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Love and War and Film

Love and War and Film

August 3, 2017

“Death in the Wilderness: A Love Story” is one of the films selected for screening in the Vermont Collection of the upcoming Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. The origin story of the film is almost as intriguing as the tale itself. Filmmaker Kevin Thornton followed rumors, faced dead ends, and made coincidental connections. His journey included a missing diary, a 21-page letter, and a wedding photograph from 1860. The research took several years, and along the way, Kevin wasn’t sure it would come to anything. As pieces fell into place, he thought he might write an article. But when he found the all-important wedding photo, after tracking down a Burlington-dwelling descendant of the aforementioned letter’s recipient, “I just decided on the spot I was going to make a film.”

So what, then, is the actual historical tale? Kevin’s Civil War era documentary centers around Frankie Davenport, of Brandon, whose husband George died fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness. One year after his death, Frankie traveled to Virginia to exhume her husband’s body and return it to his hometown in Vermont. Simply put, “It’s a film about mourning,” Kevin says. But producing the film was anything but simple.

It Takes a Village

Kevin sorts through documents in the attic of the Brandon Library.

Kevin is not shy about acknowledging the help he received in producing his documentary. He was the driving force behind it all, from the script to the images to the pacing. But could he have made it to MNFF by himself? “Not a prayer,” he readily admits.

He has made only one other film: a short one for the Brandon Museum. Kevin had planned to make a “glorified PowerPoint” until Josh Hummel, of Visual Learning Systems in Brandon, stepped in. This previous collaboration made Josh a natural choice for Kevin’s next project, and he did the majority of the filming and editing for “Death in the Wilderness.” Kevin acknowledged that his own technical abilities fall short: “I can set up a camera, I know to wait for the light now, but anything indoors or with deep shadows, or at dusk, would have been impossible for me without (Josh).”

When he needed help incorporating 19th-century music into the film, he called on the town choral director, Gene Childers. At first, Kevin hoped to just hear the music, but Gene took it upon himself to assemble a group of singers, who eventually provided the soundtrack for the film. He also had assistance reining in his “rambling” script, staging a scene from an 1872 play, and much more. “It seemed like every time I was at a loose end, someone would step forward. People were incredibly helpful and cooperative. It really is a town project.”

Kevin turned to Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform, for financial support. Although he initially found the idea “scary” – “I just didn’t know whether it was going to work. Who’s gonna write me a $100 check, you know?” – the venture paid off. He raised $8,855 of his $5,000 goal, mostly from two main groups: his college friends and the people of Brandon. But the campaign was about more than just money. Kevin noted that if it had failed, he probably would have abandoned the project. The support he received “was incredibly encouraging, that people trusted me enough to do this.”

Flower girls march in the Brandon Memorial Day parade every year.

Rethinking Our Thinking

The film begins and ends with footage of modern-day Brandon on Memorial Day. First-grade girls wear white dresses and carry flowers to place around the Civil War monument. Kevin observed this tradition shortly after moving to Brandon, and was moved by its beauty and obvious Victorian roots. As he was piecing together the story for his documentary, he found that his main character, Frankie Davenport, had a key role in starting the practice in the years after the Civil War. Though born of a widow’s sadness, this proved a happy coincidence for Kevin: it allowed him to neatly tie everything together.

One reason Kevin is so passionate about telling Frankie’s story is that it serves as a reminder of the politics at play during and after the Civil War. As an historian and former college professor, he sees this monumental period glazed over in university curricula, if not omitted altogether. He posits that discussions highlight the strategy of generals and the bravery of soldiers fighting on both sides, to avoid controversial topics like slavery and race. To Kevin – and, he says, to Civil War era Vermonters – that just isn’t right. In “Death in the Wilderness,” Kevin emphasizes the way Vermonters mourned their dead. They consoled themselves with the idea that the two conflicting causes were never equal. Their soldiers had quelled a rebellion against the founding ideas of the United States of America.

“Death in the Wilderness: A Love Story” will be shown at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival on Thursday, August 24.
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Rachel Stearns

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Tags: Civil War, documentary, Kevin Thornton, Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival


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