Growing up in Winston-Salem, Matt Hodges had heard of the infamous Lawson family murders in nearby rural Stokes County where tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson shot and bludgeoned six of the seven members of his family on Christmas Day 1929.
Although this calamity had been the subject of at least two books and numerous folk ballads, including the chart-topping 1930 song "The Ballad of Charlie Lawson," Hodges saw the episode as fodder for documentary analysis. However, it was not until Hodges convinced his filmmaking partner, Eric Calhoun, to attend a public program about the murders, where they witnessed an energetic, overflow crowd still captivated by this tragedy, that the story's full dramatic potential came to fruition.
By last December, Hodges and Calhoun completed their documentary, A Christmas Family Tragedy, a melange of myth and history brought to life via dramatic re-creations and revealing contemporary footage, including interviews with descendants of the Lawson family and townsfolk. The use of re-creations, always contentious among documentarians, is a device Hodges decided to utilize after an author told him she tried to make her book about the Lawson murders impersonal as a way to achieve objectivity. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Hodges says, "because making this story personal and alive was my most important goal in making this film."
Together with exploring the lore sprouting from the murders, the filmmakers also wade through speculation over the motive behind Charlie Lawson's heinous act, from brain damage to incest to even a hit by the Dillinger gang. Ultimately, Hodges contends, this is yet another episode in the long, ongoing history of domestic violence, and to that end a portion of the film's profits are being donated to North Carolina-based organizations working to end the scourge of domestic violence.
There are three upcoming Triangle-area screenings: 7:30 p.m. on March 1 at the Carrboro Century Center; 8 p.m. on March 2 at the LongView Center in Raleigh; and two showings, 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on March 3 at the Durham Arts Council. For more information about the film, visit www.bodproductions.com.