BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Kris Leysen often told a story about one night he spent in Birmingham.
Leysen, a Belgian documentarian, was in Birmingham in 1978 to film a documentary on the South and foreign exchange students for the TV program “Inspraak” on Belgische Radio- en Televisieomroep. Leysen had just arrived in Birmingham when he was pulled over by a deputy with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
“He always told me that on his first night in Birmingham, he got pulled over with his car by the local sheriff because he was driving around with his film crew and the sheriff asked him what he was doing there. And he said ‘Yeah, we’re going to interview these students,'” said Fien, Leysen’s daughter. “And the sheriff said, ‘Oh, but, you know, it’s 1978 and you’re not from here, so people aren’t just going to trust you or let you in and talk to you.'”
Leysen said the deputy had a suggestion: he would make him a deputy sheriff so he could show a card to people and let them know he was on official business.
“For years, my Dad went around claiming that he was the deputy sheriff of Birmingham, Alabama, which I’ve always loved,” Fien said.
Fien, a writer and theatremaker based in Belgium, said her father’s death in 2014 greatly affected her. Now, she is coming to the Magic City to recreate parts of her late father’s documentary, as well as get a sense of how the city has changed over the years. The project is for a theater piece she is working on for Berlin, a theater company in Belgium, which is set to premiere in 2024.
“I just really want to desperately try and sort of recreate the exact shots from the exact same angles,” Fien said. “And I know I’ll be failing a lot of the times because it’s difficult and the cameras are different and everything looks different, but I hope that in the attempt of trying to recreate images, something new will happen.”
Steve Wideman was a student at UAB when Leysen asked him to be part of his film 45 years ago. Over the course of a couple of weeks, Leysen interviewed and filmed Wideman through his work in the university’s psychology lab, his second job waiting tables at the former Cork ‘N Cleaver on Valley Avenue, as well as being a tutor.
“We were pretty much constantly together,” Wideman said. “We had a lot of fun when they were here.”
Recently, Fien and Wideman got in touch to talk about her father, the documentary and Birmingham. In addition, Fien sent Wideman a link to the documentary, something he had never seen before.
“I think he did a very good job of showing all Birmingham,” Wideman said about Leysen’s documentary.
Fien said that while part of her project is to capture what Birmingham looks like today, the real theme of the piece is about reconnecting with her father, who was the same age as her when he made the trip to Alabama.
“He passed away in Belgium and all the places that he had been have evolved over the past eight years have changed. I’ve seen them change,” she said. “But him in the documentary in Alabama is a sort of fixed entity or something and I kind of feel like there is part of him that’s still there that hasn’t changed, so maybe it’s also a sort of quest to find out how things change over time and how certain things never do.”
Part of Fien’s trip is also about dealing with grief.
“It’s a personal quest, but I think it’s definitely going to be one of the questions I’m going to ask other people as well is how do you deal with that kind of grief,” she said.
Fien and her film crew will be in Birmingham from March 15 through April 4 to film and interview people. She encourages anyone who has any advice about what to see in Birmingham to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” Wideman said of Fien’s project. “I hope I don’t have to wait another 45 years to see it.”