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May 13, 2013

We Are Madison County project tells stories of everyday people

PENDLETON, Ind. — “Good stories want to be told,” said filmmaker Luke Renner. “If you’re taking the initiative, if you’re listening, they’ll find you.”

They’ve certainly found Renner and David Neidert, who together own The Story Shop in Pendleton. The pair have launched a new side campaign to tell the real, honest and often unnoticed stories of local people.

The message is one of exploration, revelation and shared history — uniting people from Pendleton to Elwood, Chesterfield to Anderson under a common banner: “We Are Madison County.”  

“The challenge is on us to find the elegance and beauty in really simple stuff,” Neidert said, “To see it with the heart instead of just what your eyes tell you” — whether good or bad.

Once upon a time, county-seat Anderson was a thriving, 70,000-strong city powered by arts, culture and General Motors. In the ‘70s, the automaker employed one in every three residents, but with it now  gone, many seem to think a ‘happily ever after’ is unlikely.

The We Are Madison County campaign aims to shift that perspective, Neidert said. It isn’t corporations that make the county great: it’s the people.

“Really the whole purpose of this (We Are Madison County) is to talk to ourselves,” he said, “For the community to look in the mirror and see really what it is, which is amazing, pretty amazing.”

The partners set up social media accounts and a web page where people can recommend friends, neighbors and family who have a compelling history, quirk or perspective. Then they film the storytellers and weave the individual narratives into a collective — and nuanced — county history, which aggregates at WeAreMadisonCounty.org.

“It’s entirely people focused,” Renner said. “We’re not asking just the ‘What’s great about life?’ questions. We really do want to know that deep-level human stuff. The whole nature of it is to not hide from what’s wrong, but to definitely celebrate what’s right.”

Renner said they’re looking for a diverse cross-section of Madison County life: young and old, natives and transplants, doctors and those who struggled through high school. “There’s this huge array of what’s out there,” he said.  

They’ve only conducted a few interviews so far, but every new drop in the proverbial bucket sends off a ripple that leads to more people and more stories — so many that “we’re realizing we probably won’t have enough time or ability to do it all,” Neidert said.

The campaign will likely grow to include a blog, photo essays and other methods of story telling. It could last years, Renner said, and he hopes it will, but led by people around the county rather than the two filmmakers. “We’re just getting the ball rolling,” he said.

In the meantime, the quasi-Madison County natives are enjoying the stories. “We’ve both lived here off and on for our entire lives,” Neidert said. “And this project has taught us things that we had absolutely no idea was going on in our own community. It’s just really interesting that a lot of this stuff lives in anonymity.”

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