Hey Vermont, who are you anyway?
BRATTLEBORO -- Who are we, anyway, in Vermont?
Are we Ethan Allen or Ben & Jerry? Calvin Coolidge or Phish? George Aiken or Circus Smirkus? Are we hippie commune or deer camp? Town Meeting or Take Back Vermont?
Filmmaker Nora Jacobson doesn't promise definitive answers, but she has gone a long way toward illuminating the many complicated, contradictory and altogether wonderful facets of what Vermont is all about.
Jacobson is the driving force behind "Freedom & Unity: The Vermont Movie," a major, new six-part documentary described as "an epic journey of place and people." The film will have its local premiere as part of the Brattleboro Film Festival, starting with the festival's "Green Carpet Gala" this Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m., at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden and continuing with screenings of the first two episodes Sunday at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., at the Latchis Theatre. The remaining four episodes of "Freedom & Unity" will be shown as part of the festival on Monday through Thursday, Nov. 11-14 at 6:30 p.m., at the Latchis.
Fitting for a film about Vermont, Jacobson adopted a Town Meeting-style approach to creating it, drawing on the talents of other filmmakers to contribute parts to the whole. It started with a few filmmaker friends of hers and grew to include more than two dozen filmmakers or teams, more than 50 creative voices in all, blending together to tell Vermont's story.
"It just grew. It organically grew," explained Jacobson, a Norwich filmmaker whose work includes the features "My Mother's Early Lovers" and "Nothing Like Dreaming" and the documentary "Delivered Vacant."
"Freedom & Unity" is a project seven years in the making and a true labor of love. Funny thing is, Jacobson never really set out to make a film like this.
The seeds of "Freedom & Unity" were planted in a sad time. Jacobson had just lost her father, Nicholas Jacobson, a "back-to-the-lander" who left New York City to be a farmer in Vermont. It was also a time when other friends -- activist Dave Dellinger, poet Grace Paley and local writer and activist Marty Jezer -- were facing the end of their lives. Feeling the loss of these important voices, Jacobson set out to capture and record others before they passed.
The idea for a big film project grew out of this, germinating when Jacobson and a friend began talking over lunch one day about everything that was interesting in Vermont. That conversation evolved into a 22-page document that served as the blueprint for the film.
Early on, Jacobson realized she couldn't do this project alone.
"I realized the best way to make a film about a state is to get other filmmakers in the state to work on it," she said. "The collaborative aspect of it just came naturally."
Among the 50 credited filmmakers are local artists Jay Craven, Alan Dater and Lisa Merton, Michael Hanish, Frederic Noyes, Kate Purdie and Andy Reichsman.
Along the way, Jacobson provided guidance and topics for the filmmakers to tackle and then edited the project into a six-part coherent whole.
"We didn't just tell people ‘Go do whatever you want to do,'" she said. "It was always intended to be an integrated film that was unified, beginning to end. We did wonder if all these different formats and looks would work."
Early audience feedback -- the film debuted Sept. 27 -- indicates that it did work, she said.
"At this point, I just love the multiple ways of representation," she said.
Although the first episode, titled "A Very New Idea," does begin at the beginning of Vermont's history, the series generally doesn't proceed chronologically but is grouped around themes and ideas. Part II is titled "Under the Surface"; Part III is "Refuge, Reinvention and Revolution"; Part IV is "Doers and Shapers"; Part V is "Ceres' Children" (dealing with participatory democracy and conservation); and Part VI is titled "People's Power."
Our neck of the woods is well represented. The film features Vermont Yankee, Packer Corners, Marlboro College, the Putney School, the Nearings, Ronnie Squires, farmers like Ross and Amanda Thurber and, of course, Sen. George Aiken. Part VI, which deals with Tropical Storm Irene, is dedicated to Marble Arvidson.
Along the way, "Freedom & Unity" does not shy away from the darker moments in Vermont's history - labor tensions, racial tensions and philosophical divisions over land use, energy and gay rights.
"You don't want to present a mythologized, sanitized view because then you just end up working for the tourist bureau," said Jacobson. "Can we look at a state and find the identity of it? Does a state have a DNA? That's one of the fun things about this. We're sort of presenting ourselves as amateur historians. We're just asking questions. We don't want to make pronouncements about what made Vermont what it is."
Still, Vermont has a lot to be proud of. Jacobson is not shy about the good things she's found in Vermont's genome -- it was first state to outlaw slavery, the first to allow same sex civil unions and the first to call for President Nixon's impeachment; its constitution engenders an early commitment to education.
"If there is a message, I guess it's that Vermont, because of its scale, because of its size, can be kind of a laboratory for trying to get back to doing things on a local level," Jacobson said. "If there is a message it's to show people if we can hold on to our villages, our smaller scale of living, then people might be happier and be a little less alienated."
Certainly, in politics, a culture of civility prevails here; one which is sorely needed in other corridors of power. "Even the Democrats and Republicans get along pretty well, here," she said.
Jacobson hopes "Freedom & Unity" has a long and useful life, beyond its opening tour and occasional DVD viewings. She's striving to create Freedom & Unity Television, where people can add their own chapters to the story, and she wants the film to be used in colleges and high schools. A DVD version is already in use in 120 schools in Vermont for students in Grades 4-12.
"My dream is always to have people talk about the issues after the film is over," Jacobson said. "We'd like the project to live on."
She's also hoping to air the film on public television stations, and not just in Vermont. She was concerned about how the film would play outside of Vermont. Her feelings were somewhat allayed by the reception the film earned at a film festival in Maine.
For more information about "Freedom & Unity" visit www.thevermontmovie.com.
Jacobson and other Vermont filmmakers involved in "Freedom & Unity" will be on hand for Sunday's "Green Carpet Gala" at 4 p.m. A special "Vermont Vision" honor and videotaped message from Governor Peter Shumlin will also be featured.
The curtain rises on part one ("A Very New Idea") and part two ("Under the Surface") at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. respectively, with parts three through six all screening at 6:30 p.m. on subsequent nights at the Latchis Theatre through Thursday, Nov. 14.
The gala features traditional music by local musicians Keith Murphy and Andy Davis, localvore cuisine prepared by a host of Brattleboro-area restaurateurs, fresh produce and cheeses from Vermont farms, hand-crafted Brattleboro beer brewed and poured by Whetstone Station Brewery, apple cider pressed on site and other treats.
Tickets for the gala are $30 and include a movie pass to any Brattleboro Film Festival movie screening from Nov. 10-14. Gala tickets can be purchased for cash or check at Everyone's Books (25 Elliot St.), at the Latchis Theatre during film festival screenings, at the door the evening of the event or in advance by calling the Brattleboro Film Festival ticket line, 802-490-0714.
For information, visit www.brattleborofilmfestival.org.
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