Alumni Spotlight: John Rash (MFA ’14)

published on: May 15, 2024
John Rash is a filmmaker, photographer, and video artist currently working as Assistant Professor of Film Production and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. John earned his M.F.A. in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University (’14) and has since worked as a visual storyteller and educator in the United States and China.

John x Rash (MFA x ’14) in the Cathedral

John Rash is a filmmaker, photographer, and video artist currently working as Assistant Professor of Film Production and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. John earned his M.F.A. in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University (’14) and has since worked as a visual storyteller and educator in the United States and China. 

As the founder/curator of the Southern Punk Archive, John works to preserve the music, stories, and ephemera from vibrant D.I.Y. punk and hardcore communities throughout the American South. As the producer/director of several award-winning films, John was the recipient of the Soul of Southern Film award from Indie Memphis Film Festival (’18), and the Excellence in Community Engagement Award with Distinction from the University of Mississippi (’24). 

John Rash’s feature documentary, Our Story Starts Here tells the story of the small rural community in Warren County, North Carolina that inspired the international environmental justice movement in 1982 when citizens joined together to fight the state’s toxic landfill. Many of the original protestors and organizers tell their story in the film through first person interviews including former Representative Eva Clayton, Dollie Burwell, and Wayne Moseley. 

John is working with the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute to screen Our Story Starts Here at their annual Rights! Camera! Action! Film Series in Durham on Thursday, September 12th.

Hi John! Can you please tell us about your film and why you’ve decided to host screenings in North Carolina?

In my role at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi when I began working on this film in 2018, my main responsibility was telling stories about the American south, and I’m really interested in stories about the environment and how we can fight to make the environment more sustainable. Being from North Carolina originally, I knew that in eastern North Carolina there was a tremendous amount of industrialization around concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrial pig and chicken farms. I went over to Duplin County, which has the highest population of hog farms in the nation and started working on a film around that. There was a lot of reporting being done at the time, as there was a related case that was pending with the state legislature, and I ran into another film crew, who produced the film that came out last year called The Smell of Money, and they had already put a couple years into their project. I realized quickly that they had better funding, they were talking to so many people already, so I started looking for a way to still think about environmental justice in North Carolina, but not that exact same story. I’d remembered hearing the story of Warren County, which is about an hour north of Durham, and I went back to that story and realized that not only was there not a single publication about this history, there were also no films made about this history.

A person and person smiling in front of a screenDescription automatically generated

When paired with a film like The Smell of Money, it paints this broader picture of “why is this still happening?” In the very place where these terms were articulated – environmental racism, environmental justice – just down the street you had these hog farms and facilities, and in 40 years there are still these atrocities happening geographically in the exact same place. Even though the hog farms don’t appear in my film, knowing about them, I could make a film that sort of responds to that in a way, so folks can look back and see a template for struggles that are happening now and into the future. That is a long way of saying that how this project started is a story from North Carolina, and it was important to me all along that the first people who get to see this film are the folks from the community from where it was made, the folks who are represented in the film.

What did you do after graduating from Duke’s MFA program?

I graduated from the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke in 2014 and actually worked at DKU for a couple years. I was in Kunshan and stayed there until 2017 and then moved back to the states when I accepted a job at the University of Mississippi in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture as a documentary filmmaker/producer/director. Since that time, I’ve transitioned into a tenure track position split between the Departments of Theater and Film and Southern Studies, as an assistant Professor of Film Production and Southern Studies. I feel really lucky to be here, it is a place that surprisingly has a lot of connections to Duke and North Carolina.

At Duke I was mostly involved with my MFA program – I came into the MFA as a still photographer, which I had been doing for about a decade before that point, and I took advantage of the MFA as a way to learn a new skill, and really made my first documentary that made it into festivals, as my documentary thesis was in Full Frame that year. I’ve been trying to get back to Full Frame for 10 years since then! To have my MFA thesis be selected the year I was graduating for such a great festival was a great honor. That was validation for me that I was proficient at storytelling in this way, that I kept going with it. I really owe my career at this point and all the successes I’ve had with any of my films back to the MFA and to Duke and the Center for Documentary Studies, and to Full Frame. That training I received there enabled me to make the film we’re talking about here today.

How did you transition from your MFA to working for DKU to now?

That was interesting because DKU was still in startup mode – I was hired before the first semester – at that point it was only graduate programs, and they were still imagining what the four-year undergraduate curriculum would look like. I was hired on as the Director of Student Activities and worked in Student Affairs at DKU. It was a very small population of students and I was planning those events, documenting those events, and then teaching one or two film theory/intro to cinema type classes because they really didn’t have a liberal arts program at that point, but the promise was, once the four-year program launched, I would be able to help mold that and be a part of that team that would start the Cinema Studies or Art Department. I left before that happened and came back here, but I did feel like I got to see that place literally move from cubicles in a boiler room to a real campus. It was a really special thing to witness. To actually see a brand-new university come out of startup mode and build graduate programs and recruit students internationally, that was a pretty wild experience, and I draw from that now. We started the MFA where I teach the year that I came on board, so I drew from those experiences at DKU to think about the curriculum and the development of the program that we’ve had now for the past six years.

Do you remember your go-to study spot at Duke?

I had a couple, one was sitting on the patio at Whole Foods, you know, by ninth street? Also, that that area outside the student union (Bryan Center). I like to sit outside, so the area outside the student union was really nice. I actually worked with Student Life at Duke so I was at the student union a lot and the area just right out there was always a great place to just sit and have a little nature.

If you have any advice or up-and-coming filmmakers or students interested in your field of documentary filmmaking, what that would be?

Yeah, I think it gets back to your question earlier about why bring it back to North Carolina. I think it's just honoring the communities that you're representing and really thinking about them as collaborators in the project and not subjects. Like I never used that word, subject. I always think of folks as participants in these films that I'm putting together even for photographs. You know, you think of portrait photography as maybe not like being a collaborator, but it absolutely is and I think documentary film is the same way. For example I took a cut of the film back to Warren County back in January and had them watch it to give me feedback before I went from my rough cut to my final cut so that I actually knew that they were are comfortable with how they were being represented in the film before I felt like I was finished with it.

What about tips for students in general?

I had a lot of different avenues I could pursue with my skill set – when I had the job offer here at Ole Miss, I also had a job offer to work for a consulting firm as a marketing manager, doing internal marketing, which had a much higher salary. But I felt the work would be much less rewarding for me, I saw the work that I would be doing in that role and the A sign on a poleDescription automatically generatedlifestyle associated with that role, and I felt that I would be a lot happier being a storyteller in this way rather than a storyteller in that way. Having that self-awareness and knowing the type of legacy I wanted to leave and the type of work I wanted to put into the world rather than the salary I wanted to earn every month was important for me to be where I am now.