The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival saw the Vermont premiere of Sabra, a documentary about Vermont artist Sabra Field by Dartmouth professor, producer, director, and writer Bill Phillips. For those of us who have loved her work through many decades, it was a nostalgic review. The film presented full-screen shots of many of the artist's works, along with commentary by Sabra's friends and colleagues including former Vermont governors Kunin and Dean. Ms. Field appeared in the film in conversation with her son. She delivered a lesson about her name--long or short "a"? "Say Sabra," she said, demonstrating the repetition of the word "say" with the first syllable of her name. Long "a" it is.
Known for her New England pastoral motifs, the film often juxtaposed photographs of Vermont landscapes with Fields's interpretative prints of the subject. Some of her subjects exist in real space and time and are easy to identify. In other cases, Field laughed as she recalls people looking at her work and saying "I know just where this is." Sometimes they're wrong, as the place exists only in Field's imagination. If not the exact geography, it is the feel, the experience of Vermont that her work evokes in her viewers.
A favorite, of course, for Upper Valley residents is the window she designed for the DHMC chapel. In the film, a nurse in New Jersey says that she keeps a photo of the window at her desk; it brings peace to hard days.
One individual interviewed for the film was critical of the sanitizing of the real Vermont that he saw in Field's work. The audience reaction appeared dismissive of him; certainly a degree of idealization is part of art and the artistic process. And yet. . .paired with this documentary was another of a wholly different kind. Milk with Dignity, directed by Molly Stewart, is a short film about the plight of migrant farmworkers in bucolic Vermont. It's not pretty. 1500 migrant farmworkers work the dairy farms across the state, sometimes in inhumane conditions that shock: housing without heat or water, workdays with no breaks and no food, injuries without adequate medical care. Migrant Justice has been trying to organize, specifically calling on Ben and Jerry's to ensure that the milk they purchase comes from farms that respect workers' rights.
The first Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival is over. Participants and artists, Middlebury College and the town itself, hope that from this beginning may grow a Vermont tradition.