Filmmaker Q&A

Director/Producer Barbara Ettinger talks about local residents’ reactions to TWO SQUARE MILES and the future of Hudson, NY.

Barbara Ettinger shares her hopes for TWO SQUARE MILES.

As the film began to take shape in my mind, I hoped that it could become a universal story of community, engagement and citizen activism. I wanted the film to become a tool to inspire viewers to get involved in their own communities and to understand that their actions can generate change. I wanted people to see that democracy works.

What led you to make TWO SQUARE MILES?

The inspiration for TWO SQUARE MILE arose from the aftermath of the events of 9/11. The American people wanted to know, “What can we do to help?” Unsatisfied by President Bush's first answer (go shopping), I asked myself the same question. What would I tell the citizens of our nation to do at this dark time? Powerless to sway international events, my own answer was for each of us to get involved at the most local level. My intuition was that a deeper exploration of one's own community would provide comfort and insight into our rapidly changing nation, while leading to meaningful change.

So I picked up my camera and began to do just that. Three years and hundreds of interviews later, the result is the story of the small city of Hudson, NY, which covers just two square miles. Through unexpected and lively glimpses into one small town, I hope that viewers will be inspired to reflect on what makes democracy work.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

My first challenge was overcoming my own shyness in approaching people and getting their permission to film. More importantly, I wanted to maintain a certain level of neutrality as I walked into a series of conflicts in a place where I hoped to become a participant and long-term resident. This was sometimes difficult because my husband and I were against the plant, but wanted the community to understand that our interest was in hearing from both sides. We felt that in listening carefully to both sides, there could be a way of bringing the level of distrust and hostility down a notch or two, and create an environment for possible dialogue, or at least, better understanding.

Another issue was that events were happening without a formal schedule, and in an unpredictable manner. Consequently, we had to be ready to get a camera working at a moment’s notice. Whether it was a public meeting or a demonstration or a breaking interview, we had to be ready to jump at the opportunity or miss the shot. This uncertain schedule continued for the full three years of filming.

How did you gain the trust of the people you interviewed and get them to open up on camera?

First of all, it was critical to be honest up front about what we were doing and what our own positions were about the dominant conflicts. We also had to demonstrate that we were not going to go away, but that the film was going to go on for an extended view of life in Hudson. This was not going to be a quick snapshot. Hopefully, we showed some understanding of the delicate nature of the responsibility of the filmmaker in this kind of situation.

What has the audience response been so far? How have Hudson residents reacted to the film?

To date the film has been shown locally as well as in other sections of the country. Audiences have been engaged with the story, the characters and the courage of those who are willing to work for change. Again and again, people take the story of the film and apply it to issues in their own communities. We continue to feel rewarded as we listen to people discuss ways in which they can act. This response was a major goal of the project.

The audiences in Hudson have been extremely engaged and supportive of the film. In fairness, however, the majority of the local viewers are probably people who are delighted that the cement plant was defeated and that there has been some change in local leadership. In making the film, we became increasingly aware of how difficult, if not impossible, it is to make a complete portrait of a community with all its complexities and nuances. It became clear to us that even with three years of filming we were taking snapshots and telling a limited story. We learned early on the fact that the film’s reality would be a subjective one and would therefore leave some people feeling that this was not how they understood the forces of change in Hudson. Most viewers, however, feel that it is an accurate portrayal of the city at a particularly volatile time.

What do you think the future has in store for Hudson?

With the defeat of the SLC plant, Hudson now has the opportunity to have a greater impact on its own future. The city has created an 18-month moratorium on development in the waterfront district while the citizens create a long-range waterfront revitalization plan for the department of state in Albany. The city is also working more closely with local businesses to build awareness outside of Hudson to the attractions of its diverse commercial offerings. The architectural capital of the city continues to be refurbished and restored, making it an ever more attractive destination site. Day by day there are new places available for lodging which means that visitors can stay overnight. On a given weekend, there is a growing sense that Hudson is thriving.

Yet, there continue to be issues around the funding of education and municipal services. Can there be property taxation that residents find fair? Can there be student engagement and achievement that allow the community to be proud of the educational experiences of their children? Can the economy grow to accommodate the search for new or better jobs? What will happen to affordable housing? These are the everyday questions that linger.

At the moment, Hudson is debating these issues openly. That is hopeful. Change is slow, but there continue to be citizens that have a vision and are willing to work hard to move towards the realization of their goals. The challenge continues to be how to keep an open agenda and move ahead with transparency in the process of change. We hope that the film challenges other communities to do the same. Citizen activism can make a difference.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Motivation is not the problem. The difficult challenge is to hold back and not pursue every fascinating story that we come across. There are many stories that deserve to be told, and it is hard not to race from one to the next.

My challenge is to try to pull back after a project and to recharge my batteries before I take on another one.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

As a filmmaker I want to share my stories with the largest audience possible without having to subject my work to advertising breaks and the other compromises of commercial television. I was attracted by what I knew to be the broad support that PBS gave its filmmakers.

Finally, I am especially excited about being selected as part of the Independent Lens season because of how it is packaged as a venue for documentary features. It gives my story a broad audience and helps me as I increase my own credentials for future projects.

What are your three favorite films?

Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders
Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman
Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

In many ways the film was an extension of our everyday lives. After all, this was our community and these were our battles. If anything, making the documentary made us more active in and engaged with the community than we might have been otherwise. Now that the film has moved into another phase of its life, we often miss the somewhat hectic, but always highly engaging process of the documenting the tumultuous life of Hudson, New York.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you would be doing?

I was trained as a still photographer and if I wasn’t making documentaries, I would like to make portraits, as I am endlessly fascinated with the human face.

From the time I was a child, however, I wanted to work in the United Nations. So perhaps that is the direction I would have gone.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Never give up. Any film project presents huge obstacles that must be overcome. If you believe in your work, then you just have to surmount them.

Funding is one of the largest obstacles. I would encourage anyone to get some initial grants that come from recognizable sources. It is not critical that they be large, but that they come from a source that provides legitimacy to the project. This grant can then be parlayed to further funding. The more one can build a production account on the front end, the more energy can then be focused on the creative aspects of the film.

Try to strive for strong film values throughout the process.

Respect your subjects. Having a camera doesn’t give you rights; it gives you privileges. Consequently, you have greater responsibility in how you affect people’s lives with that camera.

Find the best editor possible. They will make the film.

Have fun. There is so much stress in being a filmmaker that you have to continually find ways to keep a balance. Find the time to laugh and to take care of yourself.

What sparks your creativity?

Just observing the energy of life around me.

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