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New Film Documents Turkey Call-Making Tradition

GNGEditor’s note: Click here to check out the Grand National Glory website!

By Tom Carpenter

Amidst the mob of more than 47,000 turkey fanatics who attended the 37th annual National Wild Turkey Federation Convention and Sport Show this past February in Nashville, Tenn., a small band of documentary filmmakers camped out at the event’s Grand National Decorative Call Making Contest. The team of videographers captured the most shining moments of the massive fund-raising contest, which broke an NWTF record of most calls registered at 914 and generated more than $110,000 for NWTF’s conservation efforts.

Having a film crew capturing this event on camera was no accident. Eight months earlier, filmmaker Jon Steinhorst, with the help of outdoor writer J.J. Reich, conceived an idea to create a documentary about turkey callmaking entitled Grand National Glory, or GNG.

Their idea was to tell the story of the entire process a decorative callmaker goes through on the quest to win gold at the NWTF Grand National Decorative Call Making Contest. To add depth and insight, they followed three craftsmen. The duo knew this interesting journey — which ultimately celebrates the competitive art and culture of turkey callmaking — would appeal to turkey hunting fanatics as well as anyone who appreciates American folk art.

A talk with the filmmakers reveals why they committed themselves to such an arduous undertaking and why they believe these callmakers’ stories need to be told.

J.J. Reich writes for many hunting magazines. He carries a strong reputation as a turkey call expert and is the regular “Turkey Calls” columnist for NWTF’s Turkey Country magazine. As an avid turkey hunter and dedicated turkey call collector, he commits endless time and energy to his favorite pursuits.

“Decorative turkey calls have always fascinated me,” he said. “These folks need to be expert callmakers and amazing artists. They are craftsmen and artisans in every sense of the words, and they have always had my utmost respect. It was a natural topic to cover.

“It would be one thing to talk to some of these guys and write a story. But I knew it just wouldn’t do the topic justice. You just can’t see and feel these artists’ passion in words. You can’t see them at work. And there would be too much material for just one little magazine article. So I knew right away the only real way to do it right was by making a full-length documentary.”

Reich reached out to an old, dear friend, Jon Steinhorst, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts in writing, directing and film production from Columbia College in Chicago. Steinhorst is an independent filmmaker and educator who lives only a few miles away from Reich in Minnesota.

The friends soon found themselves in a conversation about turkey calls while taking a tour of Reich’s large turkey call collection. Being an artist, Steinhorst was fascinated by what he saw, especially the decorative turkey calls. His interest piqued, he began asking questions about the subculture of turkey hunters, the world of callmakers and the commitment of call collectors. From there, it was an easy sell for Reich, and the concept of making a documentary about decorative turkey calls was born.

With a limited budget (their own pockets to start; see the sidebar) and challenging logistics, including young families and other commitments, Reich and Steinhorst needed to select callmakers headquartered close to home. Luckily, the turkey-rich Midwest harbors plenty of good callmakers these days, and some lived within an hour’s drive.
Reich visited three callmakers — Dave Constantine, Eric Rice and Steve Stortz — and presented the idea of being filmed in a documentary. Every artist jumped at the chance. Of course, it would be an opportunity to show off their work. But it would also further the art form of decorative turkey call making.

Dave Constantine, “the grand champ of Grand Nationals,” is a long-time legendary carver who has won the highest honor of Best in Show at the annual event many times in his competitive callmaking career. For him, winning gold is a common occurrence.

Eric Rice, “the eager beaver,” is a talented and experienced callmaker, especially in any wood-burning category. This year was his second competing, so Rice was going in strong with four decorative entries he was crafting at a much more detailed scale than his first year.

Steve Stortz, “the 65-year-old rookie,” has sold hundreds of turkey calls and has been written about in several national magazines, but 2013 marked the first year he competed in Grand Nationals. Could he win the rookie of the year honors at the contest?

The GNG documentary was mainly filmed on location at the homes and workshops of each of the three main characters. The callmakers opened their doors and lives to the filmmakers. Each character granted full access to his work, values, beliefs and daily activities as he prepared for the Grand Nationals. It is nothing short of fascinating and inspiring to see.

The film culminates with the final contest results revealed in Nashville, Tenn., at the 2013 NWTF Grand National Call Making Contest. This is the Super Bowl for decorative callmakers. At this contest, hundreds of calls are judged for their ability to make turkey sounds, plus how beautifully they are carved and painted. Call judges spend hours testing and evaluating before picking a winner. Then, all the calls go up for auction, where serious collectors bid hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to buy just one decorative call. Proceeds go to wild turkey habitat work and conservation.

The GNG film crew was also there following the main characters as they attended the convention and sports show. The crew documented all the moments of the callmaking contest — including registration, reception, judging, award ceremony, silent auction and live auction — as they happened. Laughter, tears, frustration and jubilation — real-life emotions — were all captured and will be revealed in the final production. It’s a must-see.

Truly Art
Staying true to the art form of a documentary, the final cut is being crafted in a genuine, non-biased style. It is fresh, honest and inspiring. There are no scripts, no acting, and no pre-determined direction. Don’t expect a reality TV show or a celebrity-hosted adventure show packed with footage of turkey hunts. Instead, the filmmakers simply documented the daily routine, life, hard work and heart-felt emotions that occurred as these artists plied their trade and did their life’s work.

Steinhorst said making GNG has been an eye-opening experience.

“Filmmakers rarely get an opportunity to discover a new world that, like many things in life, speaks volumes about universal truths of the world,” he said. “For the purposes of this project, the lens and microphone are focused on a very specific subculture that few people outside of the turkey hunting world are familiar with. That is something I am very excited about.

“Viewers will enjoy this valuable subject matter because it informs them about something like decorative callmaking that might be all new to them. The film also has the potential to broaden your understanding of fellow human beings who may be pursuing a very different path in life.”

The storyline emphasizes the human emotions that callmakers face when they compete in contests. They put their hearts and souls into their work. It also explores the subculture of callmakers in general and the excitement of this large-scale, national competition in particular.

“Our characters are the vehicles through which the story of callmaking is being told, and to a large degree, when you understand a person, you better understand the culture or sub-culture in which they thrive,” Steinhorst said. “In the end, the success of GNG is not dependent on a viewer understanding step-by-step details that go into making a certain type of decorative turkey call, but it is imperative that viewers — both turkey industry enthusiasts and lay people — experience a sense of awe when contemplating the characters’ dedication to their craft and how that shapes their identity.”

Call collector and book author Howard Harlan once wrote that turkey calls were “an enduring American folk art.” He was right. Is this subject worthy of a full-length feature documentary? Absolutely.

The documentary was artistically created for more than turkey hunters to see. It was also crafted for a large national audience that currently knows nothing about turkey hunting, the activities of turkey hunters (such as callmaking) or our hunting heritage.
The film is meant to celebrate the turkey hunting culture, our lifestyle and interests, as well as our appreciation for nature, conservation and art. What can be more enduring than that?

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