'Northern Borders' film returns to Bennington Museum

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BENNINGTON -- The cast of Jay Craven's film "Northern Borders" brings in veteran actors -- but Craven staffed his crew with a team of 34 students from 15 liberal arts colleges.

Set in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and based on Howard Mosher's 1994 novel, "Northern Borders" brings together Academy Award-nominated actors Bruce Dern and Geneviève Bujold, who play the grandparents of the film's young protagonist, Austen Kittredge, played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick.

The film will return to the Bennington Museum for an encore screening at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12.

Craven chose his crew as part of a project, "Movies from Marlboro," which offers undergraduates the opportunity to spend a semester gaining hands-on film production experience.

"It's based on the John Dewey concept of intensive learning that enlarges meaning through the shared experience of joint action," Craven said. "It's the idea of taking on something and fully getting inside of it, and seeing how that can be a transformative educational process."

Craven and his students began their semester with a week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where they started bonding and learning to cooperate while experiencing the industry and taking turns camping out overnight for screening tickets.

On their return, Craven said, they started six weeks of literature and cinema study, examining the work of New England authors like Mosher and the traditions of various northern cinema communities, like the films of Siberia, Sweden and Montana.

They also had the opportunity to meet with visiting artists, including "Northern Borders" author Mosher.

The students started gaining the skills and experience they would need to shoot the film with workshops in camera, lighting, sound, production design, screenwriting, directing and more. They also spent three hours each week refining the script, and they prepared for the actual shoot by visiting locations and costume warehouses in New York and Connecticut.

"Our hope was to push students as far into the structure of the film production as possible," Craven said.

Students worked in important roles on the crew, like location manager, script supervisor, costume designer, assistant directors and camera operators. Students also directed 18 scenes from the film on their own, Craven said.

"The idea is they're not just coming to be interns," he said, "they're coming to collaborate fully. If you look at the grip and electric departments, normally we would have five professional grips and five professional electrics. Here, where we usually had 10 professionals, we had three professionals. The rest were students, and they were expected to step up and function as peers with the professionals."

The finished product lives up to his intention to make a real film suitable for international release, not just a student project, he said.

"People start a little wobbly, but by the fourth or fifth day they find a rhythm and a working collaboration that really starts to buzz," he said. "I found it to be my most satisfying film production experience, and also my most satisfying educational experience at the same time."

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Since the film's release in the spring of 2013, Craven has held screenings in more than 100 towns around Vermont and New England. Having set out on release tours like this before, Craven said they tie into the populist feel of his films.

"On some level, these are considered art films, but when you're taking them to every nook and cranny, and 50 percent of your audience hasn't been to the movies in 10 years or more, they're not totally art films," he said.

In touring his films, Craven said, his partnerships with local arts organizations are critical, including his partnership with the Bennington Museum for this screening and the initial sold-out showing in July.

Deana Mallory, the museum's director of public programs, said she's enthusiastic about the film's return.

"For us, Jay and his films are really a perfect match," she said. "We are focused on Vermont art and history and celebrating Vermont creativity in its various forms, and ‘Northern Borders' is a great Vermont film, made by a great Vermont filmmaker."

Mosher's sense of humor makes the stories accessible to audiences, Craven said, but his characters are complex and can be difficult to unlock.

"When the films go into release they're called westerns," he added, "which is a little bizarre also, but that's the closest the industry could come to figuring out what they are."

His films deal with ideas westerns typically dealt with, he said.

"They deal with family," he said, "and themes of an end of an era and a vanishing way of life."

If you go ...

What: 'Northern Borders' screening, introduction and post-film discussion with filmmaker Jay Craven

Where: Bennington Museum,
75 Main St., Bennington

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Admission: $12 for adults,
$10 for seniors and $5 for students

Information: (802) 447-1571,
benningtonmuseum.org


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