Community invited to identify ancestors in Wharton movies

From left are Mary Ellis, gallery window and exhibit room designer Ron Taylor and Joni Carter.

KILMARNOCK—The Rappahannock Art League (RAL) in May will host the Wharton Films Project at the Studio Gallery, 19 North Main Street, Kilmarnock.

As part of its community outreach program, the gallery will become a movie theater, featuring Lost Films of the Northern Neck in partnership with the Wharton Film Project.

“This partnership is a great opportunity to open our doors to the community, get people involved, and expand our audience,” said RAL event coordinator Mary Ellis.

Weems resident James Wharton, with his 16 mm movie camera, chronicled the simple work and pleasures of everyday life of local people in the 1920s and 1930s. RAL will exhibit still photographs taken from the films, and the original unedited footage will run during regular gallery hours throughout the month for the public’s viewing and feedback.

During the Great Depression, James Wharton’s films were called “Northern Neck Movies,” and they played at the local community center for 15 to 25 cents a seat. Wharton played the piano to accompany the silent films. After that, the films sat in their rusting tin cases waiting all these years to be rediscovered. Joni Carter, a local filmmaker and historian, found them and quickly recognized them as a community treasure.

“Wharton has given us the opportunity to view our world as it once was,” said Carter. “It is not only important to preserve our local history, but to promote our historical identity to our young people to encourage a sense of belonging, ownership of our past and therefore a commitment to our future.”

The final documentary will serve as a community project where residents have an opportunity to share their local stories of the Northern Neck in the 1920s and 1930s.

Members of the Wharton Film Project will be at the gallery every Saturday in May to meet with people who can identify faces and places in the film. Folks also are urged to visit the Wharton Films Project page on Facebook.