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‘The Vermont Movie’: Searching for Exceptionalism, Warts and All

A photo of Vermont workers, from 'The Vermont Movie.'

A photo of Vermont workers, from 'The Vermont Movie.'

What makes Vermont, Vermont? Can we refer to Vermont exceptionalism in the same way we talk about American exceptionalism? Some Vermonters like to think so, and much of the state’s mythology is based on the idea that Vermont is unique not only within New England, but the country as a whole. It was an independent republic for 14 years, it was the first state to both abolish slavery and call for public education for all in its 1791 constitution, and it was the first state to legalize civil unions in 2000 — all notable milestones.

But what about the history that doesn’t always burnish the state’s image as a refuge of self-reliance and civil liberties, such as the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, the onetime presence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the debilitating poverty that existed from the 1900s through the Depression?

Vermont’s ideals and contradictions are explored in a six-part documentary, Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie , which has its Upper Valley premiere tonight at Tupelo Music Hall with an opening reception at 6:30 and a screening of the first part at 7:30. Part one looks at the history of the region before the arrival of European explorers and settlers, and goes up through the Civil War.

The remaining five parts will screen at Tupelo on Nov. 7, 17 and 23. The documentary is also touring the state, with screenings in Stowe, St. Albans, Newport, Brattleboro and St. Johnsbury.

Filmmaker Nora Jacobson, whose previous work includes the documentary Delivered Vacant , the features My Mother’s Early Lovers and Nothing Like Dreaming , is the guiding hand behind the project, which is, to say the least, ambitious. “Oh, God, is it ambitious!” she said, practically throwing up her arms in disbelief, in an interview at her home in Norwich. “Crazy, really.”

It was such a daunting prospect that Rick Moulton, a filmmaker from Huntington, Vt., who contributed a segment to the documentary, recalled telling Jacobson at the outset: “Oh, that’ll never work, that’s crazy!”

But Jacobson persevered, brought together the filmmakers, and made sure that the entire film, from the directors to the musicians to the color correction and DVD duplication, was made in state. To understand the scope of her task, imagine editing hundreds of hours of footage submitted by 36 filmmakers down to six films of about 80 minutes each. It wasn’t intended to be a six-part documentary, though. “I didn’t want it to be six parts, no one wanted it to be six parts!” Jacobson said. In fact, Jacobson never had a burning desire to make a film about the state at all, although she was born in Vermont and has lived much of her life here, with a period spent in the New York metropolitan area.

She was busy on other projects, including a film about international adoption from Korea and a profile of the poet Ruth Stone. But the fact that many Vermonters she loved and respected had already died, such as her father Nicholas Jacobson, who came as a homesteader in 1936, and David Dellinger, the pacifist who was one of the Chicago Seven and lived in Montpelier, spurred her to record interviews with others, such as longtime Thetford residents Grace Paley and her husband Robert Nichols.

Out of that came the idea to make a film about the contrast between people who are born-and-raised Vermonters, and those who came to the state as part of the Back to the Land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the present influx of younger farmers inspired by an agrarian ideal.

As Jacobson started to look at the list of subjects that needed to be covered and the accumulating footage, however, “we realized there was no way we could even make it a two-hour film. As I worked with (the) material just sort of grew and grew and grew.”

Filmmakers were given more than 20 pages of possible topics and themes, and encouraged to pick a subject with which they had some kind of personal connection or in which they had an abiding interest. So Louise Michaels, a Shelburne filmmaker whose grandmother worked in a silk mill in New Jersey, focused on the Italian immigrant granite quarry workers in Barre, and their ties to Socialism and Anarchism, and the labor movements at the turn of the 20th century. “It’s a brilliant story, a painful story, but also really fascinating from the sense of community,” Michaels said.

Pointing out that much of the work of granite carving has moved to China, depriving Vermonters of jobs, Michaels said, “that was part of the driving part for me. Anything that has research and is about the past has real value when it applies to what’s going on today.”

And Moulton, who grew up in Hanover and has made a film about Vermont Sen. George Aiken, looked at the tradition of populist, agrarian Republicanism in the state, a far cry from the national profile of many Republicans today.

“I try to capture the flavor of the Vermont I remember,” he said. Moulton stood up for the idea of exceptionalism. “It’s exceptional for a lot of reasons. ... We marked time while the rest of the country moved on, and there was this isolationism that made us the nation’s attic. I think that really fundamentally changed with the coming of the interstate,” he said.

The filmmakers unearthed a wealth of old films, photographs and stories and drew on analyses and reminiscences from a wide range of historians, politicians and Vermont citizens to deepen understanding of how and why the state developed as it did.

“We worked really hard to include different points of view,” Jacobson said, and “to defuse that `aren’t we great, aren’t we special?’ ” syndrome that the state sometimes exhibits.

The persistent imagery of a tranquil countryside overlooks the state’s industrial past — labor struggles in the granite and marble industries, and copper mining, as well as arms manufacturing. And the stereotypical view of large swaths of open agricultural land ignores the fact that in the period before and after the Civil War, farming suffered a near collapse when families picked up and left for the West. The marketing of Vermont as a rural Eden began in the early 1900s: The state opened a bureau in, of all places, Times Square to sell farms to city slickers dreaming of escaping the urban rat race. One ad shown in the film boasts about the state’s “fertile farms and summer homes.”

Although some have likened the documentary to a patchwork quilt, Jacobson said the more accurate analogy was to a mosaic, in which all of the pieces tell one story. “I was trying to make it seamless but keep the individuality of each filmmaker’s voice and style.”

Jacobson is agnostic, to a degree, on the state’s exceptionalism. Every state thinks it’s unique, she said, and they are unique unto themselves. What sets the Green Mountain State apart, she said, is that many people who moved to Vermont were drawn to an ethos of working the land, and living near nature. “I don’t think people move to Massachusetts in the same way. I think that’s a big difference.”

And while incidents of bigotry are always there, she said, the state has stayed remarkably true to its ideals, upholding legal principles of equality when pressed, and emphasizing the importance of an educated populace.

“How did the events of the past inform the present and how will they inform the future? Does Vermont have a DNA or is it chance that things happened the way they did?” Jacobson said. Even at a total 480 minutes, or roughly eight hours, the documentary “is not intended to give those answers.”

Instead, the film “sets out on a journey” that invites the audience to ponder why Vermont continues to strive to balance two precepts that in other states might seem irreconcilable: freedom and unity.

For information about the film, go to For tickets and information, go to or call 802-698-8341.

Nicola Smith can be reached at