By Allison Teague
An ambitious eight-hour independent film project calls on 50 filmmakers to answer: What makes Vermont Vermont?
Norwich filmmaker Nora Jacobson has been cinematographer, producer, and director of her own award-winning films since founding Off The Grid Productions in 1995.
With such features to her credit as “Delivered Vacant” (1992), a documentary about housing issues and gentrification in Hoboken, N.J., and two dramatic films, “My Mother’s Early Lovers” (1998) and “Nothing Like Dreaming” (2004), Jacobson is hard at work applying the finishing touches to her most ambitious project yet.
“Freedom & Unity: The Vermont Movie,” by Nora Jacobson and the Vermont Movie Collaborative, explores Vermont’s iconoclastic spirit: where it comes from, how it shapes our present, and how it lays the groundwork for the future.
The Collaborative consists of more than three dozen accomplished Vermont filmmakers, among whose ranks are Jill Vickers, Mira Niagolova, Eleanor Lanahan, Jay Craven, Kate Cone, Dorothy Tod, Matt Bucy, Louise Michaels, Dan Butler, Richard Waterhouse, Kate Purdie, Rob Koier, and Alan Dater.
The series (http://www.thevermontmovie.com ), to appear in six parts, each with a run time of approximately 80 minutes, debuts at the end of September in Barre-Montpelier and will run statewide through November — that’s when it’ll appear at the Brattleboro Film Festival.
A family connection
Jacobson, a daughter of playwright Nicholas Jacobson, said the film came about “really because of my father and people like [Vermont Poet Laureate] Grace Paley, and Brattleboro writer Marty Jezer, and [from] knowing people who had moved to Vermont intentionally.”
Jacobson describes her father as a playwright who was fascinated with — and loved the agricultural life of — Vermont. During his college years at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts, he worked on a farm in Norwich, and ended up buying it the 1930s.
Moving there permanently in 1948, he was busy raising his family and attending to farm chores. He also wrote plays.
Jacobson says her memories are steeped in the richness and earthiness of an artful life and lifestyle on that farm atop Bragg Hill. She says the whole “back to the land” movement fascinates her, because of “that intent in living here, and because this is where I was born.”
’They had no choice…’
“There is such an interesting mixture of people in this state,” Jacobson says. “Vermont happens to be a place where many people have moved here intentionally and lived among the old timers who have lived here for generations and raised families — and who had no choice about staying or leaving.”
Following that thought, Jacobson muses: “What an interesting tapestry. You think about where the state has gone and the impact that the state has had” on national issues such as same-sex marriage and Act 250, for instance.
“Desiring to live a certain way has made people take an active role in making sure things happened the way they wanted them to happen,” she says.
Jacobson says that she finds today’s migrations Vermont-ward not all that different than the settlers who came here in the 1720s, who were looking for good farmland, for work in the factories and quarries, and for a quiet, rural way of life.
In her new project, she asked herself and fellow filmmakers to explore how the past has helped shape today’s Vermonter.
She says she began by interviewing “people like Grace Paley, who were getting old and passing away,” but then realized that the story was much bigger: Why have just one voice in a film about Vermont?
So Jacobson approached dozens of acclaimed Vermont filmmakers, and 50 of them came on board to add their voice to hers on Vermont’s rich history and contemporary culture.
The result: Jacobson says the project blossomed into a six-part film, with Vermont’s past and present woven in a non-linear fashion, all in the service of exploring the factors that make Vermont special.
Encompassing first contact and settlement; the state’s history as a republic; its becoming the nation’s 14th state; its penchant for breeding innovators; positing the origins of Vermont’s proud anti-establishment tradition; its anti-hierarchic tendencies — that’s a story.
Jacobson realized that to tell it, all those themes had to be included.
One segment explores how, in 1850, the Vermont legislature approved the “Habeas Corpus Law,” requiring Vermont judicial and law enforcement officials to assist captured fugitive slaves.
The film also explores Vermont’s disturbing past, involving eugenics and sterilization (a law that was not repealed until 1977).
The series also explores how refugees from across the globe trek to Vermont to build anew.
The Civil War, natural resources, labor organization, and environmental leadership round out “Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie.”
As Jacobson explains, Freedom and Unity is the Vermont state motto, and so it’s been the working motto of her collaboration of filmmakers. “They had the freedom to use their own voice any way they wanted, with freedom and unity weaving the pieces together,” Jacobson says.
Contemplating the advent of American Craft Week and Open Studio Weekend, I see at the heart of both celebrations the significance of the handmade object.
American Craft Week is a national celebration of craft work encompassing events in the majority of states from Oct. 4-13.
In Vermont, this includes Open Studio Weekend, set for Oct. 5-6. One hundred twenty-seven sites are participating in this, the event’s fourth year, and you’re invited.
What is the significance of the handmade object? As I am an art teacher, an artist, and an arts advocate, my answers to this question form so many layers that I sometimes feel I am am too close to the subject to respond objectively. So I asked my 22-year-old daughter, a college student, how she thought the purchase of a handmade mug differed from its commercial counterpart.
This is a person who wears handmade-in-Vermont earrings, and no other kind. She said that if one cared only for, say, the functionality of a mug, there are plenty of cheap, mass-produced mugs to choose from.
But she sees the decision to purchase a mug made locally, by hand, as a political and economic choice: She directs her resources to support the artist and the local community, which might include the gallery where the work is sold.
As a nearly lifelong visitor to Open Studio Weekend, I notice that she will return again and again to the studios where she has enjoyed lively conversations with artists. She seeks their work out and gives them as gifts, a gift made more special in the giving — and receiving — because of this personal, thoughtful connection.
To say a piece of art is handmade is to place it on a continuum along which an individual is involved in production. At one end you’ll find one-person studios where, say, a potter produces an entire line of work.
At the other end, an arts business, engaging many workers, will have the head of the studio design the piece, and others execute it.
No doubt the actual objects are produced by hand. But whose?
Original design is another descriptor associated with handmade work, and describes a continuum between work that reproduces a design: the artist’s or someone else’s.
Quilt and furniture makers may begin with a traditional design and reproduce it entirely — or else use it as a starting point. Or they may develop original designs entirely of their own making.
Handmade objects connect us to the process of making, including the tools and technologies passed from teacher to student, the object’s design and aesthetics, and the human history surrounding the work.
The studio provides the context within which to view all these elements. Studios themselves are found in a greater context of location and that is part of the pleasure of Open Studio Weekend.
In my years of visiting during Open Studio Weekend, I have discovered studios at the top of mountains, beside beautiful ponds, in the heart of small villages. In every case, the tools and machines of the craft were on view together with the ideas of the artist: the sketches, pictures, and books that provide research and inspiration.
The journey to the studio becomes part of the unforgettable experience of Open Studio Weekend.
Moreover, handmade objects and the stories they tell connect us to the past — they’re the artifacts that museums use to illuminate the human story.
In Vermont, with its agricultural history, the crafts of stone work, blacksmithing, glassblowing, furniture making, weaving, and sewing, are all part of this tradition. This great diversity of artist studios is yet another reason to put this event on your calendar.