While the digital revolution, well, evolved, Norwich resident Nora Jacobson still preferred to show her movies to – and to attend other filmmakers’ works with – a bunch of other people in a theater.

Shoulder to shoulder.

Knee to knee.

Face to face.

“People don’t watch as carefully, I think, if they’re watching on a device, by themselves, especially at home,” Jacobson says. “They’re distracted by the phone or texts. You don’t get that same sense of people zeroing in on your film, especially if you make films that are complex, like I do.”

Samantha Davidson Green, WRIF board

Jacobson’s complicated fictional tales range from 1998’s My Mother’s Early Lovers and 2004’s Nothing Like Dreaming to 2016’s The Hanji Box (look up these titles on www.imdb.com), the latter of which she screened at the White River Indie Film Festival in 2017.

Jacobson also planned to show an early version of her work-in-progress documentary about poet Ruth Stone to a live audience during the 2020 festival in White River last spring, the better to elicit feedback.

Then the coronavirus pandemic forced White River Indie Film to cancel its 16th annual festival, most of which would have screened at the Briggs Opera House.

It didn’t end there, however. The WRIF board brainstormed ways to stay on the radar of the Upper Valley’s devotees of film, resolving to use virtual technology to share and encourage discussion about as many movies as possible.

“We were all ready to do programs for the May festival when the quarantines started, but we didn’t want to leave it there,” Plainfield filmmaker, Upper Valley native and WRIF board president Samantha Davidson Green recalls. “The board made a commitment to do everything in our power to connect people to film.”

That effort began with WRIF joining the Sierra Club of the Upper Valley to live-stream a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in April.

And in May, some 50 people signed up for the discussion of Jacobson’s Stone documentary – far more than she expects would have come to the theater in person.

“It was incredibly helpful for me,” Jacobson said of the discussion of her work in progress, now in the editing stages. “I received a lot of good feedback from people. I could ask questions of the audience and they could answer.”

WRIF also helped Jacobson, a co-founder and former board president of the group, continue the part of her Freedom & Unity project closest to her heart: Encouraging young filmmakers around Vermont to pursue passion projects of their own, with an emphasis on social justice.

Ezra McGinley-Smith with his Freedom &
Unity Young Filmmaker award

While fewer Vermonters submitted films than in years past,  among the 56 who did was Norwich’s  young Ezra McGinley-Smith, whose documentary short about the Willing Hands program fighting food insecurity won the middle-school division’s social justice award.

“It was hard getting as many to submit this year because so many young people, especially, had been thrown into isolation,” Jacobson said. “The silver lining was that during the awards ceremony, which we did on Zoom, many more kids were able to participate in the discussion after the screenings. In the past, we would have to get them to come to the theater. This way, we had a much higher attendance from the young people. The kids tend to be rather shy when they’re standing on the stage. But in the safety of their homes, they were more open.”

Among the films those audiences got to discuss was Norwich teenager

Ezra McGinley-Smith’s documentary short called Willing Hands – a 7½-minute documentary about how the Norwich-based nonprofit, which collects surplus and donated food that otherwise would go to waste, focused on getting that food to Upper Valley residents who lost jobs and income during the COVID crisis. The film in 2020 won the middle-school division’s social-justice award from Jacobson’s Freedom & Unity program, which grew out of the series of movies about Vermont.

“When it won,” he told the Norwich Times last fall, “I was like, ‘Wow: there’s potential for this!’”

McGinley-Smith, a polymath of a creative, said at the time that he didn’t think too much about filmmaking until he attended the WRIF festival a few years ago.

Nora Jacobson sharing her skills

“I can’t remember exactly when, but I was still at Marion Cross School,” said McGinley-Smith, now an eighth-grader at Richmond Middle School in Hanover. “I got really inspired by what I saw.”

Not long after arriving at Dartmouth College to teach film in 2010, Jodie Mack also found inspiration in WRIF’s promotion of local moviemaking, and in Jacobson’s commitment to that goal.

“In 2016, my ‘Curating and Microcinema’ course at Dartmouth created a program for WRIF – ‘Dames and Gutters’ – short animated films showcasing the representation of female comic characters (that featured) contemporary and historical works… (and) celebrated the shared trajectories of comics and animation alongside various female tropes promoted throughout the years” at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River. 

And in 2019, Mack screened her first feature film at WRIF at Northern Stage in White River Junction.

“It was one of the first times I’d ever shared my work locally outside of Dartmouth,” she says. “The experience of sharing my films with my neighbors was a tremendous inspiration.”

Inspiration enough to join Davidson, CATV’s Chico Eastridge, Tunbridge musician and multimedia artist Quinn Thomashow and other Upper Valley creative in putting together a Light River Junction festival of experimental film screenings at outdoor venues around downtown White River in December.

“I was so thrilled at the turnout and for the love and care behind the event, both from the organizers and the attendees,” Mack says. “With WRIF, we have a gem – an opportunity for people to come together in the name of cinema, to seek pleasure and challenge from the screen as a community.”

The Light River Junction festival culminated a 2020 that could have been an artistic desert.

Instead, after its spring and summer programs, WRIF hosted a fall series of virtual discussions leading up to the November election, with an emphasis on race and voter suppression, also exceeded the organizers’ expectations. With panelists ranging from Vermont congressman Peter Welch to Kiah Morris, the Black state representative from Bennington County who left the Vermont legislature after months of harassment, “we ended up with fabulous participation because we didn’t have any geographical bounds,” Davidson Green says. “We really felt it was an urgent time, to offer opportunities to connect.”

The warm, relatively dry summer of 2020 gave a variety of area arts groups a brief opportunity to reconnect us with live performance – some enlightening, some entertaining, many serving both purposes.

At Lyman Point Park in White River, the Hartford recreation department staged several concerts by Americana musicians.

WRIF Light River Junction projection

In Woodstock, Pentangle Arts executive director Alita Paine Wilson recruited Vermont-based performers, including Hartland singer-songwriter Jay Nash and Pomfret native Tristan Henderson’s band Pete’s Posse, for a short-but-sweet series of Music by the River concerts behind the North Universalist Chapel.

Meanwhile, Barnard’s BarnArts Center for the Arts recruited area actors to perform a theatrical adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Vermont-based dystopian novel, It Can’t Happen Here, during a late-summer, well, barnstorming tour of town greens and parks around central Vermont. My wife Goodie and I saw the production, a timely as well as entertaining reminder of the approaching election, at Woodstock’s East End Park, along with at least 100 socially-distanced spectators in the hillside bleachers – a blessed break in the drought of live performance.

Before long, of course, came the shortening and the chilling of the days, and the yet another darkening of the performing-arts world as we knew it. Sure, it helps to fill some of the void, if one has broadband, to gain access to live-streaming of programs and movies from sources ranging from White River’s JAG Productions and Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center, to the Billings Farm and Museum’s Woodstock Vermont Film and the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph.

As for 2021? Hold the phone.

“We don’t anticipate an old-fashioned festival until 2022,” Davidson Green said. “We’re looking right now at doing a hybrid of outdoors and streaming this spring, along the lines of the Light River Junction concept.

“The goal, long-term, is to continue nurturing the full cycle, with the activist angle that has been a big part of our identity.

“There’s a lot of good will right now.”