Don't Forget: A tornado's aftermath is captured in award-winning film by former Columbian

August 3, 2011 12:35:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Growing up in Columbus, Xavier Burgin, like most little boys, loved comic books, fantasy and going to the movies. Mythical tales and superheroes left vivid impressions on a fertile imagination. But even Xavier didn''t realize then how deep those impressions went. 


Now 21, the University of Alabama senior is eager to be a force behind the camera. To be a visionary who captures stories worth telling. In April, no story seemed more important to tell than that of the devastating tornado that bored through Tuscaloosa, Ala. The resulting five minute documentary, "Portrait of the Storm," capsules the early aftermath. It also earned Burgin the 3D Movie Award and a $5,000 prize at the Campus MovieFest International Grand Finale in Hollywood, Calif., June 23-26.  


"I wanted to make this because I knew (the tornado) was something the media would talk about for a while and then move on. ... It''s sort of what we''ve seen happen after Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, the media and general public have a very short attention span. I wanted to do something people could always go back to, and remember what happened," said the emerging filmmaker, who attended Fairview, Hunt and Lee Middle schools while living with his Columbus grandparents, Edward and Gwendolyn Burgin, when his military service parents, Eric and Sharon Burgin, were making distant and frequent moves. 


One of the most powerful and personal motivations for the project, however, was Xavier''s own experience. 




Reliving the storm 


"I really thought, ''I might die from this,''" the telecommunication and film media production major admitted. He remembers in detail where he was April 27, as the monster funnel plowed ever closer. "I was at the university when all this happened. I saw it coming toward me. I was there; we watched it." 


As airwaves crackled with anxious meteorologists and broadcasters trying to predict the unpredictable, the tornado seemed intent on downtown and the university campus. Xavier had to think of more than his own safety. 


"I''m a residential advisor at a dorm, so I was carting in other kids, telling them they needed to get inside," he recounted.  


As frantic minutes passed, the tornado''s path veered, just skirting the campus. Burgin''s shocked relief gave way to worry. 


"I felt like, ''Oh, my God, I have friends out there," he shared. "I couldn''t call them, and I couldn''t get out. I had a job to do: I couldn''t leave the kids that were already in the dorm. I had them to watch over."  


When he finally did leave campus, "we came to the realization that it was so much worse than anything we could imagine." 


By early evening, Burgin was one of hundreds of stunned people looking for friends or family members, surveying damage, making their way on foot through debris-choked streets. Taking along his camera was a reflex.  




The documentary 


Moved by what he witnessed, the student filmmaker was compelled to get at least part of the story recorded and rapidly began planning. He''d made four or five films before, but nothing so wide in scope. 


Burgin used a Panasonic 3D camera, a Glidetrack (a camera "rail" for fluid tracking shots) and a tripod to record footage. By layering personal voice-over narratives with striking images and a haunting soundtrack composed by UA student Sumerlin Brandon, he produced a poignant commemoration. 


Dr. Rachel Raimist, UA assistant professor of telecommunication and film, said, "The fact that this project was the first-place winner, out of 50 Campus MovieFest teams selected to compete, is not surprising. Xavier told a compelling story with beautifully shot imagery." 




Other voices 


While the university itself was spared, numerous students off-campus were severely affected. Michael "Johnny" Hanna of Anniston, Ala., is one of three who shared bits of their stories in Burgin''s project. 


On April 27, Hanna happened to be in the "athletic building," where he works on campus. But he left what was "probably the safest building in town" to race to the house he and roommates rented in the Forest Lake neighborhood very near McFarland Boulevard and 15th Street. 


"I went back home because my dog and my friend''s dog were at the house alone," he explained. "I got back home about 10 minutes before it hit. ... I drove right into the belly of the beast essentially." 


As weather worsened, Hanna was able to grab the friend''s dog, Pocket, but his own Lab/shepherd mix, Whodat, ran to the other end of the house. The 23-year-old had to let her go; he just had time to get himself and Pocket into a closet. 




Riding it out 


The noise was horrific -- ferocious wind, ripping wood, splintering trees and breaking glass. Then silence. But only moments would pass before the screams began. First, from Hanna, then from outside.  


"Little by little I opened the closet and started screaming over and over for my dog," he said. The house, he could see, was heavily damaged. "I didn''t think there was any way (Whodat) could have made it." But she did, curled into the back corner of the laundry room. 


"I hadn''t even thought to go outside, and then I started hearing people screaming," he went on. What followed was "four or five hours of madness" before he would sit down again that day. 


Hanna''s neighborhood had been "wiped out," but even so, when he learned of Burgin''s film, he was at first hesitant to put himself forward, reluctant to single himself out as a victim. "There were a lot of people who were worse off than I was," he stated. "But then I decided talking about it would help." Hanna also knew it was important to chronicle what they could of what unfolded that spring afternoon.  


"The storm changed me," he shared candidly. "I think the biggest way is that it brought me down to earth a little bit, in a sense of maybe emotions and connections to people."  


The outpouring of support from family, friends and strangers was a revelation. "It was really beautiful to see. ... The whole experience affected my perception of others. And it''s really easy for me to appreciate little things in a day now." 






Burgin, too, was strongly affected by what he saw. "Spirits were broken, but thankfully one of the amazing things is that people started getting out of their own (situations) and started helping other people, picking up things, helping the firemen ... Tuscaloosa is a very self-sufficient place," he said. "When it comes down to disaster, we''re willing to help each other." 


As for his own future, the former Columbian hopes to continue creating a body of work uniquely his own. He''s well on his way. The Campus MovieFest International win certainly provides a major kickstart. And one of his short films, "Bottom of a Glass," was accepted to The Short Film Corner at this year''s Cannes Film Festival, and has been accepted into the Troy International Film Festival. Xavier will soon be applying to graduate school, and is about to start another short film. 


But, for the moment, he and the mayor of Tuscaloosa are teaming up to shoot community public service announcements about being prepared for natural disasters, something they hope can lessen the devastation should the unthinkable ever happen again. 


April''s tornado remains fresh in his mind, in all its stark detail. 


"People start forgetting what happened, but this is still going on," Burgin said. "We''re still rebuilding, and it will be some time before we get back to what we were before." 


Editor''s note: To view Xavier Burgin''s five minute documentary, "Portrait of the Storm," go to his Que the Lights website at Click "Documentary" under "Short Film."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.