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When Robin Fryday traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 2008 to research the civil-rights movement, the Novato, Calif.-based photographer had no intentions of making a film. But a simple question changed everything.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Have you met the barber?’,” said Fryday, whose documentary short “The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement” is currently on the Academy’s shortlist of films in contention for a 2012 Oscar.

The barber, James Armstrong, turned out to be a key figure in the civil-rights movement Fryday was exploring. Fryday spent hours with Armstrong in his barbershop, listening to his story and examining the newspaper clippings, photos and civil-rights memorabilia that covered the walls in his modest storefront.

“I started to hear his personal struggles, and how he dedicated his entire life to the fight of civil rights,” Fryday explained. “His two children were the first two to integrate into the all-white Graymont Elementary School in Birmingham, and he carried the original flag on Bloody Sunday.”

Although Fryday had never directed a film, she went back to California convinced that Anderson’s experiences would make a great documentary. And as Barack Obama neared a presidential nomination, Fryday realized that telling Armstrong’s story in front of the backdrop of Obama’s campaign would make the narrative even more compelling.

“It was getting closer to the election, and I had formed this story, but I still didn’t know how to make a film,” Fryday said. “It was, kind of ironically, through a beautician that I met my co-director, Gail Dolgin. Gail loved the idea, and within a couple weeks we were off and shooting the election.”

Dolgin — whose Vietnam documentary, “ Daughter From Danang,” was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 — eagerly joined the project, despite experiencing failing health after battling breast cancer for more than a decade.

Both Fryday and Dolgin expected “Barber” to be a full-length feature, but circumstances got in the way. In November 2009, Armstrong’s heart failed and he passed away shortly after seeing an early edit of his story. Less than a year later, Dolgin passed away days after she and Fryday finished the final 18-minute sample that was meant to help garner additional financing.

“We made the decision with Gail that we were going to leave this as a short,” Fryday said. We were going to clean it up, but we would leave much of it intact from the sample because this was her last piece of work.”

As a tribute to Dolgin, Fryday decided to submit the sample to Sundance, and it was accepted in late 2010. Fryday had only five weeks to raise the $100,000 needed to complete postproduction in time for the festival. Like a lifesaver, Chicken and Egg Pictures came on as executive producer, and Judith Helfand joined as coproducer. Together they raised the money and completed “Barber.”

After Sundance, Fryday to the film on the festival circuit, including Mill Valley and the Intl. Documentary Assn.’s DocuWeeks, where it had an Oscar-qualifying run.  

While the film has gone farther than first-time director Fryday could have imagined, she says her goal now is to use “Barber” as a teaching tool.

“We are working with an organization right now that is helping us develop the curriculum so we can get this into schools,” she said. “There is a lot of interest from educators.”

What started as an interest in recounting history has turned into a passion.

“When we first started this, Gail said to me, ‘Be careful, Robin. You will be hooked,’ “ Fryday says with a laugh. “And sure enough, I am already thinking of my next project.”