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Bernardston’s Rawn Fulton strives to bring world into focus after 50 years making films

  • Rawn Fulton sits in his editing suite in his Bernardston home. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Rawn Fulton sits in his editing suite in his Bernardston home. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • A scene from one of Rawn Fulton’s most well-known films, “Root Hog or Die.” Contributed image

  • A scene from Rawn Fulton’s 1982 film, “Louise Nevelson: Geometry + Magic.” Contributed image

  • “The Schooner Adventure: History Reborn” is Rawn Fulton’s latest film about the mission, history, restoration and current sailing program of the last of the Grand Banks’ dory fishing schooners of Gloucester. Contributed image

  • Rawn Fulton’s 1994 film, “Sustainable Lives, Attainable Dreams” was filmed in Indonesia, Mexico and, shown here, Kenya. Contributed image

  • Rawn Fulton’s 2007 film, “Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place,” is about the Caldecott-winning children’s author, illustrator and graphic designer, has been shown on PBS stations around the country. Contributed image



Recorder Staff
Friday, July 13, 2018

Outfitted with a Brownie Hawkeye box camera, 11-year-old Rawn Fulton set off with his nanny on what he’d later recall as his “first journalistic assignment,” accompanying her to visit her family in Croydon, England.

Fulton, who struggled at the front of the London crowd to prepare the box camera’s focus window on the queen’s birthday for “trooping the color,” recalls just missing the shot so that he captured her back and a horse’s hindquarters.

“You learn from your mistakes. But the episode also set the pattern for me: Don’t just wander around looking at things, having fun. I have to be responsible for what we see,” said the Bernardston filmmaker, who wasn’t able to find the Hawkeye at a recent Pioneer Valley Institute event that looked back on his 50 years of filmmaking. He did bring along an array of equipment that traced the technological advances since he began his documentarian’s career.

Fulton, whose Searchlight Films has tried to find the balance between working on projects that filled his soul — a Peace Corps volunteer in India after college, he was a cameraman on two projects that brought him to the Dalai Lama, neither of which were released — and those that have paid the bills.

His body of work is impressive, encompassing 14 films in just the past five years alone — including two on opioid addiction, one on diabetes and nutrition, and a 2014 series of environmental films that won the United Nations Wildlife Award in 2014. Overall, there have been nearly 100 films of various lengths on which he’s worked, either as the filmmaker, editor, sound recorder, photography director or videographer.

The films, many of them of private clients, have focused on everything from New York City’s pigeon keepers and parallels between Voltaire and Jefferson, to Viagra and Hemingway, as well as from Holocaust survivors and the Dalai Lama, to children’s authors Virginia Lee Burton and Ezra Jack Keats. Some of the films were about Egypt, India, Nigeria, Ireland, El Salvador and China.

Fulton’s best known work, at least locally, is “Root Hog or Die,” which he began work on in 1973, a year after moving to Franklin County from Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife, Cynthia. The timeless story about how people lived in these hills — simply, ruggedly and sustainably — defined a sense of place as it followed Franklin County and Windham County, Vt. farmers through a year’s cycle of logging, haying, dairying, sugaring and living a lifestyle that is often romanticized but was in fact too grueling for many to maintain.

“The farmer shapes the land, and the land shapes the farmer. It’s how they work together,” Fulton said. “Which is why this film has such relevance.”

For someone who had moved to Bernardston not simply to escape the city, but because it reminded him in 1972 of Newtown, Conn., the 2,500-population town where he’d grown up in the 1950s, Fulton has traveled around the world making films, but also creating short works for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Historic Deerfield, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, “integrating (himself) with the local energy, finding beauty and meaning everywhere.”

Fulton points to his favorite scene in “Root Hog or Die” when Ashfield farmer Charlie Culver says, as a team of workhorses plow their way uphill for what seems like forever, “We do it as we go along. We pay no attention to the time, the clock. We just do what’s got to be done when it’s got to be done. And our work’s not that objectionable to us. We don’t ever stop.”

The filmmaker, who’d been inspired by the camera equipment used by his inventor father to document fantastic contraptions like the World War II era “gunairstructor” and the “airphibian,” as well as by “an artistic, aesthetic appetite,” had begun his career by taking 17 100-foot rolls of movies fresh out of Columbia University, while a Peace Corps volunteer in India.

That became one of his first films, “Sun River,” which was “very experimental for its time” and was used by the Peace Corps for training purposes. Using a process that stopped action at times by holding down the button of his Bolex movie camera, the film portrayed the year’s life cycle of indigenous Adiwasi people with whom he worked in rural India, where “things happen at speed photosynthesis.”

“Sun River,” preceded only by Fulton’s 1967 documentary filming of an Outward Bound canoe expedition, “was radical in the way it tried to express the culture shock of being in India,” he remembered, and the way it used the camera to trick the brain.

“That film is pushing the boundaries of what your brain can absorb,” Fulton said. “That’s the aesthetic quest, but it isn’t exactly commercially viable in the sense I can do it to make a living. So I had to figure out a way to move from that as artistic objective to something that can actually support us. I’ve been working on that ever since.”

In the late 1970s, Fulton got a chance to reuse some of the experimental techniques he’d used in India as he edited what he calls “a collage-based immersion in the physical and metaphysical world” of sculptor Louise Nevelson, in which he integrated her love of dance and used cartons of 16-millimeter silent film of her “environmental sculptures” — a form she had developed. The resulting “layers of imagery,” in 1982, was the “geometry plus magic” part of Fulton’s overarching “storytelling that in some ways tries to share some sense of human progress” but that also keeps alive the contributions of creative people while finding beauty in the everyday.

Bigger questions

“In all of this work,” Fulton said, “I feel I’m asking questions that are bigger than what I can answer. That’s why I want to keep doing it, that’s what’s fascinating to me, almost like a visual koan. It’s a Buddhist element I find of enduring fascination.”

The name of Fulton’s production company, Searchlight Films, reflects his fascination to discover the truths buried within the subjects of his documentaries.

“I’ve always tried to keep that sense of searching,” said Fulton, perhaps echoing the drive behind his inventor father and even his grandfather, who was a friend of Thomas Edison, and — at least according to family lore — a descendant of steamboat inventor Robert Fulton. “The search is endemic to the process in whatever I’ve tried to do.”

His “Schooner Adventure,” just completed this May, describes the mission, history, restoration and current sailing program of the last of the Grand Banks dory fishing schooners, built in 1926 and now the heart of a maritime historic preservation and educational organization in Gloucester.

“I didn’t know anything about dory fishing,” Fulton said. “One of the great things about filmmaking (is) every time you have a new job, you learn so much. I’m learning all the time.”

One of the shortest and most recent accomplishments, a 30-second film, “The Elephant in the Room,” grew out of a concern about human overpopulation that began with his time in India and blossomed into co-creating and heading the World Population Film Video Festival from 1994 through 2014, a challenge for students to create their own documentaries on population, consumption, the environment and sustainability.

Global and local

The festival, in turn, had grown out of the making of Fulton’s 2014 film “Sustainable Lives, Attainable Dreams” for the National Wildlife Federation about world population, environmental resources and family planning. Shown at the 1994 United Nations Cairo World Population conference, that film also led to a televised public education campaign on the connection between overpopulation, environmental quality and our children’s future, and brought Fulton and his collaborator brother, Travis, into high-level discussions on how to stop the trade of elephant tusks.

The Bernardston filmmaker helped conceptualize “The Elephant in the Room,” an edited film reversal in which scrimshaw is reassembled into a tusk which is placed back on the elephant, and the animal is magically restored to life when the bullet returns to the hunter’s rifle.

“We stop buying; they stop dying,” ends the film, silent except for kettledrum blasts.

The 2014 film — for which Fulton was co-producer, writer and editor, depicts “the undoing of the process” that had confounded wildlife enforcement authorities around the world — won the United Nations World Wildlife Film Festival Award and is among Fulton’s many proudest achievements.

It was shown on a giant outdoor screen in Shanghai for three months and by Xinhua News Agency for six months throughout China — the market for the lucrative domestic trade in ivory scrimshaw that’s fed elephant poaching, Fulton learned in a January email from a childhood friend who is a member of Interpol.

“People very close to the decision-making in China have told me it was an important component of China’s national dialogue on the ivory trade ... Ultimately, (Chinese government officials) decided to shut it down — dozens of government-owned factories and many, many retail outlets. The whole process took about one year. And it worked. It was a tectonic shift in policy. Not merely the prohibition of the ivory trade.

“But word trickled through the bureaucracy: there will be no ivory items displayed in any Chinese government office,” Fulton continued. “If any company wants to do business with the Chinese government, they would be wise to clear any ivory from their own offices. Not one ivory tie clip. The impact in Africa has been profound. Elephant poaching has diminished dramatically. I don’t have firm numbers yet, but most people are reporting that in 2017, poaching pressure has diminished by more than half.”

Fulton, who has collaborated with area filmmakers Dan Keller and Steve Alves, composer Steve Schoenberg and others, respects “the power of a story well told” and approaches his subjects with a half century’s mastery of his craft and an innocence of seeing each of them the first time.

“We share this process of sharing, and we do this together,” said Fulton, hearkening back to his love of an A.A. Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner” child’s game played from a bridge. “With each one of my films, it’s like Poohsticks, where I drop sticks to see who comes out … I feel all of us are doing this, they’re all Poohsticks, all being dropped in the river of human consciousness, and the stories coalesce, congeal, emerge and they shape our awareness collectively, whether you see my movie or someone else’s movie. It’s our shared collective consciousness.

“I feel so fortunate,” he added, “to be able to drop a few Poohsticks in the river.”

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at the Greenfield Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.