Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie comes to Newport

vermont movie barn

A barn raising was a community event in Vermont and sometimes still is.

Editor’s note:  The Vermont Movie parts five and six will be shown at the Gateway Center in Newport on Wednesday, December 4.  A showing of part five scheduled for November 27 will not be happening due to the bad weather expected.  On December 4 part five will be shown at 5:30 and part six will be shown at 7:30.

History has long been presented as a story told in chronological order — with each century, decade, and year given its due.  Thankfully, the six-part documentary, Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie, which is currently making the rounds in the Northeast Kingdom, doesn’t do that. It doesn’t serve up our past by cutting it into segments like pieces of firewood but rather looks at the past as themes that run like streams of time from the state’s origin to the present day.

Early in part one, A Very New Idea, Jesse Larocque, a twenty-first century Abenaki who combines weaving baskets with fixing computers, says that his people regarded nature as “a common pot” that feeds all people.  And in this documentary a collaborative of filmmakers shows how a land that has come to be called Vermont has shaped generation after generation to make a common identity.

Want a quick, and wonderfully revealing history of how Vermont became Vermont?  Here’s the poet Grace Paley, 1922-2007, wrapping it up in a nutshell.  Once upon a time Vermont, she says, was caught between two dukes — the Duke of New Hampshire and Duke of New York, who were fighting to possess that spit of land that separated them.  But the French and Indians intervened and that land became an independent republic rather than a dukedom.

It’s a funny story that contains just enough of a whiff of truth to make us believe that Vermonters are cut from a different cloth than our closest neighbors.  A cloth that is more like a quilt and one that keeps spreading as the decades go by.

The documentary tells its story through an impressive array of voices that includes farmers, big and small, loggers, school teachers, selectmen, and luminaries such as Scott and Helen Nearing, Chief Homer St.Francis, former editor of Vermont Life Tom Slaton, former governor Madeleine Kunin, Peter and Elka Schumann of the Bread and Puppet Theater, historian Paul Searls, political scientist Frank Byran, and countless others who could easily be your next door neighbor.

vermont movie farming

Much of Vermont’s history is the history of farming.

Luckily for me, each part can stand on its own.  I did not have time to review each episode, but the ones I watched were much like reading an anthology of essays.  Nor do you have to view them in order.  The themes overlap like patches, and — most appreciated — the documentary doesn’t preach to people or assume it knows something more than the natives who have lived in the state for four or five generations.  Perhaps thats why we don’t blink when Frank Bryan tells us that old time Vermonters were lazy because they knew how hard real work was, and did whatever they could to avoid it.

Much of Vermont’s history is the history of farming.  And what people learn from working the land is the very stuff that goes into their view of human nature.  “Everybody has to leave their mark on the farm and that’s okay,” says an aging dairy farmer whose son is running the farm and taking it in another direction.

“I don’t go to many farmers markets because I just don’t have the time,” says a weathered organic farmer, who looks like he has been handling a pitchfork ever since he could walk.

“You have to have someone to make you look better,” says another, as he explains the reason behind prejudice toward immigrant farm workers, be they Irish, French Canadians, or Mexicans.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders says that Ethan Allen was “a wild and crazy guy.”  While state Senator Dick McCormick tells us “Jefferson saw Vermont as the way to go.”

Presently, Vermont is attracting people who want to farm small and create markets where locally grown and raised food is the main attraction.  Often they are following in the footsteps of others, but some, like the brew makers, are forging new ground.  Essentially, they are filling a niche.  But if successful, notes one observer, the niche will become the role model.

There are historical truths in the film, as well, and none may be as familiar as the one that there is nothing new under the sun.  Vermont has always attracted people from elsewhere.  Or, as one of the film’s talking heads says, Vermont was never a backwater state.  It stood out from the day it banned slavery in its constitution and became part of a vast underground railway that had little to do with trains and everything to do with hiding and protecting runaway slaves.  But lest we hold our heads too high, the film reminds us it was the Allen brothers, Ira and Ethan, who convinced the Congress that no Native Americans had ever lived in Vermont, so there were no land treaties to resolve before admitting the Republic as the fourteenth state.

Nor was Vermont such a great place for black people to live in once the Civil War ended.  Blacks were not hired by industries like the railroad and were often ignored by mainstream Vermont.  “Things change when you’re not a mascot,” or someone there to be saved, noted one observer.

vermont movie abenaki

Early in part one of Freedom and Unity, the Vermont Movie, a twenty-first century Abenaki says his people regarded nature as “a common pot” that feeds all people. Photos courtesy of TheVermontMovie.com.

One of the most sordid and racial episodes to occur in Vermont’s history came in the twentieth century with what has become the Eugenics Movement.  It involved the practice of state sanctioned sterilization of Indians, people of mixed blood, the poor and feeble-minded, along with other undesirables who did not fit the image that the movers and shakers were trying to market of Vermont following the end of the first World War.

It was a time when Vermont was losing its population, and hillside farms were being abandoned.  And to bring Vermont more in line with the new century, developers and a class that historian Paul Searls calls the downhill Vermonters wanted to transform the state into a place to recreate.  To that end, and with the aid of federal money, they tried to push through a Green Mountain Parkway and create a scenic highway.  But it came to naught as Vermonters in one town meeting after another voted against it, with some expressing fear that it might turn the state into a new Catskills, which was also known as the Jewish Alps.

But, as this six-part documentary makes clear, Vermont has become something more, something larger than the sum of its parts.  In the film the state’s poet laureate, Sydney Lea, attributes civility as Vermont’s most enduring characteristic, stemming from colonial days “when neighbor treated neighbor with decency because he or she knew that one day that neighbor might be a crucial friend in need.”

The entire six-part documentary runs about nine hours.  According to a webpage for the documentary, 36 filmmakers contributed to the project under the leadership of Nora Jacobson.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com.

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