COM's Great Debate: Should the U.S. Pay Reparations for Slavery? on Wednesday, November 7, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the Tsai Performance Center
Week of  2 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 12


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Gold World Medal
COM prof cops top award for film on unique haven for the disabled

By Brian Fitzgerald

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.

  Charles Merzbacher, COM associate professor of film: "Triform is not like any place I've ever seen." Photo by Tricia Dearing

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 ago.

"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."


2 November 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations