Since 1969, dozens of films ranging from shorts to documentaries to features, have been screened at the Nashville Film Festival (NaFF) each year. Rapidly growing into one of the most prestigious in the country, the week-long festival excels in music-related films, not surprisingly. Documentaries at this year’s festival, which is currently underway, include Honky Tonk Heaven, which spotlights the iconic Broken Spoke dance hall in Texas, and A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story, both of which are making their Southeast premiere at this year’s festival.
While it is certainly not unusual for a song to become the basis of a feature film, Rory Feek, half of country duo Joey + Rory with late wife Joey Martin Feek, is in the unlikely position of having seen his song “Josephine” become a film. More than 15 years ago, Feek, who lives in an old farmhouse an hour south of Nashville, read a series of letters written during the U.S. Civil War by a Confederate soldier, John Robison, to his wife back home in Tennessee. Touched by the poetic thoughts and feelings expressed in the letters, Feek penned the song, “Josephine,” which he and Joey then recorded on Joey + Rory’s 2012 LP, His and Hers. The tune was also the basis for a music video.
Not long after the song was released, Feek heard via email from a Civil War historian and author in Virginia, who knew of letters that Josephine had written to John. With his friend Aaron Carnahan (who also starred in the song’s video), Feek wrote the full-length screenplay over an 18-month period and raised the $1 million needed to shoot the film, which took place in Halifax County, Virginia, over a three-month period last year. Although the film was screened at the festival as a “work in progress,” in its current state it is an extraordinarily moving portrait of love, devotion and determination, set against the violent backdrop of a war that claimed the lives of more than 625,000 men.
Of those who fought for the Union and Confederate armies in the war, an estimated 1,000 were women, disguised as men. Josephine is the story of one such woman, taking the true love story into the fictional realm as Josephine finds herself unwilling to wait at home any longer for her husband to return. Wearing her husband’s clothes, she enlists as “Joseph.” The dangerous journey that follows takes the lead character (solidly played by English-born actress Alice Couthard) through three war-torn states, covering thousands of miles as she faces danger, uncertainty and the fear of being found out. The end result is one the most poignant, moving films screened at this year’s festival, beautifully rendered and yet simply told throughout.
In 2015, while attending the Nashville Film Festival with his father-in-law just before the making of Josephine began, Feek considered the possibility of screening the film for a “hometown” audience and turning his gift for songwriting to a more expansive medium.
“I love films. The characters in movies have impacted my life,” he told Rolling Stone Country at this week’s red-carpet event. “To be part of creating the characters and seeing their stories come to life is exciting for me. It’s also exciting to be able to take songwriting storytelling and work toward long-form storytelling. In songs you can usually only convey one emotion in the three minutes you’re given, But in a movie you can take people on a much bigger ride.”
Feek’s two older daughters were involved in the film, with Heidi Feek supervising the Civil War-inspired music throughout and Hopie Feek managing craft services, feeding cast and crew on set.
Just last month Feek faced the unimaginable loss of his young wife, following her long battle with cancer, but Joey remained a constant presence on the set.
“She always believed in this story and in me, and she always believed in the future of me making films and telling bigger stories. When he time came around for us to go make this film, even though she had been at the forefront of our career for the seven years or so, she took a backseat and just became a mama and a wife,” Feek recalled. “And she cooked, not just for me but we had six or seven guys staying in one house and she cooked for all of us while we had 18-hour days. She did it with the most grace all the way through it, not having any idea what was in store or her, or for us. It was an amazing time together. All the way through, she’s been part of it with us. So I bring her here with me, with us.”
Josephine will follow its Nashville debut with a screening at the second annual Bentonville Film Festival. That event, running from May 3rd to 8th, was founded last year in Bentonville, Arkansas, in part by Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis. The Nashville Film Festival runs through Saturday, April 23rd, with an additional screening of Josephine set for Thursday, April 21st. More information is available at the NaFF website.