of culture shock right away.
“As an Irish-Catholic, I identified with her. In the South, Catholics are a minority, unlike in the Midwest,” Kurt said. “And as a Midwesterner transplanted to the South, I found her descriptions of Southern characters very relatable.”
After grappling with the oft-misinterpreted themes and motifs that recur in O’Connor’s work (violence, grace, Southern racism, the banality of evil), Kurt sought supplemental materials to provide context from the writer’s background. But she came up empty-handed. According to Kurt and English professor David King, who specializes in Flannery O’Connor’s writing, the problem is circular: O’Connor’s absence in higher education curricula results from widespread confusion and trepidation from both students and teachers, and vice versa.
“Even at her alma mater, GSCU in Milledgeville, very few students that we ran into on campus knew who O’Connor was,” Kurt said. “In Wisconsin, most of us know that Frank Lloyd Wright was a Wisconsin native because we are taught about famous Wisconsinites and we name libraries and schools after them. I’m not sure how much Flannery O’Connor is taught in Georgia schools.”
O’Connor’s stories are not often sentimental, happy stories. On the subject of violence in her writing, O’Connor herself once said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Though her stories engage with Catholic themes, their violence is palpable and, at times, startling.
“She wasn’t using violence to glorify it; she was showing how extreme moments in our lives are spiritual wake-up calls,” Kurt said. “Her stories show characters confronted by God’s grace in unexpected ways through difficulties and humbling moments of self-realization.”
The unnamed grandmother character in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” for instance, experiences a moment of charity and grace mere moments before she is murdered by The Misfit. “She would of been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” the Misfit says after killing her. Her stories often juxtaposed moments of grace with violence to illustrate the ephemerality of the epiphany and the fickleness of human nature.
Working with personal friend and filmmaker Michael Jordan, Kurt founded Beata Productions and set out to create a film that could give students, teachers and readers the context necessary to enjoy O’Connor’s stories. Kurt’s brother-in-law, Marquette University graduate (Bus Ad ’01, Comm ’07) Dan Kurt, assumed the role of lead writer, and the team chipped away at filming and editing while balancing their day jobs, struggling to fund the project and navigating the legal idiosyncrasies surrounding O’Connor’s notoriously cantankerous estate.
The completed film traces O’Connor’s upbringing throughout the 1930s, her career and her untimely death at age 39, weaving the thread of her Catholic faith throughout the tapestry of her short life. Featured in the documentary, along with professor David King, is commentary from O’Connor’s biographer Brad Gooch and friend William A. Sessions. Uncommon Grace has already enjoyed a stint on the festival circuit, with a win for “Best Documentary” at the Milledgeville Film Festival in Georgia.
Kurt says she is excited to provide an educational tool for teachers and professors to use in the classroom.
“I’m proud that when people watch Uncommon Grace, it will make it easier to understand Flannery O’Connor,” Kurt said. “Once you know Flannery O’Connor’s point of view, it’s so much easier to pick up her stories and understand them.”
Interested in delving into some O’Connor yourself? Kurt has some tips for where to start. “I suggest that a new reader start out with these stories: ‘The Lame Shall Enter First’ reflects O’Connor’s critique of an over-reliance on science and psychology to solve human problems,” Kurt said, “and ‘The Displaced Person’ is very relevant today as it explores how an immigrant family is welcomed or not welcomed in a rural community.”
Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor will begin broadcasting in Milwaukee tonight at 6 p.m. on PBS, and will continue to air throughout the month. Readers in other cities can enter their zip code to find local listings. A DVD of the documentary is also available for sale on Amazon.