When documentary filmmaker Art Jones and his five-man crew set out from New York to shoot footage of a blood drive in a small Vermont city, he did it to satisfy an old friend, one of the organizers. Jones figured it might make a nice four-minute film.
What he found in hardscrabble Rutland was something more: A hard-luck city whose annual Gift-of-Life Marathon was but one of the homegrown initiatives being spearheaded by energetic volunteers and creative community members determined to turn things around.
The 80-minute documentary he ended up making — "The Blood in This Town" — is now getting notice from community leaders and rural development groups who hope to replicate Rutland's self-reliance instead of waiting for Washington or corporate America to deliver them from hard times.
"The movie does a good job of exploring some themes that I think are very common in rural areas: How to deal with a changing economy, how to develop your own leadership, how to do something sustainable and truly based on the assets of the community, as opposed to trying to find your salvation in some outside company you're going to bring in," said Tim Marema, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies, in Knoxville, Tenn. "It's about building from within."
Like many small American towns and cities, Rutland — a former quarry, manufacturing and railroad center now home to about 16,630 people — is way past its prime.
Long-dormant manufacturing facilities with broken windows, deteriorating old homes and empty storefronts have combined to create an urban landscape in sharp contrast to Vermont's picturesque village squares. It is, as a local hospital executive says in the movie, recalling a magazine article's description: "the only ugly town in Vermont."
On Dec. 22, 2009, Jones and his crew camped out at the Paramount Theatre, an 850-seat Victorian opera house whose stage, seats and lobbies swarm for one day a year with volunteers, nurses, American Red Cross phlebotomists and donors laid out on cots, with red tubes snaking out of their arms into plastic bags.
Organizers had set what some considered an unattainable goal — 1,000 pints of blood. A white eraser board kept a running tally as the hours ticked down. By the time the Paramount's doors shut, 1,024 pints had been collecting, breaking a New England record for a one-day drive that had been set by Boston, a city of 645,000.
The cameras caught it all — and more.
"Throughout that day, I heard more stories about other things going on in town," said Jones, whose stock-in-trade is normally corporate films. "The idea was if this town could do this in one day, come together that way and rediscover its ability to accomplish things, what else could it do in the other 364 days of the year?" he said.
He found out, taking cameras to Pine Hill Park, a former wino haven on the outskirts of town that was turned into a mountain biking haven; to the Rutland Farmers Market, which took up residence in an unheated building and became a roaring year-round success; to Friday Night Live, a volunteer-run celebration of downtown that blocks off Center Street five or six nights a year in summer; creation of the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, which is helping connect farms with new markets, including individual customers who buy shares in farms and get weekly food deliveries.
"It really took Art Jones, an outsider, to come in and say to the community at large "You've got something special here" for a lot of people to understand that," said Randal Smathers, editor of the Rutland Herald newspaper. "It's made people proud to say "I'm from Rutland," when before it was like "Oh, I'm from Vermont."
Not that all is rosy now.
"Sure, we still have our problems," said blood drive organizer Steve Costello, who lured Jones to Rutland. "They're not being solved overnight. But the blood drive and a lot of these other things the film touches on are giving people here a self-esteem that wasn't here before, and a sense that they can solve these problems if they stick to it."
While the film hasn't had a theatrical release — Jones hopes it gets picked up by PBS, or some film festivals — its reputation has spread, partly with the help of an outreach program run by his production company, Great Jones Productions Inc.
It has played in more than a dozen Vermont screenings, usually accompanied by a panel discussion on community building. In September, it will be subject of a screening and forum at the Pratt Institute's sustainable planning department. Also in the works: A screening at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center entitled "Rutland Revival & Grassroots Revitalization of Small Post-Industrial Cities."
"From a planning perspective, the issues that Rutland is dealing with are occurring all over the country," said William Calabrese, a planner and recent graduate of Pratt, who's organizing that event. "What the film gets at is showing the strong sense of community. Rutland's a unique case. But there are similar cases. There's a lot to be learned from Rutland."
And from "The Blood in This Town."
"The message is to come together around the good things and the assets that do exist in your community," Jones said. "It is so easy to criticize and sit back and say no to every new initiative. It's a much harder thing to get creative."
"The Blood in This Town": http://bloodinthistown.com