Alumna to film documentary on Richmond cemeteries

Christine Stoddard was a guest speaker at the James River Filmmakers Forum on Feb. 23 at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Eli Christman.

Shelby Mertens
Spectrum Editor

While some might find spending time in graveyards morbid or eerie, VCU graduate Christine Stoddard is fascinated by the folklore and legends behind them. She is directing her second documentary film, titled “Richmond’s Dead and Buried,” which is set to release in the spring of 2014.

Stoddard, 24, graduated from VCU in August 2012 with a double major in English and film. She also has a certificate in Production Innovation from VCU’s da Vinci Center for Innovation. Her documentary is a film project of Quail Bell magazine, of which Stoddard is the founder and editor.

The documentary will highlight myths, legends and realities of cemeteries in Richmond, covering both the main and the more obscure cemeteries in Richmond, Stoddard said. The film will be accompanied by a book as well, she added.

Stoddard said she got the idea after filming a documentary that premiered last February called “The Persistence of Poe,” which explores Edgar Allan Poe’s life in Richmond. She received an undergraduate research grant from VCU, which provided funding to shoot the film. While Stoddard was researching Poe’s family and friends in the area, she said she got to learn about the cemeteries in Richmond.

While much has been written about Hollywood cemetery and the Shockoe Bottom cemetery, Stoddard said she aims to shed light on the smaller cemeteries in Richmond, and the tales behind them.

“What I’m doing is comprehensive,” she said. “I’m focusing on the main cemeteries and the smaller ones, so definitely Hollywood, Shockoe Bottom, Hebrew Cemetery, St. John’s in Churchill, Evergreen and Mt. Calvary in Northside.”

Stoddard said there is no other book or documentary that focuses on Richmond’s cemeteries, besides VCU Department of African American Studies chairman Shawn Utsey’s “Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond’s African Burial Ground,” a documentary that unveils the story of a slave cemetery that was paved over and turned into a parking lot.

The documentary will feature interviews from historians, cemetery workers and ancestors of the deceased. Stoddard said she wants to address the social injustices that have revolved around Richmond’s cemeteries.

“You can tell even today, the white cemeteries look different from the black cemeteries,” Stoddard said. “If you’re poor during your lifetime, chances are you’re not going to have the nicest funeral or the nicest grave. Your tombstone is probably going to crumble and fall apart. We just want to delve into these social issues and not have just a film about pretty tombstones.”

The Arlington native has raised about $2,000 so far and $1,152 of that has come from a Kickstarter campaign. Stoddard estimates the total cost of the project to be close to $10,000. She hopes the Virginia-based PBS station will match the funds, along with a grant to support some of the cost.

Christine Stoddard said she wants “Richmond’s Dead and Buried,” to address the social injustices in Richmond’s cemeteries. Photo by Chris Conway.

Stoddard said she decided to use Kickstarter because she has successfully used it to print Quail Bell, a quarterly magazine she originally launched in May of 2010. Quail Bell focuses on the imaginary, the nostalgic and the otherworldly, exploring the real and unreal of literary folklore.

“I decided to go the Kickstarter route because most of our backers aren’t from Richmond, most aren’t even from Virginia,” Stoddard said.

Even if they’re not from this region, Stoddard said the backers are interested in the folklore and mythical stories behind the film. She said she would have never been able to reach these people if it hadn’t been for the site.

The Library of Virginia has expressed an interest in premiering the film next spring, Stoddard said. Although she wants the premier to be in Richmond, Stoddard plans to have the film show in other cities across the region. She said she wants the documentary to appeal to people beyond Richmond.

“We want to make connections to cemeteries and historic preservations and funeral trends throughout the South, if not the country,” Stoddard said. “We want to make these cemeteries relevant on a regional level.”

Kristen Rebelo, a senior communications arts major, is the designer and illustrator for the project. Rebelo said she met Stoddard last summer when she was hired as an intern for Quail Bell. Since then, the two have become business partners and Rebelo is now the art director for Quail Bell.

“She’s kind of become my business partner, but she’s also my mentor. She definitely has herself together; she’s worked with a lot of people,” Rebelo said. “She’s a good leader because she puts (everything) together.”

Although Rebelo said she has done much of the design work, she said Stoddard’s vision is steering the project.

“She has so many writing and creative ambitions,” she said.

Besides being a film director and a magazine editor, Stoddard is also a freelance writer. She has worked as a director, producer, designer, researcher and teacher.

Stoddard has earned over $30,000 in research grants and was named one of Richmond’s “Top 40 under 40” by Style Weekly in 2011.

Rebelo said Stoddard has been like a mentor to her and that she has enjoyed working with her.

“She is probably the most accomplished young person that I know,” Rebelo said. “She always has a new idea, new things to do and we’re constantly busy, which I love.”

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