Robert Clem’s Malbis Plantation documentary will premiere on Alabama Public Television March 27 at 9 p.m.
Malbis Plantation was a hugely successful commune founded by Greeks in 1906 in South Alabama. Before its original members, none of them married, died out, they built a magnificent Greek Orthodox Church as a testimonial to the immigrant experience. Shot in 2008, the film’s release was delayed by the tragic death of its executive producer, Billy Scourtes. The film will go out to other PBS stations later in 2014.
We did the digital rag-chew with Robert to get some insight into this project and his other work.
Can you give me the potted history of this group?
A Greek monk named Marcopoulos left the ancient monastery of Mega Spelion in Peloponessus in the 1890s and came to Chicago in 1906, giving himself the name Jason Malbis but in no way interested in becoming ‘Americanized.’ He had the idea of founding a colony where Greek immigrants, many of them working in bad conditions for low pay, could work together. He found cheap land in Baldwin County, where the colony eventually acquired 10,000 acres. Malbis was charismatic and attracted male and female immigrants who lived together as one family, without marriage. They were an island of Greek culture, spoke Greek and adhered to the Greek Orthodox faith, living a communal lifestyle. Through hard work and Jason Malbis’s leadership they were highly successful, establishing many businesses including the Malbis Bakery in Mobile that rivalled Nabisco. But Malbis’ death in the 1940s and the remaining colonists’ unsuccessful effort to find replacements led to the group’s inevitable decline. Selling the bakery, they built the lavish Malbis Church, a Greek Orthodox masterpiece, as a lasting testament.
How did you become aware of/interested?
Billy Scourtes, a grand nephew of Jason Malbis, had the idea of doing the film and my friend Mary Riser produced it with the idea of making it the germ of a series to be called American Utopias. I think that series is still a good idea (especially since, as a friend said recently, we live now in a dystopia) so I hope we get to do it one of these days. Billy Scourtes died at age 49 before the film was completed and I am glad we have finally managed to finish it.
How all can people see this?
The film will air on APT on March 27 at 9 p.m. and periodically after that. APT plans to be presenting station to other PBS affiliates in the U.S.
What is your filmmaking background?
A couple of features, both based on works by Mobile authors, Company K, based on the World War I classic by William March, and The Passion of Miss Augusta, based on Augusta Evans Wilson and her blockbuster novel St. Elmo. Seven or eight feature documentaries mostly on historical and literary subjects produced by Foundation for New Media and my company One State Films. MFA from NYU film school.
What’s your next project?
Finishing up How They Got Over, feature doc on African American quartets from the gospel days up through the Temptations, mostly with groups from Bama.