The Maine Masters project has delighted audiences everywhere for 20 years, celebrating the art and lives of Maine artists through film. This year the creativity and visibility abounds with multiple films and many events. A UMVA project, we support Maine Masters and encourage all to stay tuned.
Maine Masters Film
Natasha Mayers: An Un-Still Life
The film will also be screened at the Vermont International Film Festival, running in person 8–17 October in Burlington, Vermont, and on MPBN October 21 at 10 pm and October 23 at 2 pm. It just won the prize for Best Documentary Short in the Boston Independent Film Awards, and earlier won the PBS Award for Best Documentary at the 2021 Made Here Film Festival in Vermont.
Shetterly is . . . an Invaluable Chronicler of 21st-Century America
TRUTH TELLERS WORLD PREMIERE AT THE CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (CIFF)
THIS NEW DOCUMENTARY FILM DIVES INTO THE LIVES OF COURAGEOUS AMERICANS FIGHTING FOR RACIAL JUSTICE, CLIMATE CHANGE, AND INDIGENOUS RIGHTS THROUGH THE EYES OF ROBERT SHETTERLY, A LONG TIME ACTIVIST AND ARTIST
Boston, MA, 26 August 2021
TRUTH TELLERS, the long-awaited documentary feature directed by award-winning Maine filmmaker Richard Kane, had its world premiere at the Camden International Film Festival (CIFF) on 19 September at a special, in-person screening with the filmmaker and subject Robert Shetterly at the beautifully restored Strand Theater in Rockland, Maine. The film was also available to the first 500 viewers during CIFF 16-26 September.
The next festival screening will take place in Charlottesville, Virginia, scene of the Unite the Right Rally (August 2017) and the recent removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. It will screen at the Virginia Film Festival on 30 October 2021 where the film is in contention for two prestigious awards.
Artist and activist Robert Shetterly has painted 255 portraits of Americans, past and present, who had the moral courage to confront issues of social, environmental, and economic justice. These Americans Who Tell the Truth have been exhibited throughout the United States for almost two decades. TRUTH TELLERS is both a story of Shetterly’s art and activism and a history lesson in what it means to be a citizen of a democracy. In bringing Shetterly’s message to a wide audience, TRUTH TELLERS has begun its goal to spark a national conversation on truth telling.
Among the truth tellers in the film are Bayard Rustin, Bill McKibben, Kelsey Juliana, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Sherri Mitchell, Maulian Dana, Bill Bigelow, Zyahna Bryant, Bree Newsome Bass, Fannie Lou Hammer, John Lewis, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Reggie Harris, and several others.
TRUTH TELLERS director, producer, and cinematographer is Richard Kane, an independent director whose work is focused on the intersection of art and contemporary American life. Previous film releases from this UMVA-sponsored series includes, J. Fred Woell: An American Vision, I Know a Man . . . Ashley Bryan, Imber’s Left Hand, and 15 others, all part of the Maine Masters collection, a New England Emmy-nominated series of portraits that airs on public television and tours throughout the nation. With partner Melody Lewis-Kane, their company, Kane-Lewis Productions, has worked for National Geographic, The Discovery Channel, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the White House Office of Technology Policy among many others.
TRUTH TELLERS was written by Judith Dwan Hallet, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, former Senior Producer/Writer at National Geographic, who has been making films for 50 years, and received many distinguished awards including Woman of Vision Creative Excellence Award from Women in Film and Video in Washington DC and an Emmy from The National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in recognition for her significant contributions to the broadcast industry. Additional cinematography was provided by veteran Bob Elsfrom, who has shot and directed documentaries for half a century and won multiple Emmys and Academy Award nominations.
On 30 August 2021 Kane shot and Shetterly interviewed nature writer Terry Tempest Williams that will be released by the end of 2021 as Truth Teller: Terry Tempest Williams. Parts of this interview will be incorporated in a sequel to Truth Tellers titled Truth Tellers: Money, Power and War.
A personal exploration by film director Richard Kane of his experience making Truth Tellers
Shortly before 9/11, I met Robert Shetterly. My partner Melody Lewis-Kane and daughter Angy had seen his surrealist paintings at a gallery in Bangor and were excited to see more. They arranged to see him in his studio in Brooksville, ME, and during that visit, Rob learned I was a filmmaker. Before I knew it he arrived at my doorstep with an armful of videos about the Port Clyde painter, Robert Hamilton. Editing that film with Rob was such a joyful experience in what was soon to become the Maine Masters series. I will never forget Hamilton’s reasons for loving to paint in Maine. “It’s never too hot to paint, and you can always find a parking spot.” We would laugh at every Hamiltonism. “If you’ve jumped off a cliff, you might as well learn to fly.” Those days editing with Rob were filled with great humor and creative surges. We would crunch on his carrots and eat my dark chocolate.
Then 9/11 happened and the drumbeats of war in Iraq and Afghanistan began pounding. The lies that drove us into those debacles turned Rob’s demeanor dark. I wondered where that would find its way into his work. As his son Aran says in our new film Truth Tellers, “I remember how hard Dad was to talk to during that point because it was all he could talk about. And then I remember him painting Walt Whitman . . . and it was as if the clouds had parted.” So although it had a dark birth, Americans Who Tell the Truth (AWTT) became the inspiration of a man who had deep convictions about his country and knew he needed to surround himself with people he admired if he was ever to make it through the coming decades. As Rob says in Truth Tellers, “each person I paint is like a life buoy being tossed to me.” But it was also a life buoy for me and so many others seeking the power of truth to guide our country, today more than ever, and the need for creativity, compassion, kindness, and conviction to guide all our relationships.
So, along the way I began shooting scenes of Rob presenting his portraits to young people. The first was in New York in 2005 in the rotunda of Columbia University’s Low Library. Two scenes from that first day shooting made the final cut—Rob introducing engaged Harlem youngsters to Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer! I sensed that something extraordinary was happening and I continued following Rob in his interviews for his portrait series. Next was with peace activist Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, then Cindy Sheehan and Jim Hightower, and then his Samantha Smith Challenge. It seemed never ending. One buoy after another. But how to make a film that had a focus? Talk about a challenge!
Fast forward 13 years. A few supporters of Rob’s and mine came together and said we have to get Rob’s ideas further out into the world and this film could make that happen. They raised enough funds to get me to Syracuse University’s Maxwell School where Rob’s first major exhibit was held in November 2018—all 238 portraits were being exhibited. There were so many portraits and issues. Was the only glue Rob himself?
This was clearly my most complex film. All the other 18 Maine Masters were about a single artist and their art and ideas. For Truth Tellers, I knew I needed an experienced collaborator, so I reached out to my mentor, Judith Dwan Hallet, who had been a senior producer/writer at National Geographic, and who I had worked with since 1994 when I was her sound recordist on a film titled The Great Plains. Jane Fonda was her narrator. Jane sat high on the back of her horse in the middle of a blizzard at her and Ted Turner’s ranch in Bozeman, MT, amongst 20,000 head of buffalo, giving everyone directions. Judy and I continued working together on her film Lords of the Garden in New Guinea. I was her associate producer and sound recordist. I arranged for the team to carry PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) in case we found ourselves in a very large pot with boiling water and vegetables. I went with her to the Vatican and Poland to make a film about Pope John Paul II, and I had to return to Poland because the 16mm film was “flashed” going through an airport’s metal detector.
Judy, who spends many summers in Bar Harbor, met Rob at one of his presentations at the College of the Atlantic and was enthralled with his presentation, the potential impact of his project, and the film. She said at the time that if I needed any help, just let her know.
I am more an advocate of letting the film and its subjects organically tell a story rather than a narrator with the “voice of God!”. It’s a more challenging process requiring the editor to shape the story through the words of the subject and the interviews. And since I edit all my films, the question I asked myself was how was I to use a writer? In graduate school, I studied the films of the Maysles Brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Ricky Leacock. They were the founders of the Cinema Verite movement and believed they could be “flies on the wall”, not having any influence on their subjects. All throughout the history of documentary film, there has been an effort to be the most authentic, the most truthful one can be. Although I didn’t believe in using narration to tell a story, I also didn’t believe I could simply be a “fly on the wall”. In shooting documentaries I am continuously engaged with the film’s subjects, sharing stories, getting to know each other. However, once the camera is rolling, I’ve found it’s important to allow scenes to unfold, choosing carefully if and when to inject myself.
How was I to make a film about Rob Shetterly? Was it to be a film about Rob’s journey? Or was it to be a film about Rob’s subjects who would crystalize the issues confronting America in the 21st century? I started out thinking that Rob would be the glue to tell the story of America and how power, money, and war controlled our nation. As time marched on, the story would evolve.
So where does a “writer” fit in? As an experienced documentary filmmaker for National Geo, NOVA, Discovery, and all the rest, Judy was my greatest resource. Without Narration, there wasn’t any writing per se. But I’d send her my various cuts and she’d send me back lists of her reactions. In our first session, we talked for two hours about the film’s first 15 minutes! After that, we stopped Zooming. It was a lot more efficient responding via email. We talked if needed.
Her husband Stanley was also involved and became one of our Consulting Producers. As Dean Emeritus of the School of Architecture at Catholic University, he has quite a sharp mind and consulted with Judy on all her films. Structure is his strong suit! My co-producer Melody also consulted and with the fresh eyes of an artist, her point of view was always on target. So it became a collaboration of the four of us.
Another great resource was a Director of Photography (DP) I brought on the team, Bob Elfstrom. He was cameraman for the Maysles in their early, groundbreaking seminal films, and was one of the shooters for Gimme Shelter and MILK. Bob had just moved from San Francisco to Deer Isle, Maine, just 30 minutes south of me, where he had been summering for 40 years. We had some conversations about the concept of Truth Tellers, with Rob meeting and interviewing his subjects. Having two cameras would help highlight Rob as well as his subjects. I showed him a good bit of my footage and he said he probably could improve on my photography by one or two percent! He is always very generous and said he’d be delighted to work on the film.
Then on 4 February 2020, three weeks before our planned departure to shoot a major seven venue exhibit in Charlottesville, with ten of Rob’s portrait subjects participating in panel discussions, I got a voicemail I wish I hadn’t received. Rob’s partner Gail said, “Rob’s had a stroke, but he’s OK. Here he is so you know he’s OK.” Rob got on the phone and frankly didn’t sound so great. I spent several sleepless nights wondering if the project was over. A week later, Rob got home and insisted on carrying out his schedule. It was clear that he had some lingering issues. His “presentation” was less animated, more “flat”, but his intellect and physicality were definitely intact.
So, on 24 February 2020, we headed to New York and Charlottesville where we had planned two weeks of shooting. The first stop was in New York to interview Bill Moyers. Bill got severely sick the very morning of the interview and couldn’t make it. He has always been a very strong supporter of Rob’s project, and he continues to be, saying things like, “Rob Shetterly is an invaluable chronicler of 21st-century America.”
What else could happen to derail the film? You guessed it. The pandemic happened. I had expected to spend many days with Rob and Gail in their home, kind of like that “fly on the wall.” Couldn’t be. So I began digging into writing foundation grants. Wrote six in one month and got rejected from them all. Talk about depression!
And then George Floyd happened and the film’s focus on racial and indigenous justice and climate change started to take shape, two of Rob’s major concerns.
With all the footage we have shot over the past many years and the importance of making a difference in the national conversation, we have begun to venture into a sequel—Truth Tellers: Power, Money, and War. One of the scenes will be the one we shot on 30 August 2021 with Terry Tempest Williams. Her conversation with Rob gave me chills and reminded me of Bill Moyers’ conversations with Joseph Campbell. Bill Moyers will hopefully work into this new film as well. Stay tuned!
Image at top: Terry Tempest Williams with Rob Shetterly.