Hannah Ayers is a filmmaker based in Richmond, Virginia. She and her husband Lance Warren co-own a film production company, Field Studio. They produce films at the intersection of history and social justice, focusing on race, incarceration, and family. Most recently, they completed production of An Outrage, a short documentary about the history and legacy of lynching in the American South. Hannah grew up in Charlottesville and studied history at the College of William & Mary. She previously worked in external relations at WITNESS, which supports activists to use video to document human rights abuses.
Where do you call home?
I call Richmond, Virginia home. My husband Lance and I have only lived there since the summer of 2014, but it came to feel like home quickly. It’s a complicated place, and a place that can get caught up in celebrating itself without recognizing people who are struggling. But the city’s small size means we can get involved and make some sort of difference. And it is true that there’s a lot to celebrate.
We occupy 569 square feet of a row house built around 1910. It’s in my favorite part of town, a neighborhood called The Fan, close to cafes and restaurants, a university, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the James River. We lived in New York City before moving to Richmond. I enjoyed living in New York very much, but I don’t find myself wanting to live there again. Moving to Richmond meant having the chance to take our filmmaking business full-time, to be close to family and friends, and to be in a region that by turns fascinates me and frustrates me.
I grew up in the mountains just outside of Charlottesville, and I still call Charlottesville home, too. I spend a lot of time on the same plot of land where my parents built a house, got a dog, and gave my brother a sister (aka me)— all in the fall of 1986. Lance and I lived there for a year, and we got married down by the creek. It’s a special place.
Describe your work life.
Work life involves producing short films and documentaries. Lance and I started Field Studio informally in 2009 and took it full-time in 2014. We produce promotional, fundraising, and educational videos for nonprofits, universities, and small businesses. We’re fortunate that we work with really interesting clients, whose missions we support. And they believe in us when we suggest hiring a drone-operated camera and casting a dozen Virginians who hail from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa to recreate the perilous journeys that refugees take, as we did for a Women’s Refugee Commission video.
Our work life involves some travel — typically between Richmond and New York — for production shoots, and a lot of time editing, researching, and communicating with clients at coffee shops and at our kitchen island. We generally handle all aspects of production as a two-person crew, but fortunately we’ve had more opportunities recently to hire people who have expertise in cinematography and audio editing — allowing us more time to keep the big picture in mind.
All of our worthwhile client work has allowed us to fund independent documentary projects. Most recently, we wrapped production on a short documentary called An Outrage, about lynching in the American South. We traveled 3,000 miles in the spring to interview scholars in New York and Atlanta. We traveled another 3,500 miles this summer to meet activists and descendants of lynching victims who are fighting to get recognition of lynchings and their legacy of trauma. At every step, we strayed from the clichés of historical documentaries. You won’t see slow pans or fades. You will see the haunting images of what lynching sites look like today. You will hear the generational damage that perpetrators of lynchings caused.
We’re also producing a yearlong web-based storytelling and photography project called Richmond Justice, which examines the criminal justice landscape in Virginia’s capital city. Every Friday, we post an interview and a portrait with a Richmonder whose life is shaped by the justice system in some way. We’ve interviewed activists, artists, the Director of the Department of Corrections for Virginia, public defenders, business owners, formerly incarcerated people… it’s been a fascinating glimpse into our home town, and it seems that others find it interesting too. We started with a mailing list of 129 friends and family; today our audience is over 15,000. Our hope is that we’ll demonstrate the wide net that the criminal justice system casts. When we talk about the justice system, we’re often talking about out neighbors and friends.
What motivates you?
I feel a sense of responsibility to shed light on injustices that are rooted in a history that is often ignored or misunderstood. My boss at WITNESS, the human rights organization I worked for in New York, once told me, “You should take as a given that you will make some tiny difference in this world. The question is: what difference will that be?” I want to help teach young people about why the history of slavery and racial terror is relevant today. I want to help change the minds of people who write off incarcerated individuals as criminals who are unworthy of mercy. Lance and I aim to produce media that shows the humanity of marginalized individuals, that shows how injustices today are rooted in hundreds of years of injustices. I’m motivated by the possibility that film can make history personal, emotional, and resonant.
Tell us about your parents/family growing up.
Both of my parents grew up in East Tennessee, and were very conscious of their Southern-ness when they moved to Connecticut for my dad to go to grad school. My mom, Abby, studied early childhood education and taught preschool while my dad, Ed, pursued his PhD. To this day, they feel lucky that my dad got a job to teach at the University of Virginia — academic jobs were hard to come by. When my dad had his interview, my mom stuck a note in his suitcase: “Don’t pick your nose.” I guess that was sage advice.
Growing up, my mom encouraged play and creativity — she’s very artistic, and always had ideas for keeping me and my brother Nate entertained. We lived in a rural area, so Nate and I spent a lot of time exploring the woods and playing video games. My mom is an amazing cook, and embraced “New Southern” cuisine way before pimento cheese, grits, and biscuits became trendy things. She loves gardening and getting her hands dirty. Once a year, she would take me out of school so we could go berry-picking together.
My dad always had music on in the house. Music is his hobby, so I got a great music education growing up: he’d play Sam Cooke, Santana, Norah Jones, Radiohead, Van Morrison… he introduced me to Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin. The whole family drove cross-country when I was 12, and my dad used the occasions when I was in the passenger seat to teach me the complete discography of The Beatles.
It took a while for it take hold, but my dad’s scholarship certainly helped shape my path. Some folks might hear that my dad writes and teaches about the Civil War and 19th century American history and assume I spent a lot of time on battlefields growing up. I really didn’t. What I saw was his work behind-the-scenes, writing his book in a tiny room in our house, presenting on digital history projects. I saw former students come up to him and thank him for teaching one of their favorite classes at UVA. As I grew older, I saw him become increasingly involved in university administration, where he developed a knack for fundraising and always seemed to figure out the most diplomatic, inclusive process for tackling a problem. Increasingly, the question was: what can I do to make the most enduring difference? I watched as the answer to that question evolved over the years: scholarship was important, yes, but so was helping make a high-quality college education accessible to students from low-income families.
I was influenced a lot by both of my parents. From them I adopted a love for travel, cooking, music, art, the outdoors. And I learned that marriage means always seeking out the next adventure.
Has there been a defining moment that set you on your current life path?
Lance and I got into filmmaking seven years ago, when we were underemployed and started producing short videos for a local arts & culture newspaper. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but it was a low-risk way to experiment. In the fall of 2009, I was gone for about 10 days on a trip with my parents, and when I returned Lance told me, “So a professor at the University of Virginia asked if we could make a documentary, and I said yes.” So off we went, borrowing equipment and spending many late nights reading online Final Cut discussion boards to figure out how to produce and edit a film.
We found it invigorating. And the story felt urgent: it was about the rise and demise of an historic African American neighborhood in Charlottesville called Vinegar Hill. The neighborhood was built by formerly enslaved people and developed into a vibrant community, built around businesses owned by African Americans. In the 1960s, the city used federal “urban renewal” funds to take away all of the neighbors’ homes and raze the neighborhood flat. Some displaced families found a place to live in another neighborhood nearby, but others left town for good. The neighborhood sat vacant for years until the city built a parking lot and a shopping center. Today, there’s a Staples and a hotel. A UVA professor had researched the neighborhood for a long time, and had earned former residents’ trust. Lance and I were able to come in and film them, then weave those interviews together with archival images and contemporary B-roll.
It blew our minds when, about a year later, the film premiered at the Virginia Film Festival and it won the Audience Award for Best Short Documentary. I can still remember sitting in the dark theater — the Vinegar Hill Theater, in fact, blocks from where the destruction had taken place — and hearing audience members gasp when they saw the “before” and “after” photos. If we could help bring this forgotten story to life and elicit that reaction, what else could we do?
What is one change Southerners could make to improve our current culture?
This is a big question, but what comes to mind is something I see in Richmond. I think some white, privileged Richmonders are too comfortable sequestering themselves to one part of the city, and completely ignoring families and neighborhoods that are just a few miles across town. Richmond is a highly segregated city, and one result of that is white citizens can easily ignore poverty and inequality. Worse than that, some protest when initiatives are proposed that would inconvenience them temporarily, but ultimately help people in high-poverty areas. There’s a new rapid transit line being built on Broad Street, the corridor that cuts through Richmond east-west. There are pro’s and con’s to it, but it’s designed to give residents of all income levels an easy, inexpensive, efficient way of getting across town. So I was dismayed when residents of my neighborhood protested that the bus line was a non-starter because it would remove some parking spaces. That felt selfish. I think privileged Southerners could do a lot more to recognize the challenges that high-poverty communities have, and figure out how they can use their time, civic participation, and funds to contribute to solutions.
There’s a group that comes to mind who embody the kind of social awareness I’m describing: the DJs who run a radio show called “Calls from Home” at the WMMT station in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Whitesburg feels like a remote Appalachian town, but there are nine prisons and correctional facilities in its signal radius. Thousands of people — mostly African American men — are incarcerated in the mountains, hours away from their family members. So, every Monday night, a DJ records messages from relatives and friends who have a loved one incarcerated in the region. Following a hip-hop show, WMMT broadcasts these messages. Given the cost of calling prison, this is a rare opportunity for some incarcerated people to hear the voices of their spouses, their children, their parents. Lance and I were inspired to make a short film about the show a few years ago.
Share a Southern family tradition and tell us why it remains important, or why you have left it behind as an adult?
I’m happy and proud to carry on my family’s food traditions. With the help of my mom and my aunt, Lance and I are starting to learn more about what my grandmother and great-grandmother used to make. Of course, the challenge is that they did so much by sight and feel, and altered recipes without leaving a written record. But we’re going to try our best to recreate the rolls, biscuits, breads, and cakes that the Southern women in my family were famous for. I admit that I haven’t been inspired enough to pursue canning, though — there are some things I’m okay with buying at the store.
What brings you the most pleasure in your life right now and how has that changed over the years?
I love walking and biking around Richmond. And I love getting friends and family together over a good meal, followed by board games or Charades. I have an eternal love for games; the difference now is I’m slightly more comfortable with losing.
What did you want to be when you grew up and how different is that from where you are now?
At various points in my childhood, I wanted to be a performer of some kind — first, it was a ballerina. Later, an actress. I was a total ham as a kid. I would ask my parents to sit on our couch in the living room to watch my latest ballerina moves. I loved being on stage, and the opportunity to dress up in costumes and make-up was a bonus. In college, I was in an improv group. I always liked making people laugh and trying to embody different characters.
Later, I imagined I’d pursue a career in the nonprofit field — which I did, for a time. I studied West African history, French, and International Relations in college, and working for an international NGO seemed like a good fit. I worked in nonprofit communications, and that’s where I honed my filmmaking skills: from pitching an idea to interviewing to editing, and where I saw how powerfully video could translate a nonprofit’s mission. Lance and I found ourselves spending a lot of time making videos on nights and weekends, and after several years we saved up enough to take our business full-time. I still find great value in producing videos for nonprofits, but also love the flexibility of being able to produce independent documentaries. My early theater days influence my love for storytelling, and I’m still getting a chance to create something for audiences to watch and react to.
What stereotype about Southerners needs to be laid to rest?
I think there’s a sense that Southerners are a homogenous group; there’s not respect for the many things that “Southerner” can mean. The podcast that the Southern Foodways Alliance produces, called Gravy, does a great job showing the diversity of the South. They have stories about Laotian communities in North Carolina, about hotels owned by Indian immigrants, about coal miners’ lunches, and the pleasure found in Cracker Barrel. The podcast helps reveal the many different cultures within the South, each of which has distinct food ways, accents, music. There’s also a stereotype that Southerners are stuck in an old-fashioned way of doing things and that time stands still down South. But obviously things are always changing. We hear about African American families choosing to return to Southern cities like Atlanta. We hear about young people flocking to urban centers like Richmond and Durham. People are carving out their piece of the South, and I’m happy to see it become more progressive and dynamic in the process.
Bonus: Pee-can or pa-cauhn?
I say pa-cauhn. My meemaw would tell me I say it “short and choppy.” Some people think I have an accent, but to meemaw’s ears I sound like a Northerner.