‘The last big one’
Ethan Allen (Kevin Ryan) confronts Guilford Yorker John Noyes (Rob Campbell).

‘The last big one’

Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven finishes ‘Lost Nation’ and reflects on the difficulties of keeping independent cinema viable

On the website of the former Marlboro College, where Jay Craven taught film, “My goal is to tell an inventive and original story,” says the Northeast Kingdom filmmaker, who genuinely engaged students there in the process of filmmaking for some 20 years.

And tell a good story he does in each of his many independent narrative films, the latest of which Craven recently finished shooting in southern Vermont and Massachusetts. Lost Nation, what he calls his “last big movie,” is a Revolutionary War–era Windham County story following African American poet and rights advocate Lucy Terry Prince, Ethan Allen, and more.

Lost Nation tells the synchronous stories of Prince (1733–1821) and Allen (1738–1789). Craven, whose credits include Where the Rivers Flow North, Disappearances, and Northern Borders, crafted the script for the multiracial narrative film with South Royalton producer/writer Elena Greenlee.

According to a news release from Kingdom County Productions (KCP), the production company Craven shares with wife and filmmaker Bess O'Brien, Lost Nation aims to tell “a potent and timely story that charts the parallel and intersecting journeys of enigmatic, larger-than-life Vermont founding father Ethan Allen and woman-of-words Lucy Terry Prince,” whose poem Bars Fight is the first known literary work of an African American.

That poem inspired Lost Nation, and it begins thus:

§August 'twas the twenty-fifth,

§Seventeen hundred forty-six;

§The Indians did in ambush lay,

§Some very valiant men to slay,

§The names of whom I'll not leave out.

Craven has long focused on Vermont, and his films have told rich stories of various peoples herein - four of them based on Howard Frank Mosher's novels. Over time, he's become well-versed in the history of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.

In Lost Nation, Craven dramatizes the capture of Fort Ticonderoga from the British for the first offensive victory in the U.S. War of Independence; the defiant stance toward New York sheriffs and posses looking to evict early Vermont settlers; an abortive attack on Montreal that landed Allen on a British prison ship; and dealings with and overtures to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Quebec intelligence agent and former Green Mountain Boy Justus Sherwood.

In his research and discovery process for the film, Craven learned a great deal about Lucy Terry Prince's story through Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina's Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend, published in 2008.

Though other Craven films have included the lives of people of color in the state, with Lost Nation, he digs deep into Vermont's racial past.

“Enslaved at the age of three,” the news release elaborates, “without her parents, [Prince], served a Massachusetts family for 30 years. Her entrepreneurial husband, Abijah, also formerly enslaved, bought her freedom with proceeds earned from fighting in the French and Indian War. Together they settled a hundred-acre Guilford, Vermont homestead, sent two sons into the Continental Army and broke new ground for their family's civil rights as they protected their cherished land on the Revolutionary War's northern frontier.”

With a host of actors - some Hollywood, others less well-known - Lost Nation explores the nuances, challenges, complexity, and promise of the American Revolution. “It will contribute,” Craven adds, “to the reclaiming of [some] little-known Black history.”

Can Vermont provide financial incentives to filmmakers?

Craven filmed in Marlboro and Guilford, as well as sites in Massachusetts - Nantucket, Leyden, and Colrain - to take advantage of the Massachusetts film production tax incentives program.

“There's no such program in Vermont,” Craven says, though he advocates for one. “It'd be tough to compete with Massachusetts or New York, but Vermont could create a strong filmmaking community in alliance with Vermont PBS.”

Craven pointed out that the public television network - which has since merged with Vermont Public Radio, with both recently rebranded to “ Vermont Public” - sold one of its broadcast licenses at auction in 2017, reaping a one-time windfall of $56 million.

“Why not establish a $20 million production endowment, or even $10 million, with the goal of generating $1 million a year to be allocated as production grants to Vermont filmmakers? A million a year would yield a substantial strengthening and blossoming of the state's film industry.”

Once in place, Craven said, a leader “could raise more funds to grow the program and create an infrastructure for ongoing support.”

Some kind of state funding has proven essential in other states where it also provides a significant economic boon.

“Massachusetts spends $100 million a year to stimulate film production,” Craven said. “But even $1 million in Vermont would do a lot. Let's advocate and hope that can happen, that we could cultivate the kind of 'cultural cinema' industry that exists in Europe and Canada.”

There, he says, “robust, narrative film production reflects essential culture, character, people, places and times - all supported through public media.”

In contrast, “there is little support in the U.S. for cultural filmmaking, even through national PBS, where there is no support at all for narrative production,” he adds.

This dearth of support for such filmmaking is, in part, why Craven calls Lost Nation his “last big one” (though he is now planning one more smaller project, in partnership with a New England college).

Film as a shared community experience

Thus, Craven admits, he's less motivated to make films that will premiere directly online.

“I'm not thrilled with streaming media and the anonymity of viewership, as it triggers a decline in human experience,” he notes. “Part of what makes film powerful is the shared experience it provides of seeing a film with other people, and even talking about it after the screening, which also strengthens community.”

“Think of the importance of the Latchis - or Next Stage Arts - for what they do to define and spawn community experience,” he points out.

Though the old mode of theatrical screening had its peaks and valleys, “it was possible then to make films that could become creative events where communities and audiences could come together live, where impact can be felt,” Craven observes. “Streaming doesn't have that same impact of shared experience.”

“I'll continue to tour movies,” Craven notes.

Special screening of Jack London film in Brattleboro

In fact, while we await next summer's release of Lost Nation, Craven will offer a special viewing of his previous work.

The feature film, Jack London's Martin Eden, can be seen at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro on Thursday, July 21, at 6:30 p.m. Craven will introduce the screening of the new independent narrative and lead a post-film discussion.

Based on London's autobiographical novel, Martin Eden, set in 1909, as described by the production company, the film “tells the story of a poor and unschooled sailor who unexpectedly meets Ruth Morse, a magnetic young woman of means and education.”

“Their unconventional attraction upends both lives and propels timely themes of impossible love, dogged individualism in pursuit of the American dream, and the quest for a comfortable place in an inconstant world.”

Jack London's Martin Eden premiered at the 2021 Nantucket Film Festival and has since garnered attention and awards at a range of film events.

'I don't want to be the engine anymore'

Craven plans to carry on his work with various colleges through a program he designed in 2012, running robustly since, for learning through filmmaking.

Lost Nation is the latest in KCP's Semester Cinema program that connects 30 professional mentors with 40 college students to produce feature films for national release.

The program works to advance Vermont education pioneer John Dewey's call for “intensive learning that enlarges meaning through shared experience and joint action,” KCP explains, with participating colleges including Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Hamilton, Swarthmore, Sarah Lawrence, Skidmore, Bates, Hobart, Northern Vermont University, University of Vermont, Kenyon - and Spelman, America's leading historically Black college for women.

Looking ahead, Craven still plans to direct, though he's ready to back off from producing.

“I don't want to be the engine anymore,” he says.

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