3 Degrees of Connection was an Official Selection at the Global Nonviolent Film Festival in 2022, and it is now streaming on GlobalCinema.online.

By Daria Trifu

3 Degrees of Connection is a window into the past, present, and future of a small seaside community where big change is afoot. The town, Lewes, Delaware, was once a mostly black working class maritime community which is now in the final stages of gentrification. Naturally, perspectives of its different residents vary by ethnicity and age, class and income, cultural memories and environmental concerns. The past had its joys and wounds and the future forebodes major challenges of climate, economy, and out-of-control development. It invites an inquiry about how all these threads connect, hence the name 3 Degrees of Connection.

Director Brad Mays

Brad: It took about a year of telephone calls before I could figure out what Ric (Richard Moore) was talking about. For one thing, it all sounded so didactic, and I’m not particularly into that. And I was up to my eyeballs with another film at the time. But after a while, I began to see how this film could be presented as a series of oral histories – storytelling, if you will – where dozens of folks could simply talk about their lives, their families, and the town they grew up in. A town which, for good or ill, has changed quite drastically over the years.

Producer Richard Moore

Richard: I came to Lewes with my wife Kathy, where her folks had previously restored one of the historic houses placed on what had been the Black ball field that became the center of gentrification and is now a “commons” with a “Private Property – Residents and Guests Only” sign. I discovered in the ‘black’ cemetery, a block from our house, the graves of several branches by marriage from my own family. I investigated the website of the local historical society and found almost no mention about black residents, even though the community had once been mostly Black, and once Native American. As I talked with the few remaining Black members of the community, I became more curious about the hidden history and wanted to see if that could be captured in a documentary. By happenstance, I had been interviewed by Brad Mays for another documentary he had done on Princeton, New Jersey, where we both spent time in high school, and then saw his documentary on Trenton, New Jersey, which was my birthplace (watch Two Trentons: An American City Speaks). I kept asking Brad about what would it take to make a documentary about Lewes, and talking about all the curious connections. So, one day, he called and said “Let’s do it.”

Lewes, Delaware, USA

Brad: As I’ve said to Richard countless times, there are two themes that’ll hook me in, two themes I’m a sucker for: the struggle of black people in America, and the environment. This project seemed to have both, so I went with it.

Reference – Lewes Historical Society: A Timeline of Lewes’ History

Richard: I have worked for many years on energy and sustainable development, and currently serve on the Board of the Delaware Sustainable Energy Utility. That may at first not suggest Black history to anyone – until you realize that the whole colonial to modern history of Lewes was bound up in energy issues, from its discovery when the Dutch and Swedes went in search of whales and founded a colony by Cape Henlopen where Native Americans had resided for thousands of years, to the introduction of slaves who were a primary energy source in the agricultural economy. The history continues with the rise of maritime trades based on sailing ships, some built on its shores by a family of freed and free Black shipbuilders, and finally, with the fossil fueled maritime industry that, by its mechanization, eventually overfished and caused collapse of the menhaden fish industry that was the core of the local economy.

Brad: For me, the story of the menhaden fish industry’s collapse has many of the earmarks of classical tragedy, where errors in judgment result in the moral order of the universe turning upside down. The question then becomes, “How can that order be restored? Can it be restored? And what happens next?” 

Richard: For Lewes, that economic collapse precipitated the search for a new strategy, which resulted in gentrification, but with an affluent White population seeking amenities as year-round retirees or seasonal residents, driving up housing prices and displacing the working class Black residents. Yet, reliance on tourism and retirement is insufficient by itself for a new industrial base and doesn’t provide affordable housing or services for those who continue to work in Lewes, or seek good paying employment. So yes, as Brad said, the moral order of an entire community falls asunder.

Brad: For me, black culture represents the moral salvation of America. So, whenever I get a chance to wrap a film, or a play, a music video, or whatever manner of art I might be creating, I try to infuse it with soul. I’ve made it my policy over the past twenty or so years to avoid verbalizing my views on issue of race and gender. I keep my mouth shut and I listen. And when I do speak, I speak only through my work.

Richard: Ultimately, my goal was to try to show how all these issues of race, class, economics and environmental concerns connect together.  But interviewing people was the easy part.  Brad, as the director, had the real challenge, doing the technical work of creating a narrative through editing, and then satisfying my wife’s desire to keep the result grounded and honestly reflect a sense of the community of Lewes – as it once was and still strives to be for many of us who make it our year-round home.

There are fractures and yet the connections between people who crossed boundaries of ethnicity and class before integration was legal in Delaware remained. And then there was the persistence of those who resisted removing the barriers even after legal segregation ended – and perhaps why there has been such an exodus of former Black residents.

Is this your first film?

Richard: This was my first film, but obviously not Brad’s, or my wife’s. Kathy did shorter film work for Drexel University Online, and Brad, of course, has decades of accomplishments and several other documentaries – one of which, Two Trentons: An American City Speaks, earned him “Best Documentary Film Director” at the Global Nonviolent Film Festival.

How did production proceed?

Brad:  For me, it was a matter of shoving my gear into my car and driving the six hours round trip every time Richard had interviews lined up. I think the first day of shooting involved getting an extraordinary blues musician friend of mine, Moe Dene, to play some electric blues as a way of summoning down the musical gods of the past to bless this production, and provide a cultural hook of sorts. Moe’s wife, Andrea Campbell, is a really good cinematographer, so she came along to help, along with a third camera operator, Janel Boisies, another good friend.

This is probably a good place for me to talk about my methodology, such as it is, for making documentary films. I use no voice over narration. I just keep shooting until I feel like I’ve got roughly 100 hours of film for every hour of a projected running time. I allow the interviewees to tell their stories without interference, then arrange those stories into a coherent and suitable narrative. It’s sort of the way Fred Wiseman makes films, and I’m a great admirer of his work.

Richard: From my end, it was setting up the interviews, finding venues, getting permissions, and asking open questions that could elicit personal perspectives that still connected past, present, and future. I also took direction from Brad on how to fill in on logistics, and occasional camera work. Brad also chanced upon an incredible local drone photographer, Chris Driscoll, who contributed excellent aerial work. And Barbara Curtis, an excellent graphic artist, did all the key art. Finally, there was the willing cooperation of those we interviewed, who graciously gave off their time, conversation, and insights to be filmed. I should especially thank the former executive director of the Lewes Historical Society for enlisting the support of his staff and Board, the director of the City of Lewes Parks and Marina Department, and the staff of the Lewes Public Library, who all made facilities available. All of this help was key because we literally worked without a budget, for which I doubt if I can ever properly compensate Brad – who put in several thousands of hours of work on film production. This was far more than a labor of love.

How long did shooting take?

Richard: From start to finish, it took about a year and a half, which also happened while the COVID pandemic was raging. We had been talking back in 2019 and were literally planning starting at the same time as the lockdowns began, so that created some interesting challenges and a year delay. The pandemic was officially underway in March 2020, and our shooting started in 2021, which was completed in early July 2022.

Describe the post-production work on 3 Degrees of Connection and what’s next?

Richard: I guess that means once “in the can,” if that’s the right terminology.

Brad: It does. Well done, Ric.

Richard: What I’ve worked on was setting up our unofficial premiere in Lewes, while Brad was finishing sound and editing work, all the mixing and rendering and mastering to get it ready for festival submissions. For further follow-up, besides festival screenings and the like, I’m working on getting the film shown in our local venues and schools. I hope we can also be shown to other audiences who can appreciate what coastal communities like ours have gone through and now confront moving forward.

What is your next film and do you have any advice for other filmmakers?

Brad: Stay hydrated, use sunscreen, and don’t forget to say “thank you.”But seriously, it’s important to make films that speak to some intrinsic sense of personal truth. As a playwright friend of mine, Linda Chambers, once advised me, “Tell the truth and don’t flinch.”

Richard: I’m more likely to now tackle a pamphlet or book about the movie – to flesh out more of the backstory, history, facts, concerns, and conversations for the future. If I ever do another movie, I’m definitely going to get some funding first, but I think 3 Degrees of Connection will make that an excellent vehicle for illustration. D!

Two Trentons: An American City Speaks, directed by Brad Mays, is streaming on GlobalCinema.online