On Saturday night a few dozen Vermonters gathered in the Bennington Museum's upstairs Ada Paresky Education Center for a screening of "Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie," a new collaborative documentary project about their home state. Directed by Norwich native Nora Jacobson, the film is an ambitious experiment in documentary filmmaking that combines the efforts of 48 different Vermont video artists into a six-part feature that runs over eight hours long in total.
While the entire project will eventually be available as a DVD boxed set, Jacobson and her team are launching the documentary with a massive tour, travelling around the state to screen each of the documentary's six feature-length sections in 11 different counties throughout the state. The Bennington County premiere took place on Oct. 9 at the Village Picture Shows in Manchester, where part one of the documentary was shown, and the other parts will be shown over the next few weeks at the Bennington Museum.
Following part one, which looked at the founding, settlement and early history of the state, part two looked broadly at several events and eras in Vermont's history that have been particularly important in the development of the state's unique identity. Entitled "Under The Surface," this portion of the documentary was assembled from eight different, individually shot segments. Jacobson, the project's leading figure, did a great job in editing these separate mini-films into a single cohesive narrative. Like a book with several chapters, each segment focused on a different subject but presented its information with a consistent tone and feeling. This helps the film flow together naturally, with the divisions between segments often imperceptible.
On the other hand, Jacobson explains in a statement on the film's website that "the filmmakers were encouraged to work in their own style, with their own voice and vision," and these different voices are clearly visible in the ways different artists choose to present their material--interview subjects enter and exit, some sections rely on more archival material than others and one part even uses historically-attired re-enactors to illustrate the political tension that surrounded the Green Mountain Parkway debates of 1936.
This section of the film begins with a piece by Bennington College media arts professor Sue Rees, who literally takes the audience "Under the Surface" in her exploration of Rutland's famous marble quarries. Rees, who spoke briefly before the screening, explained that she had only been shown a rough version of the compiled part two feature since submitting her 20 minute section, so the screening offered a new experience even for her.
Rees' exploration of the Proctor-owned marble industry also introduced the recurring theme of Vermont's interesting labor history, recounting the violent 1936 Vermont Marble Company strike in Rutland. Louise Michaels continued this thread in her own section, which detailed the history of the Socialist Labor Party Hall in Barre, which was founded by the local granite cutter's union and became a hotbed of political strife in the early 1900s.
In many situations, Rees and the other filmmakers tap in to local knowledge to tell the stories of Vermont's smaller communities, interviewing long-time and multi-generational residents, including older Vermonters who lived through some of the state's interesting 20th century history.
The film's treatment of Vermont's 20th century political history, especially the influence of respected depression-era Vermont senator George Aiken, is another especially strong segment. Current U.S. senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders both offer substantial interviews, painting a vivid picture of Aiken's personality and explaining his political acumen in detail.
Another commendable strength of the film is it's honest, direct treatment of controversial topics, especially the eugenics movement that arose in Vermont around the 1920s and led to the forced sterilization of many Abenaki natives. The film introduces and explains the background of this period objectively, but it also doesn't shy away from taking a strong stance in condemning the horrific practice. They even acknowledge the program's visible parallels to Nazism, a topic that many shy away from. This unapologetic treatment seemed to surprise the audience at first, but it represents a respectable boldness and sense of integrity on the part of Jacobson and the other filmmakers.
The end of the film takes a personal turn, looking at the origins of Vermont's transplanted literary and artistic tradition with a segment that the director Nora Jacobson shot about her own father Nicholas Biel Jacobson, who left upper-class New York City society to become a full time farmer and playwright in Norwich. The piece echoed aspects of another segment on homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing, who helped pioneer the 1960's back-to-the-land movement.
While the Nearings may not have much in common with George Aiken, the Proctors or their unionized workers, the film shows how all of these figures have contributed to our modern idea of what it means to be a Vermonter.
Parts three and four of "Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie" will be screened at the Bennington Museum on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 6 and 8:45 p.m. respectively. Parts five and six will be screened the next week on Friday, Oct. 25 at the same times. Individual parts can be seen in any order. DVD boxed sets of the entire film project are available for pre-order at the screenings and at the film's website, www.thevermontmovie.com, where you can also get more information on the project, the filmmakers and other screenings around the state.
Jack McManus can be reached on Twitter at @Banner_Arts or via email at email@example.com.