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Norwich Director’s New Film Took Years to Make

  • Suzanne Dudley Schon, left, and director Nora Jacobson between takes during filming of "The Hanji Box." Jacobson's new film screens at the White River Indie Festival next Friday.

  • Suzanne Dudley-Schon, left, and Natalie Kim appear in a scene from "The Hanji Box."

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/26/2017 12:05:10 AM
Modified: 5/26/2017 6:31:47 PM

Even by the labor-of-love standards of independent filmmaking, it took Norwich’s Nora Jacobson a while to bring The Hanji Box into the world.

And 12 years after she optioned a friend’s nonfiction essay about cross-cultural adoption, Jacobson confesses that the hour-long adaptation she’ll unveil next Friday at the White River Indie Festival (WRIF) still doesn’t quite resemble the incarnations audiences saw at screenings last year.

“In some ways, you could say that it’s still in post-production,” Jacobson said with a laugh this week, during a telephone interview while she made her way back to the Upper Valley from another project in Maine. “I do tend to tweak and re-revise. The version for WRIF is different from what we brought to Australia, the Maine Independent Film Festival and Hong Kong.

“But I think, now, it’s done.”

Based on Claremont author Margaret (Meg) Daiss Hurley’s essay, The Poster in InsadongThe Hanji Box began its gestation as a feature-length script about a divorced woman and her adoptive daughter struggling to come to terms with the daughter’s renewed interest in her Korean heritage. The trigger to the plot is a dispute over who gave a decorative box, made of mulberry paper from Korea, to the daughter. That screenplay was a finalist for the Emerging Narrative Award at the Independent Feature Film Market, a weeklong annual festival in New York.

By 2007, with a foundation grant, Jacobson and producer Jane Applegate, then a Sharon resident, were researching locations in South Korea with a foundation grant. After another grant came from the Seoul Film Commission, and after Jacobson and Applegate traveled again to Korea to cast actors in 2007, the project looked ready for takeoff.

“Then in 2008 and 2009, after the stock-market crash, we lost the financing we had, and Jane and I took a hiatus for four years while I focused on Freedom and Unity: The Vermont Movie,” Jacobson said, referring to the series of six films about her home state.

“By the time we were done with that, I didn’t feel like I could go the same route that we had tried before with The Hanji Box, to get stars and celebrities to be in it, and to raise $2 million to go to Korea to shoot it.”

Instead, Jacobson rewrote the script, first as a short film of 40 minutes that the crew, including Hanover resident Suzanne Dudley-Schon as the adoptive mother, shot during the spring of 2015 in Vermont and in New York’s Koreatown neighborhood.

“There was a lot of improv on the part of the cast, and it evolved to the length I thought it should be: about an hour,” Jacobson recalled. “Especially when we got to Koreatown, with the Korean-American and Chinese-American cast members, I would give the teams an idea and let them go with their own experiences. They brought so much to it, from their real-life stories, that I was able to use.”

The resulting package exceeded the hopes of Meg Hurley, a childhood friend of Jacobson.

“It gives more and more each time it is watched,” Hurley wrote during an exchange of emails on Wednesday. “No pretense. No attempt to soften the complexities and unsettling truths of adoption, although the film does not hit the viewer over the head. … The film develops slowly — much more like a foreign film, much more sophisticated than most American films in that sense. … The film captures the anger, confusion, sadness, misunderstandings and naivete involved in international adoption, without a sense of hopelessness, and with the optimism of growth.”

In addition to favorable response on the festival circuit, The Hanji Box attracted interest from people involved with international adoption, who have asked to screen it at conferences. Indeed, between her other projects, Jacobson is now working on a study guide for use with such screenings for parents and social workers.

“There aren’t many films that deal with the adoptive parent’s journey,” Jacobson said. “There’s a little of it in Lion,” the recent Academy Award nominee about an Indian boy separated from his family and adopted by an Australian couple, “but for the most part, the adoptive parents get neglected. The Hanji Box really is the mother’s journey.”

Jacobson added that she “held off showing it in the Upper Valley because I wanted to show it at WRIF.

“The festival still has a lot of its early values,” said Jacobson, a founding member of WRIF. We show films that all have some kind of social relevance: human rights, the environment, art and culture.”

And sometimes they show movies that followed a winding road.

“Films always take a while,” Jacobson said. “At least my films always have. They have to find their own way.”

The Hanji Boxwill be screened next Friday night at 7 in the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. General admission to the movie itself costs $5 to $10; tickets go on sale on Tuesday night at 6. Viewers attending the gala and reception that precede the screening pay $40, $20 for students, which includes admission to the movie. For more information, visit

Rest of the Fest

The 13th annual White River Indie Festival opens on Thursday afternoon at 3:30, with a screening in the Byrne Theater of the 1954 film Salt of the Earth, based on a strike by Latino workers who were receiving lower pay than Anglo colleagues at a zinc mine in New Mexico. Rick Winston, co-founder of Montpelier’s Savoy Theater, will answer questions after the screening. (See related story, page C1.)

Day 1 of the festival concludes with a 6:30 showing of Anthony Mann’s 1949 drama Border Incident, about the exploitation of migrant workers from Mexico.

On Friday night at 9:15, following The Hanji Box, is a screening of American Honey, a 2016 drama about a traveling crew of magazine sellers starring Shia LaBoeuf.

Saturday morning, June 3, is devoted to WRIF’s regional showcase of short films, in the Byrne Theater. The first block of movies, which starts at 9, includes In the Bight, Norwich native Ben Finer’s 28-minute film following 9-year-old twins through a romp in the woods and their imaginations. And during block 3, which starts at 10:45, the second film is Laps, a six-minute Sundance Film Festival pick starring another Norwich native and Hanover High graduate, Thea Brooks, as the survivor of a sexual assault on a New York subway.

Also on Saturday, the Barrette Center will be the venue for a pair of documentaries shot in the Middle East: Seeing Through the Wall, about the Israeli-Palestinian divide, at 10 a.m., and Starless Dreams, about Iranian teenage girls in a juvenile detention center.

Saturday’s screenings conclude at the Main Street Museum at 9:30 p.m., starting with Nicolette Krebitz’s 90-minute feature Wild, about a young German woman who bonds with a wolf she encounters in a small park, and a mystery short film by White River Junction animator Bona Bones.

Festival highlights on June 4, the final day, include a noon screening of films from The Freedom & Unity Youth Film Contest. They include A Tale of Two Travelers, by Norwich’s Lyla Stettenheim and Hanover’s Daphne Friedman; Thetford resident Leah Kaliski’s Cervena, and We Are Vermont, by South Royalton’s Emily Potts and Hartland resident Dillon Walsh.

An all-access pass to attend the entire White River Indie Film Festival costs $75. To order passes or movies for individual tickets, and to learn more about the festival, visit

David Corriveau can be reached at and at 603-727-3304.


Tickets to the White River Indie Festival's gala next Friday night cost $40 ($20 for students), and include admission to that evening's screening of Nora Jacobson's movie >italic<The Hanji Box>res<. Admission to the movie alone is $5 to $10; tickets go on sale on Tuesday. The prices of tickets to the gala, at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, were listed incorrectly in a previous version of this story. Also, the festival will show a movie co-created by Hartland resident Dillon Walsh. The previous version listed an incorrect hometown for Walsh.

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