Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
COM prof cops top award for film on unique haven for the disabled
Directing documentaries isn't exactly filmmaker Charles Merzbacher's
cup of tea. He is used to making dramatic and comedic films. For example,
his first feature, Jane Street, is a chaotic comedy about a man and two
attractive women squatting in a vacant Manhattan apartment.
So why would the COM associate professor of film switch gears and make
a documentary on a serious subject -- a residential and educational community
for adults with developmental disabilities? First of all, he knows that
the Triform Camphill Community is a unique place. He has served as a volunteer
there for several years. But his involvement in Triform actually goes
back to when his sister, Mary, who has disabilities associated with a
series of brain tumors, joined the Hudson, N.Y., community almost 20 years
"I've been to some wonderful institutions that are aimed at helping
people with developmental handicaps, but Triform is not like any place
I've ever seen," says Merzbacher. "It's a farm, a commune, and
a college of sorts." Located in the Catskill Mountains, the 125-acre
vocational community of 63 people helps residents discover their strengths
and develop skills, self-confidence, and responsibility. Triform is one
of 90 Camphill centers in 16 countries.
"When I first went out to Triform, I thought, 'What a great place
in which to make a film.' But I had never done a straight documentary
before," Merzbacher says. "So I enlisted the help of some folks
in my department, and we put it together."
Compressing a year in the life of Triform into six-and-a-half minutes
is no easy task, but Merzbacher and company did themselves proud. Earlier
this year, Lighting the Flame received a Gold World Medal at the New York
Festival's International Film and Video competition. The contest, which
honors educational and promotional media, attracted 1,212 entries from
38 countries. Lighting the Flame was made by a team of Boston-based filmmakers,
including cinematographer Bob Demers, head of COM's Film Production Services,
editor Patty Giles (COM'00), assistant cameraman Michael Glumicich (COM'00),
sound recordist Julie Yuen (COM'00), and Tim Kennedy, senior technician
for COM's Film Production Services.
"For the first time I was part of a team with a camera following
people in their daily business," Merzbacher says. "It's a much
looser way of doing film than I'm accustomed to. I'm used to rehearsing.
But it was a useful process for me, because I would like to look at ways
I can use the spontaneity that comes from documentary production and bring
that to dramatic work."
He set out to make what he describes as "an impressionist group portrait."
There is no narration. Just the residents, half of whom are not disabled,
set against a backdrop of pastures, rolling hills, a small river, woodlands,
and gardens. He filmed people working in a dairy barn, a farm maintenance
shop, a bakery, a crafts workshop, and classrooms in a community center.
Merzbacher says that because of people's generosity, he made the film
for a tiny fraction of what such a project would normally cost. "Whether
it was Kodak, or a lab, or an equipment place, when I told them what Triform
was all about, I got the sense that they knew someone who could use a
community like this one," he says. "When it comes to people
with developmental disabilities, there is a gaping hole in our caregiving
system. There are institutions for people who are profoundly disabled,
but there is almost nothing for people who could get their GED, but can't
live independently. It really struck a chord with people, and they gave
me incredible discounts and free supplies."
Almost 10,000 people of all ages and abilities work and live in Camphill
communities worldwide. From the outset -- the first was established in
Scotland in 1939 -- their aim was to live and work directly according
to the insights of Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian scientist
and educator who stressed the importance of "awareness of one's humanity."
Merzbacher says that his primary motivation was to make a film that "accurately
captured this special place," but that it was gratifying to "get
the gold" at the film festival. "It's nice to have our work
recognized in this manner," he says, "and if the label 'gold
medal winner' gets more people to watch the film, then this will be good
for Triform as well."