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Contributed photo from Jacob Poag / The creative team behind "Dalton: A Story of Survival" is made up of local high school and college students from North Georgia.

A documentary all about the history and resilience of Dalton, Georgia, has won an award for best long documentary at the American Golden Picture International Film Festival in Jacksonville, Florida.

Founder and president of STEP Studio Jacob Poag called the win a "huge victory" during a phone call with the Times Free Press on Wednesday and said he was particularly proud of "Dalton: A Story of Survival" because everyone involved with the filmmaking process at STEP Studio is either a high school or college-age student interested in film work.

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Poag is a junior at Dalton's Christian Heritage High School and first created STEP Studio — which stands for student, team, entertainment, production — in 2020 with the goal of creating completely independent student films. He said he was never a huge film buff before the pandemic but got hooked on the subject after reading books about how movies are made and edited.

"I started looking for opportunities to get involved in film locally and didn't see any, so I recruited 15 other people who were also interested in it and we made our own," Poag said. "That was the group that made the 'Dalton: A Story of Survival' documentary."

The team of local high school and college students spent more than 200 hours on editing alone, Poag said. Even more time was spent collaborating on the script over Zoom, conducting interviews and doing historical research. He estimated that the team spent at least three or four hours every day talking about changes and tweaks they wanted to make. They didn't have an office at the time so on the few occasions when they did meet in person, he said they did so in an office set up in their head editor's house.

All that work has paid off. So far, the film has been selected for entry in three film festivals: the American Golden Picture International Film Festival, the Cobb International Film Festival and Virginia's Global Film and Music Festival USA. The film has won one award, and Poag said being selected for entry in those festivals at all was an incredible honor.

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Contributed photo from Jacob Poag / "Dalton: A Story of Survival" tells the story of Dalton, Georgia, and its struggles.

"It is phenomenal that we were able to pull this off as students who have never done this before. We were the only students participating in the festival we won in, which felt really good for us because we were competing against adults," he said. "I think it shows how hard everyone was willing to work and how amazing the story we wanted to tell was. Dalton is an extraordinary city and the story of how it came to be what it is today is amazing. It shows how strong the people here are and have always been."

According to Poag, the 53-minute feature-length film tells the story of Dalton from the earliest days of the carpet industry through the establishment of Shaw Industries in town and the eventual addition of other large carpet companies in the community. It then chronicles the 2008 recession and the impact it had on the city and its businesses.

"Dalton was the second worst-hit city in the nation in 2008 but no one here gave up," he said Wednesday. "People keep getting up and working hard. That's why it's a story of survival. The people who live here never quit."

As of Wednesday, Poag and his collaborators in Dalton had not yet started work on a new film project. Instead, they are focused on expanding STEP Studio to college and university campuses across the state. Their ultimate goal, he said, is to see independent student films take off in Georgia and to turn STEP Studio into a nonprofit production company that supports that goal.

Students at Oglethorpe University and the University of North Georgia have already started putting together film teams. Poag said the Oglethorpe University team is already 15-members strong and has begun work on a script for its project.

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"These guys are freshmen and have done this on their own," he said. "The script is still being written but they should start filming soon."

A screening of "Dalton: A Story of Survival" was held in October in Dalton for the historical society and Poag said future screenings are being planned now. Dates have not yet been finalized.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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