Making a Difference:
Kentucky Filmmakers

It's so great that a state that in many ways deals with poverty, when it comes to television, just has these great riches.

Morgan Atkinson

Kentucky filmmaker

There's something compelling about ordinary people. They become extraordinary, you learn, when you take the time to listen to them talk about their lives.

That's something Studs Terkel knew well, and it comes as no surprise when you learn that the late radio host and biographer of the common man is one of the heroes of Kentucky filmmaker Morgan Atkinson.

Some of his subjects, it may well be argued, are far from ordinary—20th century spiritual writer Thomas Merton and the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, which he called home, among them. But the more you look at the work of Morgan Atkinson, the more you learn that it's our common humanity, and the community we all seek, which drives his brand of storytelling.

"There are so many people with good Kentucky stories," said Atkinson, of Louisville, whose production company, Duckworks Inc., has produced upwards of 15 documentaries aired by not only KET but to a national audience on PBS. His father, Buddy Atkinson, was a columnist for the Louisville Times who went on to success in Hollywood writing scripts for major sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies.

"I spent about a year in Los Angeles trying to see if I could make it in the film business because I thought, 'This is where I should be,'" said Atkinson, who made his first films while a student at the University of Kentucky.

"But after about a year I realized that I didn't want to live in LA, even if I could make it there—I was a Kentucky boy at heart. That love of community that I was fortunate enough to have when I was a kid made me think I could live in Louisville and still pursue a career."

Atkinson is just one of numerous Kentucky filmmakers whose work is regularly featured on KET—particularly our Kentucky Channel service. Available 24 hours a day, the channel frequently spotlights Atkinson's work, KET favorites, and the wealth of independent works produced in Kentucky.

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"KET has a cachet that comes with it; I hear, 'Oh! Youíre doing things with KET?'í I'm very fortunate in this. It's so great that a state that in many ways deals with poverty, when it comes to television, just has these great riches."

Early on, the idea of community drew Atkinson. His first documentary to air on KET, A Change in Order, depicted how the once-thriving Ursuline Sisters of Louisville adapted to a diminished and aging community. It was the first of several to focus on religious life.

An interest in the life of Merton, whose writings spoke to Atkinson as an individual searching for meaning in his own life, led him to visit Gethsemani and eventually to produce The Abbey of Gethsemani and Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton.

"Getting it on KET felt just great," Atkinson said. "It was a real sense of affirmation—to be on the same airwaves as these other people I had admired, both Kentucky filmmakers and national filmmakers, was something that gave me a sense of nurture, and support for me."

Atkinson's thirst to document community has led him in a secular direction as well. Falls City details the arrival, decline, and eventual rejection of the Louisville Falls Fountain by the city it was designed for, while A Way of Life: Basketball in Kentucky follows a Sweet 16-winning season for Louisville's Ballard High School.

Though such documentaries are the stuff of his heart, Duckworks is also a commercial venture, and Atkinson also spends time shooting video for corporate, non-profit, and other entities such as Volunteers of America and Hospice of Louisville as well as providing footage for ESPN, network news outlets, PBS NewsHour, and others.

And while that work pays the bills, Atkinson says the support of KET kept him alive in the world of independent filmmaking.

"You always hear that you're known by the company you keep and the friends that you make—to be in the company of KET has always felt real good to me. KET has been there for me and for so many other struggling filmmakers, and I hope in some way I've been there for KET and its audience," he said.

"KET has always been that port in the storm. I could have done just corporate stuff. But for personal satisfaction, I'm glad Iíve been able to do the independent stuff and it would not have happened without KET. Iím certain of that."