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Peering through the Lens with Beth Davison

Beth Davison at work on a documentary series about community cafés. Photo by Alonza Mitchell.

By Jan Todd

Whether it be the plight of Virginia big eared bats, the public perception of Appalachia culture, the role of community cafés, or the history of various sites on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Dr. Beth Davison seeks to showcase stories through a different lens.

Davison, co-director of Appalachian State University’s Documentary Film Services, is a local filmmaker whose projects have been screened internationally — from visitor centers on the Parkway to the PBS television network. 

Visitors who tour the Flat Top Manor at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park can see an example of Davison’s work: an educational video about the history of the estate that is shown in the manor’s mini theater on the main floor. The film includes theatrical readings, excerpts from oral histories, and reenactments of the construction and early days of the Cone’s summer home.

Davison produced the video in 2019, aided by a team of App State students who portrayed characters and helped research, film, and edit the work.

I think anyone starting out in documentary work should begin with a historical piece. There are usually information and photographs in the archives, so you don’t have to film everything. You can concentrate more on story structure and editing.

Dr. Beth Davison

Davison’s first documentary, The Denim Dynasty, was released in 2015 and screened on campus at App State, at BRAHM (Blowing Rock Art and History Museum), and at the Greensboro Historical Museum. The film delved into the history of the Cone family, their factories and all the workers who helped make Cone Textiles a world leader in the denim industry.

An avid hiker, Davison spends a lot of time in Cone Memorial Park. “I walk on the carriage trails about four times a week, and it was there I got to thinking about my surroundings. The Cones were big time capitalists in their time, an important part of our history here in North Carolina. They provided jobs, amassed wealth, and then their family funded and established the Moses H. Cone Hospital to serve the textile workers and community. Their home at Flat Top is now in public hands and enjoyed by millions of people,” Davison said.

Her musings and appreciation for the Cone’s history and contribution prompted Davison to take a sabbatical from teaching to work on The Denim Dynasty.

“I started off working with Dr. Andrea Burns at App State, who devoted her graduate course in public history to helping with research for the project. We spent some time at the University of North Carolina Archives, and the National Park Service office in Asheville,” Davison remembered. Working with historians helped her develop new research skills for producing documentaries.

“I think anyone starting out in documentary work should begin with a historical piece,” Davison advised. “There are usually information and photographs in the archives, so you don’t have to film everything. You can concentrate more on story structure and editing.”

Embracing the Power Behind the Camera

Davison never attended film school. She studied religion and social philosophies and earned her doctorate in sociology. She taught in App State’s Department of Sociology for 18 years.

Driven by a passion for social justice, Davison was always drawn to documentaries. “People from my high school days and college days remember me saying I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker,” she said.

Documentaries have the power to change people’s hearts and minds about issues. They can draw people in and be an impactful teaching tool, showing the nuances and complexity of problems the society face.

Dr. Beth Davison

But back in the early 1980s, there were few resources to pave that path. “I remember as an undergraduate, I checked out a camera to work on a project. It had a huge battery pack that was very heavy — and I am a small person! There weren’t any classes for me to learn skills, and editing was complicated. You had to go into a studio and use a big control board,” she explained. “I got discouraged and pursued interests in other things.”

She still enjoyed watching documentaries and occasionally incorporated them into her classroom as a sociology professor.

“Documentaries have the power to change people’s hearts and minds about issues,” she explained. “They can draw people in and be an impactful teaching tool, showing the nuances and complexity of problems the society faces.”

Davison recalled an impactful film entitled Poletown Lives, aired in 1982, which portrayed the story of a community of primarily Polish descendants fighting against General Motors’ plan to level their neighborhood and build an automotive assembly plant. The community was unsuccessful, and the plant was built.

“It’s one thing to just talk about what it means for people to organize and take on corporate America, but to show the students this real life example in a 30-minute documentary was powerful,” Davison said.

Technology advances opened new doors for Davison to produce her own documentaries. Video cameras got smaller, and editing software became accessible on personal computers. Davison attended workshops through the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke University, learning the technical aspects of the craft as well as how to create a compelling story.

Beth Davison (left) consults with Maleek Loyd (right) and Ryan Witt (center) during filming at A Place at the Table community café in Raleigh. Loyd is an App State alumnus and former student of Davison’s and is the director at Loyd Visuals in Charlotte. Witt teaches video production courses in App State’s Department of Communication. Photo by Alonza Mitchell

“I credit App State for letting me learn on the job,” Davison said. “When I proposed we start the Documentary Center at the university, App State gave me the go-ahead and provided a budget for me to work with. They are good about letting people grow and follow their paths.”

She transitioned from her role as a sociology professor to co-direct the newly created Documentary Center. Her filmmaking work is all under the umbrella of the university, used in teaching students and providing practical training ground for them to develop their own careers.

Beth Davison credits her father, Frank Davison, as her inspiration in photography. He “always had a camera,” she said. Here, young Frank takes a photo of himself in a mirror. “It was a pretty cool 1930s selfie,” Beth said.

Her background in sociology makes her a better storyteller, Davison said. “As a social scientist, I employed research methods and statistics. For me, making documentaries is about discovery — and I use my research skills as the story unfolds. When I start a project, I really don’t know how it’s going to end, and I love that.”

Davison said her early inspiration in photography came from her father. 

 “My dad always had a camera and bought his first home movie camera in the 1950s. He took lots of footage as well as thousands of photographs,” she said. 

Davison admitted she was often annoyed by her father pointing the camera in her direction. “It’s such a generational thing. Back then, anytime someone pulled out a movie camera, all the teenagers and adults would run behind trees to avoid being filmed. It wasn’t like today, when kids grow up posing for videos and posting them on social media,” she said.

Most people in the era of her childhood filmed celebratory moments — birthdays, holidays, and vacations. “But my dad filmed everyday moments as well, like me running a lemonade stand, for instance. I greatly appreciate that he made that effort,” Davison said.

Now, Davison feels she’s carrying forth her father’s legacy.

Showcasing Other’s Work

It has long been Davison’s dream to cultivate a documentary culture in the High Country — even beyond her own work and that of her students. In 2022, she collaborated with Ann Ward, assistant professor in App State’s Department of Communications, and Tom Hansell, professor and co-director of the university’s Documentary Film Services, to partner with The Appalachian Theatre in hosting the first annual BooneDocs Film Festival.

The festival, held the last Saturday of February each year, features documentary short films reflecting on life in the Appalachian region.

“The festival shows the diversity of stories around the region, and really highlights all we have to celebrate,” Davison said. “It helps overcome some of the stereotypes that people have about Appalachia.”

Subject  matters of the films this past year ranged from bouldering to glassblowing to the history of Greek-owned restaurants in Birmingham. “Yes, Birmingham is in the Appalachian region,” Davison said. “It isn’t all rural; that is just one of the misguided stereotypes.”

The festival shows the diversity of stories around the region, and really highlights all we have to celebrate.  It helps overcome some  of  the stereotypes that  people  have  about  Appalachia.

Dr. Beth Davison

The first year, approximately 250 attended the BooneDocs festival. In 2023, there were more than 350 in the audience. The film lengths varied from four minutes to about 24 minutes, and awards were given for “Juror’s Choice” and “Audience Choice.”

Current Work

Last year, Davison produced a video for the F.A.R.M. Café — a nonprofit community café located in Boone — in celebration of its tenth year of operation. The project shone the light on the work of many volunteers in their mission to “feed all regardless of means.”  

It was a special project for Davison, who has been involved as a volunteer with the organization since its beginning. She has served on the board of directors at the café, including a stint as its president. 

Renee Boughman, founder and former executive director of the F.A.R.M. Café and now the Director of Community Engagement, served as the primary spokesperson in the film.

Beth Davison (left) and Renee Boughman at the F.A.R.M. Café in downtown Boone. The two are working together on a documentary series sharing stories of community cafés across the country. Photo by Jan Todd

“Renee has a huge personality. She has strong storytelling skills and genuine emotion,” Davison said. 

While working on the 10th anniversary video, Davison and Boughman began to dream of something bigger: a documentary series about community cafés across the country.

The F.A.R.M. Café participates in One World Everybody Eats — a network of independent nonprofit “pay what you can” restaurants dedicated to increasing food security and building community. Each of the nearly 50 member cafés is unique in its setup and menu, but all operate on the principles of inclusion, access to healthy and nutritious food, opportunities to volunteer, and a dignified dining experience.

Beth Davison on set in Raleigh, while filming a documentary series. Photo by Alonza Mitchell.

“We aren’t part of a franchise; we’re part of a movement,” Boughman explained. “We share information and support one another — because we want these organizations to survive.”

Boughman said it has been fulfilling to watch volunteers — especially students — transform through their work at F.A.R.M. Café. “Even after they graduate, they maintain connection with us and support what’s happening. They tell me that working here changed their lives in ways they never expected,” she said.

Her own experience at the F.A.R.M. Café sparked a curiosity in Boughman about the other organizations in the network. “I have found that people want to do things to help each other, but sometimes don’t know the path to get there. If we can provide a path, they’ll jump in. It has been a remarkable journey to see that happen. I’m fascinated with folks in other communities who have a similar story,” she said.

Davison, Boughman, and a team of filmmakers have visited two community cafés so far, and plan to visit others in the coming months. Boughman serves as the host, interviewing café directors, staff, and patrons on camera.

Through Beth’s work, we can change the lens of how people view the world. And I love that. I think it’s amazing.


“We’re hoping to raise awareness about the work these organizations are doing, because it is so relevant to issues people are talking about right now: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When it comes to community cafés, some don’t know what to expect and are hesitant to come in. We’re hoping to change that,” Davison said.

Boughman said she has enjoyed “hanging out” with Davison and learning all the ways she chooses to tell a story.

“We all have similar experiences in life, but sometimes it’s just how you look at things that makes a huge difference,” Boughman mused. “For instance, if you encounter a person on the street asking for money, do you experience that through the lens of fear and frustration? Or do you experience it through the lens of compassion and the understanding that this person may have been employed two years ago, but was hit with an economic demise or perhaps some mental health issues?”

“Through Beth’s work, we can change the lens of how people view the world,” Boughman continued. “And I love that. I think it’s amazing.”