Sundance 2022: The Panola Project Review

The pandemic has been exhausting for everyone. In the last two years, not a day has gone by without a reminder of how the world has been crippled by this virus. This is why films like The Panola Project are necessary — to remind us of the brilliant lights that shined during a time when the world felt its darkest.

The Panola Project introduces us to Ms. Dorothy Oliver who organised vaccination drives for her small rural town of Panola, Alabama. At the time, Alabama had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the United States, due in part to poor access and vaccine hesitancy. In the film, we see Ms. Oliver drive to households throughout the town encouraging people to sign up for the vaccine (a minimum of 20 confirmed appointments are required for the hospital to send a vaccination unit).

Unsurprisingly, she’s met with some resistance by the community who have heard various rumours about the vaccine. But refreshingly, Ms. Oliver doesn’t judge the people she encounters. Rather, she speaks to them with kindness and respect (and a bit of cheeky authority), offering her own reasons for getting vaccinated. Ms. Oliver inevitably wins them over with kindness. Thanks to her efforts along with the help of County Commissioner Drucilla Russ-Jackson’s, Panola approaches a 99% vaccination rate among adults.

Ms. Oliver makes an impression as she greets each car as residents arrive at the vaccination centre. One young woman expresses her gratitude for the clinic and says she hadn’t known where to get the vaccine beforehand. It’s an important reminder that access to the vaccine was/is not equal, and small towns like Panola have been largely ignored.

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Directors Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine say they tried to capture a ray of hope during the pandemic. It’s fair to conclude that they achieved their goal. DeCruz and Levine follow Ms. Oliver’s example and tell the story without discriminating against residents who are initially hesitant, but listen to reason. One hopes that the world doesn’t forget the Ms. Olivers and Ms. Jacksons who made a profound difference in their communities during a difficult time.

The Panola Project screened as part of Sundance 2022. Head here for more from this year’s festival.



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