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The Arts

Retreat gets the red-carpet treatment

Honored by Rhode Island film festival for helping illuminate mental health, addiction issues

BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Retreat had its Oscar moment on Feb. 26, when two of its own were honored for their work in two film festivals whose subjects deal with mental illness and addiction.

Dr. Robert E. Simpson, executive director and CEO and Konstantin von Krusenstiern, senior development director were presented with Producer’s Circle Awards at Rhode Island’s annual Oscar Night America party in Providence.

The award is presented to community and business leaders who have helped to nurture and build what has become Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival, which now has a presence throughout the New England region.

For the past three years, Flickers has worked with the Brattleboro Retreat creating both the Flickers North Country Film Festival and the Anna’s Vision Film Festival.

The latter took place in Brattleboro last September and raised $1,000 for the United Way of Windham County Irene Flood Relief Fund.

“The evening was phenomenal,” said Simpson. “We got the complete red carpet treatment. Everyone was dressed to the nines. Paparazzi was there on our red carpet. The news covered the event. We had appetizers and a great dinner. Then we received our award. Afterwards, the Academy Awards show was projected on 40-foot screen in HD, which we all enjoyed.”

“We were given the deluxe program booklet that is given to attendees to the real Academy Awards,” Krusenstiern added. “We felt like we really were at the Oscars.”

The Rhode Island event is one of only 49 parties officially sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that are held across the country on Oscar Night, which are events used to raise money for local charities. No such official event takes place in Vermont or New Hampshire.

Krusenstiern says that the award came as a total surprise. “We got a call from the Rhode Island Film festival out of the blue. Of course, we were excited and very pleased.”

Simpson explained how the film festivals and his association with Flickers began.

“I had already been reaching out to people in New Hampshire by weekly appearing on Jack Heath’s Real New Hampshire radio show on WTPL with Robyn Ostrander, MD, a fellow doctor from the Brattleboro Retreat,” says Simpson.

“We have a lot of fun,” he said. “The show begins with some intro song that has some connection to mental illness. For instance, last week it was ‘The Sound of Silence,’ Paul Simon’s song about his teenage depression. We then usually will discuss a lot of topics ranging from mental health and addiction to rock and roll. We are seasoned professionals trying to demystify mental illness so that it is not scary.”

Believing in the media as a great tool for outreach, Simpson conceived of expanding into film.

“Film is a strong tool to teach,” he says. “So much can happen quickly and elegantly. You can show a picture of boy whose father has died, panning to his face. In 15 seconds, you can show the theme of loss.”

“Film is great because images are so powerful,” Simpson continues. “Speak it, you forget it; show a picture, and you remember. Film bridges the cognitive side of the brain with the emotional. It brings these two sides together. Through film you can stimulate a dialogue with people about themselves and maybe encourage them to make healthy choices in their lives.”

In this spirit of what could be possible, Simpson connected with Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival, the largest film festival in New England, to create Flickers North Country Film Festival.

This film festival would have a special focus on mental health and addiction, with about a third of the films shown addressing these issues.

The Flickers North Country Film Festival began at the Balsams Hotel in northern New Hampshire and proved to be a great success.

The film festival then moved to Brattleboro after the resort closed for renovations, and the films shown dealt exclusively with issues surrounding mental health and addiction. In honor of the the founder of the Brattleboro Retreat, Anna Hunt Marsh, the festival was renamed Anna’s Vision.

“The Brattleboro festival was a wonderful event, but it was almost derailed by Irene,” says Simpson. “The Latchis Theater, where the festival was scheduled to play, was flooded out the by storm. The festival was able to move up the street in Brattleboro to the Hooker-Dunham Theater only when performers scheduled to play there those dates graciously stepped aside so the Anna’s Vision could continue.”

Even though the festival occurred shortly after the havoc of Irene, people came to support it.

“We had packed seats at all shows,” says Simpson. “We had a grand reception, and showed 12 films ranging from shorts of 5 minutes to features of 105 minutes, with many film’s directors attending. A speaker led a discussion after each film. It packed quite a punch.”

A sampling of the films shown at last year’s Anna’s Vision included the documentary Family Band: The Cowsills Story, which told about the real-life inspiration for The Partridge Family TV show, who after five years of fame found their star came crashing down to earth.

Also shown was the feature Happy New Year, about a soldier mentally and physically scarred by his time in Iraq and Afghanistan who meets a group of similarly injured veteran in a psychiatric ward. The festival also featured this year’s Academy Award–winning short from Ireland, The Shore, about how the escalating conflict in Belfast had shattered the world and friendship of two boyhood best friends.

Next year’s Anna’s Vision film Festival is in the planning stages right now, and Flickers is committed that it continue. It is not even clear if it will be in Brattleboro, but Krusenstiern is intrigued by the possibilities of uniting it with the parties officially sanctioned by the Academy held across the country on Oscar Night.

“The possibilities for the Brattleboro Retreat are tantalizing,” Krusenstiern says. “Believe me, it would make a great fundraiser.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #142 (Wednesday, March 7, 2012).

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