Duke MFA Student, Jon-Sesrie Goff’s, Work Explores Racial History of Family Land in South Carolina’s Low Country


A 40-acre plot of land in coastal South Carolina is joining the national dialogue on race relations. 

Jon-Sesrie Goff, 32, a second-year student in the Master of Fine Arts of Experimental and Documentary Arts program, has been exploring the history of his family’s small land holding in South Carolina’s Low Country – or ‘Gullah’ region — in a documentary project titled After Sherman since he came to Duke last year. But the murders of nine churchgoers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on June 17 forced Goff to reexamine the significance of his family’s land and Gullah heritage.

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“The way events unfolded this summer completely changed my approach to (documenting the land),” Goff said. “After the shooting, I had to reorient my entire project. I was (in Charleston) for most of the aftermath of the shooting and continue to go back a few times every month.”

Goff, who is African-American, also has a personal connection to the massacre at Emanuel AME: his father Norvel Goff Sr., became the interim pastor of the church immediately following Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s murder. (He was not in the church when the shooting occurred)

After Sherman has since evolved into Goff’s thesis and become his primary focus. It received a $30,000 filmmaking grant from the Princess Grace Foundation, the first time a Duke MFA student has received the prestigious Princess Grace Award, one of six awarded to young filmmakers from around the United States.

Tom Rankin, the MFA/EDA director, said Goff’s accomplishment is an “affirmation” of the talent within Duke’s program, which enrolled its first class of students in 2012.

“We’re a very young program and this tells other programs and foundations that there are extremely talented people with distinctive ideas in our MFA program,” Rankin said.

Goff will use the grant money to turn After Sherman, which he had conceived as a short film, into a feature-length documentary film.

“With the Princess Grace grant, I will be able to hire a crew and more editors,” Goff said. “I also want to do fictional recreations of local folklore, and these funds will contribute to that as well.”

Born and raised in the Northeast, Goff’s path to Duke included everything from shooting marketing videos to documenting Atlanta pop star Janelle Monae’s national tour to contributing camera work on documentary and feature films such as Out in the Night (2015) and Evolution of a Criminal (2014). But after a decade of taking on freelance work around the country, Goff wanted a change of pace.

“I wanted to know if my intuition around filmmaking was correct or incorrect,” Goff said. “I also found myself over-committing to freelance work right before I applied to MFA programs, and I thought taking the time to harness and develop my own ideas and practice would be the right next step.”

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Source: Duke Today | Ezgi Ustundag

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