Tomato Republic: Jacksonville's mayoral race is featured in a new documentary debuting at the Dallas Film Festival

Published on Thursday, 27 March 2014 22:41 - Written by Faith Harper fharper@tylerpaper.com

Jacksonville isn’t particularly known for its politics, but a homegrown tale from the city of tomatoes is hitting the international spotlight on the silver screen.

“Tomato Republic,” an hour-long documentary film centered around the city’s recent mayoral race, will make its world debut at the Dallas Film Festival at 7:15 p.m. on April 7 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas, with a second showing at 5:30 p.m. April 10 at the same location. The 2014 Dallas International Film Festival itself runs from April 3 to April 13 and features more than 170 films, according to its website.

Whitney Graham Carter said she and her lifelong friend Jenna Jackson talked about doing a film in their hometown for years, and they found the perfect story when three candidates threw their hats into the mayoral race.

“It was the first time we had a three-way election since 1977, and the three very different (candidates) made a back drop to tell a bigger story about every small town in America,” Mrs. Carter said.

The 73-year-old incumbent Kenneth Melvin was challenged by 44-year-old restaurateur Rob Gowin and 23-year-old political science graduate William Igbokwe.

The political race ended with Melvin defeating Gowin in a runoff race, but the documentary delves deeper than the politics of the town.

“Every small town in America faces certain challenges, and it really goes through the challenges that we face, and that there are a lot of really caring people …” Mrs. Carter said. “The political race is just a backdrop for a much more exciting story that I think everyone in America can relate to in one way or another. I think that’s what is so endearing about it.”

Mrs. Jackson said she had a “why not” approach when her friend told her about the story. The former Emmy award-winning producer of 48 hours and owner of the film-making company P+R Productions, initially devoted a weekend to the project and brought a few cameras to town from the company’s home base of Houston. It was the first of numerous trips, she said.

“After we spent a weekend with Rob (Gowin) and going up and down on Commerce Street, and started interviewing business owners, we were all hooked,” she said.

The film ended up covering more ground than its makers originally thought, and was funnier than anticipated. Mrs. Jackson said none of the interviews were scripted, but she has been asked many times if they were. The final product paints charming tale of small towns and the kooky characters that live in them, she said.

“(When I) graduated high school, the thing I wanted to most was get out of Jacksonville and never come back, and then I went to New York City and spent a lot of time there and went to a lot of places,” Mrs. Jackson said. “Now that I’m older, I appreciate so much how awesome it was to grow up in a small town where everyone knew you and cared about you.”

Very few locals have seen the film, but the production company did host a special showing for people who were in it to get the first peek.

“When I watched it the first time, I literally found myself laughing and sobbing uncontrollably at the same time,” Gowin said. “There are some powerful moments in it.”

County Judge Chris Davis, who has a cameo in the film, said it is a positive tale of small town life. He said the train that rolls through town daily became its own character and was used both as transition between scenes and a unifying presence.

“It’s kind of like watching a home movie of everyone you know and the politics of little, small East Texas town,” he said. “I think it’s well done, and I think it will be something that people will like to see — but of course anything with tomatoes is good.”

Gowin likened the experience of watching himself on the screen to singing in front of a crowd for the first time. He said some townspeople are nervous, but the film is not negative.

“I think we started with one purpose — documenting the race for mayor— and we ended up with something so much more powerful, beautiful and far reaching than that.”

Mrs. Jackson said the film is entered into several more festivals, and its makers are hoping to hear back if it is accepted. They are also in talks with major providers, including Netflix, Amazon and some others in California, to gain a bigger audience.

“At the festival there will be industry people watching the movies, and we would love it if someone wants to purchase it because we would love for this story to get out.”