Making "The Shakers"

Making "The Shakers"

By Daniel W. Patterson

"The Shakers" began as a collaborative project of Frank DeCola and Tom Davenport, young filmmakers who had worked together on "The Cradle is Rocking", a short film for the United States Information Agency about marching bands in New Orleans. Finding documentary work interesting, they looked for another film subject. Tom had spent several years in Asia and in a visit to Japan had grown interested in Zen Buddhism and been moved by the Japanese aesthetic of simplicity. Looking at photographs of Shaker furniture he felt drawn by a similarity of spirit. This led him and DeCola in 1969 to begin considering a film about Shakerism. An acquaintance introduced them to Ms. Ann Rockefeller Roberts, who offered them a seed grant of $5,000. Looking back on this in later years, Davenport was struck by the naivety and inexperience with which he and DeCola approached the project. They had not at that time approached the Shakers but had been led to believe that the Shaker Ministry at Canterbury would be welcoming. At their first visit in the spring of 1970 the sisters gave them permission to film the village and buildings but declined to participate. DeCola and Davenport would probably have abandoned the project at this point if they had not already accepted and spent some of the grant money.

Before their return a few weeks later, however, the community had changed its mind and cooperated even to the extent of bringing Eldress Marguerite Frost home from a nursing facility to take part. During their nine-day stay at Canterbury the filmmakers exposed 5,000 feet of film and recorded eight hours of interviews.

In the early summer they visited the community at Sabbathday Lake. The Shakers there also were reluctant to take part. They had felt treated with disrespect by other accounts of Shakerism, including a recent article in Life magazine. DeCola had previously contacted Dan Patterson, who urged him to hear authentic Shaker singing from Sabbathday Lake and to use it rather than adaptations of Shaker song in any film they made. In the course of the next year the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake also chose to cooperate with the filming.

Several unexpected developments, however, created serious problems. The first was the death of Frank DeCola in December 1972. He had had surgery for a brain cancer in the early spring, but Davenport believed that the surgery had been successful. He now felt duty bound to try to complete the project himself as a memorial to Frank DeCola.

Happily, Ms. Coste by this time had seen and liked their initial footage and added $7500 to her first grant. This enabled Davenport to continue work on the film. Representatives of the Sabbathday Lake community met Davenport in Boston to review raw footage. They and Davenport were in agreement about which scenes were the strongest. For example, the two Shaker communities had indicated that Ted Johnson should be the official spokesman for Shaker theology, but his filmed round-table presentation seemed less cinematic and compelling than other more informal footage. Davenport made a second trip to Sabbathday Lake in July 1972, planning to shoot again with expensive equipment rented in Boston. For two of his days there the equipment malfunctioned and killed work he had planned. But on the third day he was able to film Sr. Mildred singing "With a New Tongue" and other moving scenes. A grant of $10,000 from the NEH and matching funds from Paul Mellon Foundation enabled Davenport to begin editing the film.

DeCola and Davenport had originally planned "an hour color documentary" which would "trace the history and contributions of this unique people and their way of life." In attempting to carry out this plan Davenport followed a familiar convention: using scripted narration as a frame into which to drop historical photographs and footage of interviews and activities. One weakness of this structure is that it causes a film to date quickly. A script naturally grows from current interests, opinions, and scholarship. In this case the scholarly foundation was the standard history, Edward Deming Andrews' A People Called Shakers (1957), which stressed a "classic" mid-nineteenth-century Shakerism and stopped at 1870. The opportunity to film living Shakers led Davenport to take a longer view of Shaker history. But in 1972 Shaker studies had just begun to enter a period of dynamic expansion. Museums were opening in former Shaker villages. Library holdings of manuscripts were becoming known, and Mary Richmond was at work on a major bibliography of published works by and about Shakers. Scholars were discovering how much more could be learned about each of the areas that Andrews had pioneered—Shaker history, music, art, furniture, and crafts—and about additional fields like Shaker architecture, biography, theology, and relations to a series of American religious and social movements. They were beginning to give attention to demographic changes in Shaker societies across the decades. Feminism and other movements were feeding into Shaker studies. The script of Davenport's film would have been enriched if it could have drawn upon such outcomes of this new study as Stephen Stein's The Shaker Experience in America (1992).

As he made this early film Tom Davenport sensed how time-bound a scripted narration is, but he felt even more acutely that a script and the voice of an external narrator undercut the special strength of film as a medium. Although the camera's range of vision and the ideas and personality of the editor unavoidably limit and shape the "reality" a film offers, it can still give the viewer a personal sense of people, places, and activities. This impression is more valuable than the facts one can cram into a script. It plunges viewers into worlds they have not entered, lets them read facial expressions, body postures, clothing, the décor of rooms and the created landscapes, the enactment of work or worship or social banter. It lets them taste unfamiliar styles of speech and song. From all of these things they can themselves infer cultural meanings. In the editing room Tom and those who worked with him came to distinguish between the footage rich with these possibilities and the stretches of overtly expository material. "No, cut that. Save it for a study guide" came to be their by-word as they edited. "The Shakers" was the last documentary in which Davenport used scripted narration.

The footage shot for "The Shakers" included the landscape and the exteriors and interiors of two active Shaker villages and interviews with a number of the people living in them. By a happy accident of timing (their meeting in March 1972) Davenport was able to draw on Patterson's then unpublished research on Shaker spirituals, which guided him to performances of songs from several different historical phases of Shakerism. Moreover, Davenport also got footage of the rich Shaker tradition of story telling—one of the most informative of Shaker arts, and to this day the least studied. And Davenport's footage gives a direct impression of the personalities and outlooks of Srs. Mildred Barker and Frances Carr, Eldress Marguerite Frost, and other leading members of the villages. Two other documentaries made of the Shakers within the next decade—those by Vincent R. Tortora in 1975 and Ken Burns in 1984—have appearances by some of the sisters, but do not give them voice or personality. This is akin to writing an institutional history of Shakerism with an insensitivity to documents in which participants reveal their experience of life within it.

But another unanticipated development created a second serious problem. Two sisters tell in the film of a decision made in 1957 by the central Ministry, located at Canterbury, to close the doors of both societies to new members. While Davenport was still continuing work on his film, however, the issue caused a break between the communities. Members at Sabbathday Lake felt their own religious calling required them to accept Ted Johnson and others asking to try the Shaker life. In response the Ministry and its lawyers cut Sabbathday Lake off from virtually all financial support. Despite years of hardship, the community persevered. Canterbury with the death of its last member in 1992 closed as a religious community and became a museum site. But Sabbathday Lake in 2007 lives on as a religious community. A detailed account of this division and the subsequent history of the two societies, based mostly upon non-Shaker sources, appears in Stephen Stein's history. Davenport's film, however, does not mention this development. It closes as if there were no rupture and no subsequent renewed life at Sabbathday Lake. This requires explanation and an admission that the family at Sabbathday Lake felt hurt by it.

Davenport's editorial decision may have been the wrong one, but a number of factors shaped it. He first learned of the break when he went in May 1972 for his last stint of filming at Sabbathday Lake. Coming home he wrote, "The trip was a moving one for me, mostly because of the desperateness of the situation." It was not then obvious of course whether the rupture could be healed or where it might lead for the Shakers. For the film it was clearly also a crisis. Davenport had already edited a rough cut of the first forty minutes and felt that to introduce the rupture would require a major reworking of the film. To exploit the rupture would be a tactless invasion of the Shakers' privacy—something they were already suffering at the hands of insensitive journalists and many busybodies among collectors, museum people, and others involved in "The World of Shaker." It seemed, moreover, unlikely that he could find an ending that would satisfy both societies. A change in the original proposal might also risk an intervention by the Ministry's lawyers, who had already intruded once into the film operations.

The only solution he could see was to end the film as of the time when he finished his earlier filming in the two societies, while there was still no rupture between them. Two later films also skirted the issue of the break. Ken Burns' rather perfunctory PBS film "The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God" (1984) avoided showing the brothers who by this time were active in the society at Sabbathday Lake. Jane Treays' much stronger BBC film "I Don't Want to be Remembered as a Chair" (1990) has lively interviews with both male and female Shakers at Sabbathday Lake but omits Canterbury.

Moreover, Davenport wanted his own film to close with something more satisfying than scenes of discord. From the start he and DeCola had felt that "the real potential of the film" was to offer "some guide and inspiration" to those in the unsettled 1970s who were "seeking new patterns or examples, for their own lives." He chose, then, to close the film with the family's prayer meeting at Sabbathday Lake, overlaid with its reverential song "O Holy Father" and followed by its spirited singing of "Oh, Brighter than the Morning Star." From their first visit in 1970 Tom Davenport and Frank DeCola had felt, as DeCola wrote Patterson, that "it is in Shaker music and singing as we experienced it at Sabbathday Lake that the spirit of the Shaker faith speaks most eloquently to the present."