STORY: Nicole Letts
At 32, filmmaker and Poncey- Highland resident Erin Bernhardt has two Peabody Awards and an Emmy under her belt. She has served in the Peace Corps, written and produced at CNN and spent hours volunteering with Nexus Global, the BeltLine and LEAD Atlanta. To say she has a heart for change would be an understatement, and she puts her talent where her passion is. “My goal with filmmaking is more about building movements around issues that I care about than it is actually making a movie,” she says.
Her first independent film, Imba Means Sing (2015), took viewers to Africa to meet Moses, the celebrity drummer for the African Children’s Choir. It’s now on Netflix and Delta’s in-flight entertainment.
When a violent white supremacy rally occurred in Charlottesville in August 2017, Bernhardt, a University of Virginia grad, couldn’t stand by. “I felt compelled to make a film about the opposite of hate,” she says. Inspired by those events, the Georgia native directed her attention closer to home.
DeKalb County’s Clarkston lies just 10 miles outside of Atlanta and has been designated by Time as “the most diverse square mile in America.” Here, refugees otherwise torn apart by war, persecution or prejudice are living in harmony. Surprised? Bernhardt says you shouldn’t be. “I love the South and think there are a lot of misconceptions about this part of the country. But there are also little glimpses of heaven on earth happening in our own backyard in Clarkston where people are welcoming these refugees with open arms,” she says. The film, titled Clarkston, depicts a town that embodies Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate,” a nickname coined in the 1960s when, unlike other southern cities, Atlanta blazed toward racial progress. While we earned this label in 1965, Clarkston’s residents continue its legacy. “Clarkston is a microcosm for a lot of what America has done right. It’s what we were founded on. The Americans who were privileged to be born here, like me, who choose to spend their time in Clarkston, feel the freedom America promises deeply and are eager to help make that promise come true for more,” Bernhardt explains.
Bernhardt is using her film as an opportunity to broaden her impact beyond theaters and red carpets. She intentionally hired a team comprised of women and minorities. “As a female filmmaker, I think long and hard about the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. As a white woman, I know it’s not right for white people to always be telling the stories of people of color. As a millennial, I can’t sit by and watch the world happen to us,” she says. “Being a producer is not as glamorous, creative or rewarding as being a director, but it does give me the power to hire our team, and with that power, I decided to hire the people the industry doesn’t usually hire first.”
Through Clarkston, which will premiere at film festivals in 2020, Bernhardt hopes to demystify the refugee experience, but her dreams for the film don’t stop there. “We want America to continue living up to its founding promise of freedom and justice for all people. We want to share a positive story out of the South. We want to empower and educate the future filmmakers of Atlanta. We want world peace. Is that too much to ask for from a film?”