Filmmaker directs local documentaries on social issues

Zach Vance • Jun 17, 2016 at 8:56 PM

Two years of work and more than a hundred interviews later, Stephen Newton could finally revel in the vision he had.

On April 26, 2014, Northeast State Community College hosted the premiere of Newton’s documentary, “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection,” at the Wellmont Regional Performing Arts Center.

More than 300 people filled the theater that evening to watch the documentary, which examined recidivism and issues related to the criminal justice system. 

“The biggest rush I had after making that film was (at Northeast State Community College). I think what struck me most was that I had a vision for this project and I actually saw that vision come true through this film,” Newton said. “I was emotional with all the people who had came to see my film.”

After the film ended, the emotion continued.

Newton and some of the people he collaborated with on the project held a brief question-and-answer session. 

“What really struck me was that during the Q&A, the audience members didn’t ask a single question,” Newton said. “They shared their own stories of themselves or someone they knew being incarcerated and how the system had worked against them. People were sobbing and plenty of tears were shed.”

Now he’s working to bring another vision to the screen.

The 72-year-old Florida native is the only employee of Razar Films, a company he founded shortly after he moved to Kingsport.

During a visit earlier this year to the Manna House in Bristol, Tennessee, to do a short promotional video for the homeless housing community, Newton drew inspiration for his second full-length feature film.

In April, Newton began production on “One Night in January: Counting the Cost of Homelessness.”

Just this week, Newton has been in Johnson City conducting interviews with several local homeless men.

He also found himself interviewing the director of an organization that collaborates with others to reduce crime and homelessness in the community, and a few psychologists and sociologists at East Tennessee State University.

Newton said he hopes his latest documentary will be completed by the end of the year.

That 300-plus crowd in April 2014 wasn’t close to being the largest audience to view Newton’s first full-length film at one time.

During August and July of 2014, Newton’s documentary aired during primetime on the East Tennessee PBS channel to 17 counties and nearly a million viewers.

“Unfortunately during both times it was on television, I didn’t get to see it. The first time, I was in New Orleans filming a food technology conference for a client, and the second time, I was in Washington, D.C.,” Newton said. “It was kind of ironic because no one on the team (who helped complete the documentary) was available the day it aired.”

Newton’s reference to a “team” is a bit of an overstatement.

While musician Paul Vanderbeck donated time to create an original score for the film and Jane Hillhouse agreed to market and create the DVDs for the film, Newton was the only person out in the field doing interviews and spending sleepless nights stitching everything together.

And Newton now refers to himself as being “retired” — but working every day.

“It’s just me, myself and I,” he said while describing his company. “And the reason is because I’m working with such close margins. I do have some folks (like Vanderbeck and Hillhouse) who I can depend on, but it’s pretty much me loading up and doing interviews.” 

For “Outcasts,” Newton interviewed Gov. Bill Haslam, former state Rep. Tony Shipley, Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield and officials involved with the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

“I’d love to have a whole team, but you’d have to pay those folks and then we’d have to have a grant,” he said. “I’d love to apply for grants, but by the time all the paperwork is done and they actually release the money, the film is out of date.”

With “One Night in January,” Newton has a recent ETSU graduate from the digital media program who’s agreed to help create his film on homelessness.

Jeb Johnson is currently interning for Stept Productions in Los Angeles, but plans to gather several interviews with homeless individuals in Southern California to use in the upcoming film.

Newton said the reward for all his post-retirement work is raising public awareness, hearing people’s stories and figuring out the “why” to specific social problems and finding solutions. 

“Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection” has been featured in the PUSH! Film Festival, the Down East Flick Fest, the Southeastern International Film Festival and the YES Film Fest.

You can find out more about Newton’s films by visiting cultureofrejection.org or razarfilms.com.


Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP

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