A black and white image of a young white girl's face is upside down, reflected on a film camera.
Filmmaker Feature

A Kentucky Filmmaker and the Christmas Photograph that Remains a Mystery

Dec 4, 2023 by Heather Leighton

In Reel South's latest film release, in 1951, a little girl became mesmerized by a Christmas display window in downtown Louisville. A photo of her has remained iconic for over seventy years. To this day, the identity of this wide-eyed child remains unconfirmed, except among the dozens of women who claim to be her. 'I'm the Girl' investigates the power of a single image, what it means to be seen, and the magic of the Holiday season. Social Media producer Heather Leighton Nunerley interviewed filmmaker Thom Southerland about this story and his own personal attachment to the mystery.

Heather: Where did you get the idea for the film?

Thom: This documentary has been brewing in my head for nearly twenty years. My late mother’s connection to the photograph was my initial motivation. She, like many others, was pretty convinced the girl was her. I also found the mystery of the girl’s identity fascinating, especially considering how far and wide the photograph has traveled since 1951. My sister Katherine, who co-produced the film and appeared in it, also pointed out that I’m probably the only filmmaker with a personal connection to the photo, so I had to make this film! 

Heather: Can you describe the process of getting in touch with and interviewing all of the "little girl" women?

Thom: We had tremendous assistance from the Louisville Courier-Journal, where the photograph was originally published, with finding a number of women in their 70s who believe they may be the girl in the photo. They published a story on the making of the documentary and most of the women contacted us directly after seeing the article. So, the photo came full circle, in a way, via the newspaper. For me, it was bittersweet to interview all these marvelous people. Most of the women are the same age as my mother would be. And, because they grew up in the same place in Kentucky, they shared many similar coming-of-age experiences as my mom. I love making documentaries because they’re always an act of discovery, and a huge part of that is getting to know people I might otherwise never encounter. 

Heather: What were any challenges you faced while creating the film? 

Thom: The film took several years to complete. I moved away from Kentucky after we began filming and the Pandemic slowed us down. After we’d completed filming, I struggled to find the narrative structure of the film. I didn’t want to be a visible filmmaker in this – to have my literal voice dominate the story. Once I decided to let the women and my sister drive the story, I was able to find the rhythm of the film.

Heather: Who is the little girl in your opinion and why? 

Thom: This is the question I kinda hope the audience will ask themselves. I tried to remain open-minded throughout the production. But truthfully, I was pretty certain the girl was my mother...until I met some of the other women. Now, I like that each person who watches the film will form their own opinion.

Heather: What do you hope the Reel South audience gets out of watching the film? 

Thom: I hope the film feels engaging and authentic, and that it shines a light on how interesting the so-called “common” people are. Too many documentaries are about powerful subjects – rich, famous, or infamous, because those narratives have clear structure and drama. I think it can be more challenging and rewarding to document everyday subjects. We focused our lens on sincere, humble people who happen to have a connection to an image that seems immortal.

Heather: Do you have any filmmaking life updates to share with us? Any new projects to brag about?

Thom: My wife, Naomi and I just completed our first film together, Window Treatment. It’s an essay film about the long-standing American military occupation of Okinawa. We’re submitting it to film festivals in 2024, so hopefully, it will be out in the world soon. I’m also in pre-production on a narrative feature titled Distant Lands that we’re planning to shoot this summer. It’s the third in a loose trilogy of films (Proud Citizen and Fort Maria were the first two) starring the Bulgarian poet Katerina Stoykova. 


Documentary Filmmaking