Filmmaker and Orangeburg native Emily Harrold said it was exhausting but rewarding to make a documentary about South Carolina politician Bakari Sellers.
Her film, “While I Breathe, I Hope,” follows Sellers during his 2014 campaign for lieutenant governor of South Carolina and beyond. At the time, Sellers was the S.C. House District 90 representative, serving Bamberg and Denmark.
“The film explores what it means to be a young black Democrat in the American South through the experiences of Bakari Sellers,” Harrold said.
Following him on his run for lieutenant governor, the documentary explores “the challenges of running a race like that.”
“And from there, we kind of follow the events that took place after the race, including the Charleston massacre and subsequent fight over the Confederate flag, and Bakari’s rise to national stature.”
With Harrold being born and raised in South Carolina, stories from the state have always caught her interest, she said.
“As a documentary filmmaker, I also feel like you don’t see a lot of stories coming out of the South and even fewer coming out of South Carolina,” she said.
“So I’ve been really trying to work on material that does shine a light on our state.”
She said she had been living in New York for a number of years and saw a news story about Sellers running for lieutenant governor “and how daring that was and just the historic nature of the race.”
“South Carolina had not elected an African-American to a statewide position since Reconstruction. And the fact that Bakari was trying to break that just really stood out to me, and I just knew it was going to be a really historic race, and win or lose, it would be a great story” she said.
So she jumped in immediately, she said. She called Sellers and told him what she wanted to do “and he was onboard pretty quickly,” she said.
She left her job in New York, she said, to move back to South Carolina for six weeks to film the last month of Sellers’ campaign.
“And at that point, I just thought it was going to be a campaign story,” she said. “So we followed the campaign, and we followed it pretty much every day … which was incredibly draining.
“It’s probably the most exhausted I’ve ever been. Very, very long days, driving all over. I don’t think I had been to every nook and cranny of South Carolina until I had followed him for that month.”
She said she thought the film was just going to about the campaign, but in 2015, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and Sellers became a voice in the aftermath.
“The events of the Charleston massacre -- as they shocked the world, they shocked me as well,” she said. She took note of how Sellers was dealing with the tragedy “and what it was leading him to feel and how he was reacting to it.”
“It made me realize the story was bigger than the campaign. And so we picked up our cameras again and started filming again.”
This led finally to filming Sellers’ speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
She said she and her team have been editing “basically for the last year and a half to put together a feature documentary.”
“So we’re in the final push to get it finished now.”
The film is set to premiere at the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival, which will take place Oct. 17-25.
The son of civil rights activist and former Voorhees College President Cleveland Sellers, Bakari is an attorney who in 2006 unseated House District 90 Rep. Thomas Rhoad, a veteran lawmaker who served in the House for 24 years.
After serving in the House for eight years, Sellers lost his 2014 bid for lieutenant governor to Republican candidate and current Gov. Henry McMaster. He did not run for re-election to the House 90 seat.
Since then, he continues to practice law and has been a frequent commentator on CNN.
An Orangeburg native, Emily Harrold is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She said she got into filmmaking from creating movies in middle school using her parents’ camcorder.
“I grew up in Orangeburg, and pretty early, in middle school, I started making movies with friends just for fun ... and by high school, realized that filmmaking was something that I really wanted to pursue,” she said.
After taking some high school courses, she applied to NYU “and was very lucky to get accepted there,” she said.
Through coursework and internships, “I realized that I was really interested in documentary film because I think the true stories that are happening around the world are sometimes more unique and exciting than anything someone could write in a script.”
“It lets you travel to different worlds and be all kinds of different people.”