Lifting the ‘Ville: Filmmaker shines camera – and hope – on Coatesville12/02/2020 12:32PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Before Sarah Alderman’s first film “BYPASSED” was released this fall; before it affirmed her place as a storyteller; before the hour-long documentary and love letter to her native city premiered to a sold-out audience in October; and before the accolades came rolling in that now pave the film’s incredible future, there was the one-bedroom apartment in Coatesville, where she lived as a child in Coatesville with her mother.
Two blocks away, lived her grandmother Theresa “Chille” Puglisi, who was the first great storyteller Alderman knew. The tales “Chille” spun about Coatesville painted a picture of a stronger city; they took the young granddaughter into the steel mills and taverns and family-owned stores, and revealed the heart of a community that was held together by its people.
“I fell in love with the city through my own childhood
experiences, and through my grandmother's stories about Coatesville's golden
era,” said Alderman, now a married mother of two 12-year-old daughters. “I grew
up appreciative of the vibrancy, authenticity and diversity of my hometown. I
was proud of the struggle, too. The older I got, the more I saw these qualities
lacking in other parts of the county: both the socioeconomic and racial
division that seemed to make Coatesville 'less than' in outsiders’ minds, and
the strong communion of shared adversity we felt as residents.”
From the apartment windows she looked out of as a child, Alderman absorbed what had come to wipe away the once-proud Coatesville of her grandmother’s stories. She learned that the downslide of the city was due not to just the closing down of the enormous gray buildings where the city’s men of steel once worked, but the rising, invisible cloud of stigma, whether real or imagined, that was turning what was once the magic dust of a once-flourishing industrial city into the dirt of the county’s poorest municipality, one clogged by systemic racism and poverty, a crumbling infrastructure and a paralyzing lack of civic cohesiveness.
“As I became an adult, I began to notice that people had a prejudiced view about Coatesville,” she said. “I began to hear these negative things about the city, a belief that outsiders had about a place they hadn’t visited, a bad rap that wasn’t necessarily rooted in fact that had colored their opinions about anyone who lives there.
“Growing up in a poor community, it’s always about what you lack, but people often overlook the creativity, the spirit of community and the connections that come from growing up in a community without resources.”
The making of “BYPASSED”
The real story – the one that led to the making of “BYPASSED,” began several years ago when Alderman was an Anthropology student at West Chester University, a self-taught photographer with a new wedding photography business and the single mother of twins. At that time, she conceived of developing a photo essay about Coatesville that would tell a fair-and-balanced story about her native city. The concept further crystallized during a chance meeting she had with National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey after a lecture he gave in Philadelphia, and a few months later, Huey contacted Alderman and sent her on assignment to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
For the next several weeks, she helped record the stories of the reservation’s people and took several photographs that documented the lives of a population that had been forgotten.
The experience was overwhelming for Alderman. She saw poverty, displacement and the marginalization of an entire population, all scattered everywhere she aimed her camera. When she returned to Chester County, her mother and grandmother told her to channel her emotions locally.
“They told me not to get caught in the traditional journalism trap that says that the only stories that are worth telling are those that take place far away,” said Alderman, who now lives in the West Marlborough Township section of Coatesville. “They told me that there are stories in our own backyards that need to be told, and voices that deserve to be amplified.”
What began as the scatterings of a project in 2015 – when Alderman began to attend local meetings in the city -- eventually took on a project that slowly began to morph from a photography exhibit into a collaborative film. Alderman’s vision found the welcome arms of cinematographer and lead editor Ryan Beacher, assistant producer CJ Witherspoon and her husband Sean Bramley, who would provide the music and serve as an assistant producer.
“When I decided to make ‘BYPASSED’ into a film instead of just a
photo essay, I knew I had an abundance of confidence from teaching myself
photography, but I never looked at myself as the cinematographer of this film,”
Alderman said. “I realized early on that whoever was going to shoot this film
was going to have to see Coatesville in the same way I did. It wasn’t something
I could direct into people’s mind. Given that he was the product of the
Coatesville school system, I knew that Ryan Beacher was most likely the only
person who was going to see Coatesville the way I wanted to portray
Diversity of voices
“BYPASSED” began shooting in 2016, was completed in early 2020, and serves as the connective narrative of 20 Coatesville residents who share their histories, their struggles and their dreams for a city to reinvent itself.
Each voice in the film serves as its own separate power: a young couple speaks about raising their children in the cultural weave of a diverse city; a retired history teacher and basketball coach speaks of the future of the city in terms of the collective value of its people; an aspiring filmmaker imagines his native city as a future mecca for the arts; a rapper calls for the opening of doors and windows of opportunity; and a city matriarch says that in order to save Coatesville, “we all have to come together, or it won’t go anywhere.”
The film also includes glimpses into the work of some of its many local collaborators, including the Coatesville Youth Initiative, the Diamond Divas drill team and Arts Holding Hands and Hearts.
“For me, I had a secret hope that if there was a cohesive narrative, it would be something about the need for the arts and family activities in the city,” Alderman said. “I wanted to leave space for the narrative to sort of come together organically throughout the shooting. It turned out that I wasn’t far off from my assumption for what many of the subjects were longing for, or fearful of.”
The majestic reach of the film’s subjects, one that calls upon the city to reinvent itself in a post-industrial world, was made possible by a grassroots crowdfunding effort that raised more than $26,000 to finance the making of the film.
Quickly following its October premiere, “BYPASSED” received stunning public acclaim, and the glowing reception to the film was posted on the film’s website.
“Everyone in Coatesville needs to watch this movie, but more importantly everyone who does not live in Coatesville should watch this movie,” one viewer wrote.
“[The film] brought tears to my eyes at times and shares the frustrations that our city experiences over and over,” said another. “It shares our history and our challenges, yet I came away feeling hopeful. I am hopeful that people see the challenges that some face. In today’s social climate, this movie could really help educate those who probably aren’t even aware of what life is like outside their bubble.
“I promise you will not regret watching this movie.”
‘Bypassed no longer’
Of course, COVID-19 played a cameo role on the day of the film’s premiere on October 24 in Abdala Park. Hours before crowds began to gather, Alderman and Bramley spent the day painting viewing pods in the park, cognizant of keeping the viewing area as socially distant as possible. They even sold protective face masks, on which read the words “Can’t Silence the ‘Ville.”
“It was important to me that the film have its premiere in the City of Coatesville and that people would be able to walk to the film and hopefully bring people from outside of the city to be a part of this,” Alderman said. “As artists, preparing any sort of work for the public, we sometimes try to imagine how they will perceive the work. Being in a crowd so large and watching this piece we created, I felt so overwhelmed.
“It was at that moment, hearing the reaction of Coatesville natives, that I knew this city was ready for a rebirth,” she added. “This city is ready to tell her story, and to rewrite the stories that have already been written. Coatesville is to be bypassed no longer.”
With a successful premiere and first reception behind it, Alderman said that “BYPASSED” will very likely move to the regional and national film festival circuit in 2021. It’s a universal fit, she said, because in many ways, it is “America’s story.”
“There are Coatesvilles all over this country,” she said. “The words that our storytellers told us in 2016 and 2017 have become even more important has 2020 has gone on, between all of the racial unrest and the way that COVID-19 has ravaged our local economy. Its message is universal.”
If there is a moment in the film that encapsulates its mission at its most eloquent, it is during its closing credits, the words of a poem spoken by Coatesville poet Aadil Malik narrates the city’s rebirth, through voices and the arts and the gathered resilience of its people.
It serves as the film’s anthem.
“Search and only find critical headlines,” the poem reads. “The city set ablaze/The city slandered by slurs/The steel city of robbers, raiders/A city adverse/A city where poverty ain’t an anomaly/The city that’s cursed that’s drugged with violence, one of Chester County’s worst.
“This is Coatesville,” Malik continues. “You might know our name/You might of read what we connote but what if I told you you do not know our city of Coats /We refuse to be known as a city that’s broke.”
When preparing Malik with ideas for what would become his poem, Alderman gave him a key word, which appears in the poem.
“This entire film has felt like it has come from outside of myself,” Alderman said. “I don’t know why I had to do this. It has been such a huge sacrifice and a huge heaviness on me, and this huge responsibility. I kept hoping that this source would give me a title.
One morning I jolted out of bed and I shouted, ‘Bypassed!’”
To Alderman, who has lived in several towns in Chester County, Coatesville remains “home.”
“Coatesville is a close-knit community, and it’s raw and it’s real life,” she said.
To learn more about “BYPASSED,” visit www.bypasseddocumentary.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].