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New documentary asks 'What happened to Spanish Lake?'

(via YouTube screen capture)

Filmmaker Phillip Andrew Morton returned to the north St. Louis County community of Spanish Lake in 2007 to find his boyhood home abandoned and his elementary school empty.

He decided to make a documentary to explore what had happened to his hometown, including the underlying causes of “white flight” from the area.

Called simply “Spanish Lake," the documentary is expected to be released this summer.

A sneak peak of the film will be shown at the Open/Closed and Shuttered Flim Festin April.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman spoke with Morton and we have a summary of their conversation - and a trailer of the film - for you here.


Here's a look into Altman's conversation with Morton:

What was Spanish Lake like when you were growing up there in the 1980s and 1990s?

Morton: Spanish Lake is not even technically a town; it’s an unincorporated area. It was made up primarily of middle to lower class, at that time, primarily white families. It had a rural flavor to it. It was far away enough from the city that it had kind of a country vibe, so I think it was kind of an all-American town.

Things really changed and it seems “white flight” was a big part of it. In doing this do you think racism was a big part of it or was there more to it?

Morton: From my growing up there I definitely knew it was going to be race-related. In the 1990s there was a very big transition in the neighbor. You could see the houses go up for sale and neighbors panicking, so it was well-known and talked about. It was seen as an invasion, you know, ‘better get out before it’s too late.’

When you grow up in St. Louis, specifically north county or Spanish Lake you’re really led to believe that race really determines property value and can also bring crime and negative stereotypes to an area. Until you leave that environment, you can’t really see that that’s not how a lot of big cities work. You can see that there’s something that’s going on that needs to be uncovered.

How hard was it to get people to open up about this in Spanish Lake and to talk honestly?

Morton: I didn’t get a lot of resistance to the subject matter, even when I was first shooting when no one knew about the project. When I asked questions that dealt with race I didn’t encounter any resistance. I will say some of them were a little apprehensive in terms of what they said or how they said it. But no one denied that there’d been a big racial change in the area and that some people harbored some bitter feelings about it or nostalgia.

You studied film at Webster University and they you moved to L.A. and from what I’ve read you edited a lot of movie trailers. Are you still doing some of that or are you mostly focused on documentaries now?

Morton: After I went to Webster I moved to Los Angeles and was an assistant editor editing movie trailers and then moved up the ranks to become an editor. Then I began editing documentaries just by chance, but I enjoyed it and worked on several of those.

I just wrapped up a job as a visual effects line producer on the upcoming movie “Battleship,” so it’s been a bit tricky to try to juggle “Spanish Lake” with the other film, but it’s been worth it. It’s been a labor of love.

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.