• Making 'Vermont: The Movie'
    September 25,2013


    MONTPELIER — After seven years and with fewer than 72 hours before the Barre Opera House gala premiere of part one of the long-awaited “Vermont Movie,” filmmaker Nora Jacobson is still tinkering with the final two episodes of the six-part documentary series.

    “I wish I could say that I am happy and excited but right now it is the crunch,” says the well-regarded documentarian and Dartmouth College film instructor. “Over the course of seven years my feelings about the project have run the gamut from ecstasy and fury to tension and stress and happiness. We started out making one feature film and ended up with six.”

    The “we” Jacobson is talking about grew from an initial pool of 12 Vermont filmmakers who she reached out to with an idea and a 22-page outline to a pool of 25 filmmaking teams. Her original idea to capture a particular snapshot of the state in a single film expanded as each filmmaker brought their own interest and ideas to the project.

    As word spread through the filmmaking community the number of participants wanting to produce a segment grew and a collaborative was created. Footage was shot. Weekend gatherings were held to view footage, and early participant Montpelier resident Nat Winthrop, who has played a seminal role in both the establishment of the alternative press in Vermont as former publisher of the Vermont Vanguard Press, and as a founder of Alternet, the award-winning national alternative news service, stepped in as producer. Winthrop put aside his own fledgling filmmakers' cap in order to raise money, and provide administrative support for the project.

    “I was a relatively new filmmaker and this was a chance to work with more experienced filmmakers,” he said. “I'd always wanted to do a history project. They needed someone with experience in administration and fundraising, and it also gave me a chance to do a bunch of archival research which I love to do.”

    Winthrop diligently raised funding including getting grants to create a study guide to go a long with the films — all the better to see the individual films become available for use in schools.

    “We always had the ambition that this would be the first of its kind of documentary,” said Winthrop. “It's a very comprehensive look at Vermont and its culture. It just seemed natural with all of these little stories to use some of them in schools to stimulate discussion in the classroom. I started doing separate fund raising to educational foundations.”

    An edited version of the film has already been seen in more than 130 Vermont schools.

    While Jacobson provided the filmmakers with an outline and asked filmmakers to choose a person or event, the amount of footage called for a different kind of editing. In that sense Jacobson might be likened to an experienced quilter who has been gifted with an array of dazzling fabric pieces and now must stitch them into something that will both serve a function and be pleasing to the eye.

    “Stylistically, I thought it might be a problem having all of these different styles and visions,” says Jacobson. “But it didn't turn out that way. It's never come up.”

    The six films bread down nicely into pairings of two, suggested the filmmaker. Parts One and Two — “A Very New Idea” and “Under the Surface” — explore the history of Vermont bringing us through the Civil War to 2009. Parts Three and Four — “Refuge, Reinvention and Revolution” and “Doers and Shapers” — look at how the state changed in the 1960s with the rise of the Interstate Highway System, and the people who shaped the state from Thaddeus Fairbanks to John Dewey, as well as institutions like Goddard College and IBM. Parts Five and Six — “Ceres Children” and “People Power” — bring the conversation to the present even as it draws on the past. These films embrace current topics of conversation including the future of farming, the role of Vermont in a world economy, our historic stand on civic unions, and how do we plan for our energy needs in the future. The final film also looks at Tropical Storm Irene and the massive community rebuilding that brought the state together in a way that seemed to animate the state slogan of “Freedom and Unity.”

    If the offerings seem too rich to all be seen in one go, they were designed to each be able to stand on its own independently of the others.

    “I have to say that if I had to choose the two parts I like most are One and Two,” said Winthrop. “My original interest was historical and these two parts really look at the history. Now this is a very unconventional history as it jumps around a lot in terms of the timeline. Part One covers from the time of first contact with the Abenaki through the Civil War. Part Two spends a lot of time in the 1930s and 1940s with folks like Helen and Scott Nearing.”

    Among the most surprising things both Jacobson and Winthrop said they learned in making the film was the about the early history of African Americans in Vermont.

    “I had no idea there was settlement of African Americans in Vermont prior to the revolution,” said Winthrop. “Also we've been taught that the Abenaki people were nomads and didn't really have any permanent settlement in Vermont. In fact they lived all up and down the Connecticut River. They would move around some. But there were permanent settlements.”

    Friday night's Opera House gala will feature a catered reception with filmmakers, and a Q & A after the screening of Part One. On Saturday morning the Vermont Historical Society will screen Part Two in Barre. The remaining four parts of the film will be shown in Montpelier at the Savoy Theater over the following days. This barn-storming approach will be repeated in 10 other counties in the state with the tour ending in early December.

    “People should feel free to just come to any one of the films,” said Winthrop. “We're not expecting a lot of people to go to all six films at one time.”

    But even as the film premiere looms, and she works with the editing team to piece together the final bits of film, Jacobson is already thinking about the future of the film.

    “We're making this expandable,” she said. “We're going to have the website set up so that people can upload their own short pieces to the Vermont Movie website.”

    For more information and the complete schedule visit www.thevermontmovie.com.

    Tickets for the premiere are available through the Barre Opera House box office.

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