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A cultural misunderstanding?

FACT-TV production about Vilas Bridge ‘curse’ leads to dialogue about native American myths and truths

To view “The Promise,” Episode One of “Strange Events at Vilas Bridge,” or to learn more about Falls Area Community Television, visit www.fact8.com.

BELLOWS FALLS—Combining local myth with a spooky storyline, the producers of Strange Events At Vilas Bridge have created a new television series they’re calling a “supernatural thriller.”

But in their efforts to tell a scary tale, are they misrepresenting local history and culture?

Falls Area Community Television in Bellows Falls covers local municipal meetings and provides television training, equipment, and studio access to the public. Their federally-mandated funding comes from cable companies serving the Rockingham area.

Late last year, FACT Executive Director Alex Stradling began working with the organization’s Board president, Mike Smith, on the script for Strange Events.

The first episode, “The Promise,” made its debut on FACT in December.

The new release offers this description: “Since the closing of Vilas Bridge, bad things have beset the Village of Bellows Falls. In addition, strange apparitions have been sighted by the bridge. Four teenagers from Bellows Falls seek to solve the mystery of the Vilas Bridge. Through their investigation they uncover the bridge’s past and a way to save the town of Bellows Falls from misfortune.”

“We wanted to do something for Halloween,” Stradling told The Commons.

He also wanted to give locals an opportunity to participate in the production of a television show.

“There are many theater people here who have expressed interest in film and television work,” said Stradling, who went to school for scripted television in Los Angeles.

‘Lots of roles’

For those who would rather stay behind the camera, “there are lots of roles, such as production assistant, that don’t require experience, Stradling said. “People can get experience that way. We could sit in here and teach filmmaking, but you have to go out and do it. It’s the journey.”

Most of the actors in the production are local teens, and they exhibit a natural ease in front of the camera. Some of them came from Friends For Change, a youth drop-in center with headquarters down the hall from FACT’s studios.

Andrew Malshuk, 15, who plays the character Drew, said, “With social media, kids are more comfortable being in front of a video camera. Everyone has one now.”

Stradling revealed the accelerated shooting schedule — 14 eight-hour days — was hard on some of the teens, but they stuck with it. “It was tough,” admitted Malshuk. “I never worked on anything that hard, but it was definitely worth it.” He said he plans to continue on with the show, “unless they write me out.”

The character of Officer Dan is performed by KMO, a radio host at WOOL-FM and volunteer with FACT. Stradling said he auditioned KMO by telling him, “You’re going to be Officer Dan!”

Stradling noted KMO is working on the script for the show’s second episode. “Things are going to happen with Officer Dan!” he said.

So, why the Vilas Bridge? Doesn’t it have enough problems?

The structure represents a point of contention between Vermonters who are angry at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, the responsible party, for closing the span rather than repairing it.

“People here are hurt by New Hampshire’s response” said Stradling.

“There are ghost stories about that area,” said Stradling. He mentioned an episode of The History Channel’s Search for the Lost Giants, which had the hosts visit Rockingham to examine reports of a huge skeleton that was unearthed in the mid-1800s. In the show, one of the hosts tries connecting the skeleton to the petroglyphs near the base of the Vilas Bridge.

“I was somewhat inspired by that,” Stradling said. “We wanted to focus on the bridge and create a supernatural thriller about this idea that the town is cursed, and as a result, these kids have to deal with hard things.”

A bridge and a curse

In the first episode, the teens deal with police harassment and violence, poverty, parents with substance issues, and absentee or neglectful parents. On top of that, the Vilas Bridge simultaneously attracts and frightens some of them — and they learn the bridge is related to a possible curse placed on the town.

Stradling said the teen characters’ fraught lives are drawn from what he sees in the community.

“All of these characters come from backgrounds that happen [in real-life]. I see this all the time around town. These are real issues,” he said.

A theme Stradling and Smith are working on for future episodes is, if the teenagers break the curse, will their problems go away?

“Does the curse matter?” Stradling said. “An overall arching theme in the story is, these characters will be stronger when they go through this and they learn to adapt. They find out it’s less about the curse and more about coming of age.”

One character in “The Promise,” Old Man Stearns, acts as a sort of unofficial town storyteller, and gives the teens some information on the curse and its relationship to the Vilas Bridge.

According to Stearns’ character, the bridge is cursed by a Native American evil spirit named Malsumas. “The petroglyphs by the bridge are all the souls that Malsumas has devoured,” he says, and tells the teens, “only one who is a descendent of [Malsumas], who is pure of heart, can break the curse.”

But, Stradling noted, “Does he have the story right?”

Rich Holschuh doesn’t think so.

Concerns about the storyline

Holschuh, whose heritage is Mi’kmaq, which is related to the Wabanaki, serves on the Vermont Commission for Native American Affairs.

“I have concerns with how this storyline plays out a number of tropes,” said Holschuh.

One of them, he said, “is this romantic, idealized image of a Native person, that they can break this curse,” Holschuh said. The curse itself “promotes a Western, black-and-white, good-and-bad view of Native American spirituality, and it’s not true,” he said.

Holschuh is also concerned about the show’s producers using the bridge as a focal point.

“It’s a false narrative, and a sensationalism of a sacred site,” he said. “That place in Bellows Falls is an amazing, wonderful, powerful thing, and we should respect it,” Holschuh said.

“I know it’s entertainment,” said Holschuh, “but it keeps us from connecting. It’s a stereotyping process. If you want to draw from this legacy, you should know what you’re doing,” he said.

But, Holschuh was clear that he isn’t looking to shut down the production.

“I don’t get in things to cause obstruction or say, ’You’re bad!’ I see a lot of opportunity here for a storyline that could be helpful. It could provide a better understanding of Native American people in Bellows Falls. It can give some context.”

Stradling agrees.

He characterized the Old Man Stearns character as “taking claim to Native American ancestry without really knowing what it is,” and part of the reason is, Stradling — who wrote the script — also doesn’t know what it is.

“I can understand [Holschuh’s] frustration,” said Stradling, who admitted, “I didn’t do so well with that.”

The Native American people “are underrepresented folks,” he said, and “if the show doesn’t represent them correctly, that’s wrong. I get that.”

“Rich offered to consult with us moving forward and I’ll absolutely take him up on that offer,” Stradling said. “I didn’t even realize there was an expert, someone with that wealth of information around, and that’s key. I’m glad he offered to help.”

“Alex and I spoke on the phone” about the show, said Holschuh. “He was very receptive. He wants to know more.”

“There’s nothing specific yet on a future collaboration,” Holschuh said, “but there’s possibly a way to work [Native American] aspects into future episodes to take it in a direction toward truth and information for viewers.”

What do you think? Leave us a comment

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Originally published in The Commons issue #447 (Wednesday, February 21, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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