‘Peerless City’ documentary to explore community identity at Fringe Fest


PORTSMOUTH—A documentary film exploring the changing identity of Portsmouth and its people is to be screened at the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts on Friday, June 17 at 6 p.m.

While many people found time to pursue their hobbies during the height of the COVID pandemic, Amanda Page, a Scioto County native and writer currently based in Portsmouth and Columbus, became a documentarian.

And Portsmouth, a city Page has described as his “oldest and most consistent muse”, is the central character in his first film.

“Peerless City” is set to premiere at the upcoming Boneyfiddle Fringe Festival, a festival that celebrates diverse and experimental art from across the region and country. Page first released the film in March 2022 and hopes bringing the documentary back to Portsmouth will foster valuable discussions about community identity.

By analyzing the history of the slogans of the city of Portsmouth, Page asks its viewers broader questions about the character of an area and the people who call it home.

“There are people who have no idea that slogans even exist,” Page said. “But once you noticed them, I really wondered how they shape who we are. At 16, I became aware of [slogan] “where southern hospitality begins”, and that has always interested me. I strangely internalized it and it shaped my life. I went to graduate school in Alabama thinking, “I want to see what this southern hospitality is all about.”

Page never wanted to become a documentary filmmaker until she considered the nature of the unfinished projects she had experienced as a writer. She wondered if a change of medium or genre could breathe new life into old ideas.

“I never intended to be a filmmaker, but I’m a big fan of the form [finding] you. I was presenting at a conference and the title of the presentation was “All Drafts Cancelled”; it was about trials that you don’t finish. Really, if you don’t finish it and really care about the content, maybe find a different form,” Page said.

After watching a documentary about a town similar to Portsmouth, Page was inspired to contact the co-directors via Twitter. “Moundsville,” a film that explores the lives of residents of a West Virginia town through the rise and fall of its industrial setting, inspired her to try to tell the story of her own hometown.

Page reached out to “Moundsville” co-directors John W. Miller and David Bernabo, and the Pittsburgh-based filmmakers soon became involved in Page’s efforts to film “Peerless City.”

Through grants, Page was able to secure the budget to tell part of her community’s story. As a filmmaker, Page is completely self-taught, reflecting the work ethic and adaptability of the Portsmouth community.

“I knew doing other projects in Columbus on Ohio Humanities and their media grant, so I was working with them]to get a grant for the film. At one point I got some feedback from [them] and they [needed] script processing. I had to google how to write a documentary script treatment because to get the grant you have to have more than one plan. I knew right away that I wanted to do something with our city’s slogans, so I had this structure. But it was definitely self-taught in that I had never gone through this process before,” Page explained.

Using historical information and interviews with Portsmouth locals, ‘Peerless City’ explores how Portsmouth’s regional and community identity has evolved along with the city’s slogans. The central question of the documentary according to Page’s website is: “what role do these slogans play in constructing the identity (and therefore the narrative) of the place?”

Working against harmful stereotypes about Portsmouth residents and Appalachia in general, Page believes that the best storytellers in an area are those who are cultured there. And she’s committed to telling some of her hometown’s story — the good, the bad, and everything in between — in a thoughtful and nuanced way.

“My real hope is an impetus or nudge to think about their own vision for a place,” Page said. “Whether [viewers] are in Portsmouth or out of town, a town slogan could be something to aspire to and a shared vision. And I think all communities thrive when everyone is working towards a common vision. I want people to watch the movie and think about what’s possible.

‘Peerless City’ shows Friday, June 17 at 6 p.m. as part of the Boneyfiddle Fringe Festival. Tickets for the show can be purchased individually or as part of a three-day festival pass. Both options are available for purchase through the McKinley Box Office or by visiting the Bone and Fiddle Arts Collective online at bone-fiddlearts.com/boneyfiddle-fringe-festival.

(Left to right) Page, Miller and Bernabo celebrate “Peerless City” at the premiere.

Page and Bernabo pose with the Portsmouth Proud Instagram sign.

Page and Bernabo on stage during a Q&A session at the ‘Peerless City’ premiere.

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