TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — University of Alabama theatre professor Seth Panitch recently completed a full, feature-length film that has been selected as one of 25 films to be showcased in the 20th American Black Film Festival, which begins next week.
Festival judges have nominated Panitch’s film, “Service to Man,” for best screenplay, best direction and best film.
The ABFF is the largest festival of its kind in the country and, according to its website, is dedicated to bringing awareness of entertainment content made by and about people of African descent to a worldwide audience.
The festival will be held in Miami, June 15-19.
“We were absolutely thrilled with being selected for the festival and it receiving those nominations because the ABFF is such an established festival,” Panitch said. “So many great films have debuted there.”
“We’re the only university-produced film in the festival, which is truly remarkable for this project. The new Kevin Hart film, ‘Central Intelligence,’ is the first movie in the lineup opening the festival. It’s a festival where a lot of big films get their start, and the University is competing right there alongside them.”
Panitch, who is head of the MFA Acting Program in the department of theatre and dance, said the film – his first feature film – is very loosely based on his father’s experiences as one of the first white students at Merharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., in 1968.
“Meharry teaches doctors to go out into the community and truly become pillars of their communities. When I grew up, I recalled that my father and his friends did house calls when no one else did them anymore. When I asked him why, he said it was Meharry that had instilled that level of personal responsibility in him.
“Meharry’s creed is ‘Dedicated to the worship of God through service to Man.’ The movie is about two outsiders, one white, one black, helping each other find a more honorable way to make the choice between service to self or service to society. I asked myself that same question when I started doing theatre. Was I doing this for myself or for others? I think we all at some point face that difficult calculation.”
Panitch said the film depicts white and black medical students communicating and working together during a time of great duress in the country, including the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and its aftermath.
He said the movie serves as an example of how people of different racial backgrounds today can work through challenges together.
“With all the difficulties people of different races dealt with back then, they somehow found a way to communicate that has been, perhaps, forgotten in many circles today,” he said.
Panitch started working on the film as part of a larger initiative he began in 2006 called the Bridge Project. The Bridge Project helps UA theatre students bridge the gap between being a theatre student and a working theatre professional. It places them in professional productions alongside established actors in reputable theaters.
Working with professional actors such as Keith David, who was in “Platoon,” and Lamman Rucker, who was in “Why Did I Get Married?,” about 30 UA students played a part in “Service in Man” through the Bridge Project.
It took Panitch five years to research and write the script for the movie – he completed it in 2013. From there, he partnered with Aaron Greer, a former associate professor of telecommunications and film at UA, and started pre-production with a camera crew culled together from markets across the country.
Andy Fitch, an associate professor of scene design at UA, created all the sets in the movie, and Tom Wolfe, a professor in UA’s department music, composed all of the music. Dominic Yeager, assistant professor of theatre, served as business manager for the massive undertaking.
The movie was filmed in West Alabama and on UA’s and Shelton State Community College’s campuses from May to early June.
After the festival, Panitch hopes the film will generate enough interest to possibly be released, either digitally or nationally.
“We hope it’s well received at the festival and that will shine a more intense light on it being shopped at studios, which is what we’re in the process of doing now with our partners in Los Angeles,” he said. “Most of all, we just want people to see the film. We’ve all worked incredibly hard on it.”
“Service to Man,” will be shown at the festival June 17 and 18. It is also one of the few films in the ABFF lineup that will be shown to local Miami audiences on June 19 as part of “Best of the ABFF.”
UA’s theatre and dance department, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, became a unified department in 1979. For the past 34 years, the department has produced student and faculty directed, performed and designed work. The department cultivates the next generation of performing arts professionals through comprehensive undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Visit theatre.ua.edu.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.