The real Rhode Island

A new wave of grassroots documentaries captures Ocean State life, from Haven Bros. to the Ladd School to Fanny the Elephant
By PHILIP EIL  |  May 22, 2013

A CONTROVERSIAL INSTITUTION A still from 'Best Judgment: Ladd School Lessons.'

There are no red carpets, flashing cameras, stilettos, or sparkling dresses tonight. Instead, at the Woonsocket Public Library on an overcast Wednesday evening, a small group hovers around a metal A/V cart, trying to figure out the right combination of wires to make the digital projector spark to life. A handful of guests sit scattered in chairs around the room. Some are in wheelchairs, others wear Velcro-strap shoes.

"Sorry, everybody," one of the A/V people says, as the scheduled screening time passes.

Then, after a few minutes, the organizers abandon the projector and simply insert their DVD into a TV wheeled in front of the crowd. Before clicking "PLAY," a soft-spoken man with glasses and white hair — Jim Wolpaw, RISD professor and Oscar-nominated documentarian — says a few words.

"What we're going to see tonight . . . is a film that's not done," he says. "Literally, over the past 10 years various people have been doing interviews and thinking about making this film." He and the rest of the crew are looking for input about ways to go forward, he says.

>> Read "What to watch: 10 films, 10 compelling stories" <<

Then a documentary rolls, giving viewers access to a place as shrouded in rumor, anger, and curiosity as any in Rhode Island. Onscreen, Bob Macaux — Wolpaw's co-director, who matter-of-factly talks about his own Down syndrome — walks the grounds of the former Ladd School in Exeter. Weeds reach his chest as he approaches brick buildings with boarded and shattered windows.

"If I had been born 30 or 40 years earlier," Macaux says, "I probably would have ended up as a resident of Ladd or a similar institution."

A sketch of the center's history follows, tracing "a story of good intentions twisted by misconceptions" from 1908, when the Rhode Island School for the Feeble Minded was first founded, to 1994, when the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd School quietly shut its doors after decades of controversy.

One former visitor describes the "shock of my life," when he walked into a room to find a resident lying on a table, half-naked, covered in food, and smoking a corn cob pipe. "I saw people that looked to me like they were zombies," says another, recalling residents sitting in pools of urine and vomit. Newspaper clippings pass across the screen, with one headline reading, "Exeter School Described as Mere 'Dumping Ground.' "

But the film isn't that simple. Other interviewees speak of employees who moved from bed to bed in the school's crowded sleeping quarters, lovingly feeding, bathing, and changing residents' clothes. The workers did this for decades, they say. And during the discussion following the screening, another layer emerges. The film is produced in partnership with Advocates in Action Rhode Island, a self-advocacy group for those with developmental disabilities. Some of the people behind the cameras for Best Judgment: Ladd School Lessons are the same ones who testify onscreen about their time as Ladd residents.

Whenever it's finished — the crew hasn't yet offered a release date — it's clear that Best Judgment will be an extraordinary film. And yet, at the same time, its story of crowdsourcing for funds and advice; of filmmakers toiling for years with little pay or glamor to bring a true Rhode Island story to light, has an astonishing amount of company.

On the night the Best Judgment screening, a Kickstarter campaign is underway for a film that will follow Providence's Ward 9 councilwoman Carmen Castillo — perhaps the first hotel housekeeper in the country to hold elected office — through her pursuit of reelection in 2014. The following Thursday (the day this issue hits newsstands), Newport's Jane Pickens Theater is hosting a sneak preview of Vanishing Orchards, another decade-in-the-making project mapping the rise, fall, and resurgence of apple growers in the Ocean State. Next month, Rhode Island PBS will host the broadcast premiere of How Do You Love an Elephant?, the tale of an elephant named Fanny who lived in Pawtucket . . . and everything that happens when an elephant named Fanny lives in Pawtucket.

Spanning topics from homelessness in Providence to Newport high society, WaterFire to the Station fire, nonfiction filmmakers are fanning out across the Ocean State in seemingly unprecedented numbers. And unlike the effects of CGI-fueled action orgies shipped in from Hollywood, their films are leaving viewers enriched, challenged and, perhaps, even motived to press the red button on their own cameras.

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