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  • Denise McGill filming Ed Atkins as he harvests oysters near Parris Island, South Carolina.

    Denise McGill filming Ed Atkins as he harvests oysters near Parris Island, South Carolina.

The Gullah Project: Protecting their land

Posted January 29, 2018
By Camille Doloughty, junior journalism major, reprinted from InterCom
Top photos above provided by Alex Cone.

Since 2014, Denise McGill’s award-winning documentary short film, The Gullah Project, has been screened in festivals around the country. The project’s success is giving the School of Journalism and Mass Communications professor the creative push needed to turn the short film into a full-length documentary.

The Gullah are a distinctive group of African Americans who live off the coast of South Carolina. After working on assignment taking photos of these farmers, McGill fell in love with all things Gullah.

Her goal is to create a documentary film worthy of a one-hour program to be featured on PBS. The short film has garnered considerable awards, and that has helped her throughout the creative process. McGill has attended festivals — both big and small — which have given her opportunities to display her work and receive feedback. 

“It’s really exciting,” McGill said. “This is the first project I’ve done of this kind and for someone to tell you ‘you’re on the right path, you’re starting to get this right’ is really incredibly helpful. Winning these smaller awards led me to this point, and gave me the know-how to do what I’m doing now.”

During this process, McGill learned that creating a full-length documentary is a team effort. Now, she has enlisted the help of former students, local filmmakers and Gullah experts. The new team includes 2017 visual communications alumna Alex Cone, who has signed on as production manager.

Cone first learned about the film as a student in McGill’s photography class. “I think I really identified with the project because my great-grandmother is Gullah,” Cone said. “I thought this was a great opportunity for me to learn more about my heritage and where I come from.”

Cone manages interns and shoots photos and video. She says the project has been a chance to learn and grow. “My favorite memory while working on this project so far has been being able to film alongside McGill. As my professor at the beginning of our relationship, I always wanted to impress her with my work, so the fact that she took me with her on a shoot was a huge deal to me,” Cone said.

With the help of sponsors and support, the work continues. “Through the Gullah, I learned about their culture and learned about land ownership, how people are keeping their old ways, still finding ways to live off the land, and the sustainability of land ownership,” McGill said. “That piece of it is what I have been drawn into and what my story is about.”

The Gullah Project was screened at these juried film festivals:

  • Myrtle Beach International Film Festival
  • Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards 
  • US Hollywood International Film Festival 
  • Charleston International Film Festival 
  • Female Eye Film Festival – Toronto, Ontario
  • Down East Flick Fest 
  • Bare Bones International Film and Music Festival – Muskogee, OK
  • 6th Annual Charlotte Black Film Festival
  • Cape Fear Independent Film Festival 2016 
  • Penn Center Heritage Symposium 2017


Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.