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Former firefighter tells family history in documentary

Photo courtesy of Bryan Burch / Digital Design House — Jamal McCullen sits on a fire truck at the Natchez Fire Department while being interviewed by Bryan Burch for the filmmaker’s documentary film about the Rhythm Night Club Fire.
Photo courtesy of Bryan Burch / Digital Design House — Jamal McCullen sits on a fire truck at the Natchez Fire Department while being interviewed by Bryan Burch for the filmmaker’s documentary film about the Rhythm Night Club Fire.

It’s stories like Jamal McCullen’s account of the Rhythm Night Club Fire that made director Bryan Burch rethink his entire documentary film.

Burch, a filmmaker, photographer and designer from Orlando, Fla., has been working since 2009 to document the story of the fire, which killed 209 people 73 years ago — April 23, 1940.

The idea for the film began when Burch heard a vague comment about the fire on a Florida radio station during a trip to the store.

“They were talking about Muddy Waters, and they said he grew up near the town where the club burned down and killed all those people,” Burch said. “I did a bunch of research, found some basic information and asked my musician friends who are aficionados of the Delta blues if they had heard the story and they said, ‘No.’

“I kept researching and just couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a lot more about it to find.”

Burch began making calls to several people in Natchez, pitching the project and asking if they would be interested in being interviewed for the film.

Burch made his first trip to Natchez in 2010 and filmed more than half the footage of the final product during the 70th anniversary of the fire.

But after Burch got back to Orlando and reviewed the footage, he said his initial plans for the film had to change.

“We were going to make it the traditional narration documentary, but the people in Natchez are such great storytellers that I decided to let them tell the story,” Burch said. “I just figured, who am I to tell the story?

“I lucked out as far as getting a chance to document everything, but these people needed to tell the story.”

McCullen, a former Natchez Fire Department firefighter and current fourth-grade teacher at McLaurin Elementary School, told one of the most interesting and revealing stories in the film, Burch said.

After attempting to impress his great aunt with information about the fire he had learned, McCullen soon realized she already knew everything he told her — and even more.

“I was telling her did you know this about it and did you know that about it, and she just sat there and said, ‘Yeah baby I know about that because my sister died in that fire,’” McCullen said. “And then she told me that my grandfather also lost a brother in that fire.

“So in just that conversation I found out about two of my ancestors I never knew existed.”

While working to become certified in fire service administration years later, McCullen chose to write about the fire for his thesis paper and continued learning more about the impact it had on the community.

“That fire was really the catalyst for Natchez having a paid or public fire department,” McCullen said. “After that fire, locals and city officials really started pushing for the paid fire department.”

During his 17 years working at the Natchez Fire Department, McCullen said he quickly became a resource for other firefighters or tourists who wanted to know more about the fire.

“People who would come in to town wanting to know more about the fire would get sent over to station three, and I would go out there and tell them all the things I had found in my research,” McCullen said. “That’s kind of how I got in touch with (Burch) and started helping him make arrangements for his film.”

Burch said he hopes others who watch the film make connections similar to the one McCullen made through hearing about his family and the fire.

“The whole goal was to put this movie in front of as many people to get these stories out there,” Burch said. “There’s a lot of connections people are going to make among themselves, and that’s what it’s all about.

“This is the most tragic story no one has ever heard of.”

Burch’s documentary titled “The Rhythm Club Fire” was recently accept to the 2013 Fort Myers Beach Film Festival, where it will be screened this weekend.

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