The Challenge of COVID-19 Transforms Dorothy Oliver from Ordinary People to Extraordinary Hero.

Sundance’s short ‘The Panola Project’ tracks the hero’s journey of Dorothy Oliver saving her Alabama neighbors from COVID-19.

Dorothy Oliver (left) and Drucilla Russ-Jackson appear in ‘The Panola Project’ by Rachel DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine. Photo by Jeremy S. Levine. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

The canned goods and snack bags fill the store shelves from one end of the wide trailer to the other. An outdoor ice machine reminds customers they’re not entering some random trailer. The trailer is the general store and de factor town center of Panola, Alabama, a rural town of 350 residents. In a community without a hospital or doctor’s office, the general store becomes the hub for locals seeking COVID-19 information and help in securing life-saving vaccines. The woman owner behind the store counter selling groceries is Dorothy Oliver, a seventy-something, retired bookkeeper who’s turned into Panola’s trusted health advisor and unexpected COVID Czar. Oliver has accepted responsibility for contract tracing the vaccinated and who still needs transportation to the nearest vaccination clinic 40 miles away. Oliver’s heroism attracts media attention, including a Sundance Festival 2022 short documentary called The Panola Project.

“We are left out,” Oliver says, speaking recently after a virtual screening of The Panola Project sponsored by OXFAM, a global organization working to end poverty. “We really need good internet in our area. We don’t even have a storm shelter. A lot of people live in mobile homes.”

Dorothy Oliver works to save her Alabama neighbors from Covid-19 in the Sundance 2022 documentary short ‘The Panola Project.’ Photo by Jeremy S. Levine. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

Despite low resources and a high number of Coronavirus cases, Oliver continues to perform the necessary tasks. She tracks the unvaccinated, vaccinated, fully vaccinated, and boosted. She cajoles unvaccinated neighbors like Sumter County’s top grannie. Her persuasion pays off, with more than 94% of Panola residents receiving the vaccine. In a nation divided about Covid-19 vaccines, Oliver’s campaign is one for the history books.

Oliver is a genuinely ordinary person transforming into an extraordinary hero. It’s inspiring watching Oliver describe her work keeping neighbors from getting sick with humility. It’s more inspiring watching Oliver in day-to-day action in the subtle but powerful Sundance 2022 short by directors Rachel DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine.

“Our interest in learning how a rural black community was dealing with the pandemic,” says Rachel DeCruz, co-director and co-writer of The Panola Project. In the 17-minute short film, the obstacles facing Oliver and her neighbors appear insurmountable. Area infrastructure, including bus service and internet access, is paltry. Many residents cannot afford cars and rely upon Oliver to transport them to the vaccination clinic. It’s a lot for one older woman to do.

“…This movie celebrates Dorothy and black women stepping up every day,” continues DeCruz.

There’s a natural, everyday rhythm behind The Panola Project. While other Covid-19 documentaries like In the Same Breath feel alarming and newsy, co-directors Rachel DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine craft a cinema-verite-inspired, personal story of one woman doing what she can to do good in her community.

“We do not wait for the government,” says Naomi Lambright, director of Communications, One Voice, a civic engagement non-profit in Jackson, Mississippi. “We do it ourselves,” Lambright continues, joining Oliver on the OXFAM-sponsored screening. “Ms. Oliver and others in her community are already leaders. Maybe they need a few more resources to understand their leaders. They do not need people to come and save the day. The experts are already there.”

Directors: Rachel DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine

Screenwriter: Rachel DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine

Cinematographer: Keith Walker

Producers: Rachel DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine

Distributor: TBD

Unrated                                                                                

Air Date: TBD

Behind the Curtain: After reading about Dorothy Oliver in a news article, the directors drove from Tuscaloosa to document the story.

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