Merriam-Webster defines debutante as "a young woman making her formal entrance into society." Maria White, a local filmmaker raised in Summerville, sees things just a little differently in her short documentary The Debutante Hunters. The film, shot in Charleston, was recently accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, one of the country's most prestigious film events held in Park City, Utah Jan. 19-29.
In The Debutante Hunters, these Southern Belles — whose well-mannered upbringing in a fashionable society often comes with the whole nine yards of white gloves, elegant gowns, exquisite balls, and the like — kill things. In fact, according to White, the huntresses take great pleasure and pride in the kill, feeding their families and friends with the prized meat from the hunts.
It was Kristy Olson, White's long-time best friend, who gave the word "debutante” a deeper meaning for her. Olson, a debutante and the lead role in the film, began giving White venison meat as a Christmas gift several years ago. At first, White admits she was a bit judgmental of the idea as a whole. As neither a debutante nor a hunter, the entire idea was foreign to her. Soon, though, her opinion morphed into intrigue, and then to fascination when Olson began describing her love of the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. In the midst of a dialogue that lasted for years, White developed a new-found appreciation for the unique, compelling tradition.
"I realized that here was this culture and way of living and hunting that I knew nothing about and had judged while really not understanding these women,” she says. "That's what sparked my interest in this project.” With a fresh viewpoint and growing curiosity, White set out to make The Debutante Hunters. The idea and the passion were there, and now all that was left to get the wheels in motion was funding.
White applied for backing courtesy of a South Carolina Film Commission Indie Grant program. She was awarded one of the grants, which was a tremendous boost, but still needed a bit more financing to make the project come to life. With a fresh dose of confidence in lieu of receiving the grant, White felt encouraged to create a Kickstarter account to raise the remaining funds. Based on monetary pledges from "backers,” White says the web-based fundraiser "provides such an exciting forum for the creator. "Almost any dream can be realized if a goal can be reached,” she says.
With The Debutante Hunters being White's directorial debut, you can imagine her elation upon the news that it was accepted into Sundance. "I screamed, then cried, then called back the next day to make sure I heard them correctly,” she says. In the past, she had submitted two projects to the festival that she co-produced with her husband and producing partner, and both of the films were turned away. Knowing the pain of rejection, this year's acceptance is surreal. When asked what she hopes people will take away from the film, White wishes that the documentary will move audiences while also opening their eyes to a culture and lifestyle that, to many, is unknown.
"I truly hope they are moved,” she says. "I also hope I don't get beat up in the bathroom. I hear vegans are very strong.”