By Sarah Platanitis
Rawn Fulton, the documentarian behind the 1978 independent film Root Hog or Die, introduced us to the lives and stories of several Franklin County farmers. Below is a Q&A with the filmmaker on how it affected his life, his work, and his hope for the film in a time struggling to support farmers.
Edible Pioneer Valley:How did the idea for the film start?
Rawn Fulton: I met local real estate agent D. William Pratt and he introduced me David Berelson, the film’s producer, at a cookout in 1972. He asked if I wanted to make a film about all of these farmers he met who were fantastically interesting people. A lot of them were older and interested in retiring. He could see that we were coming to the end of an era and a long tradition of New England small family farms. The title comes from an expression that farmer Louis Black talked to me about. It’s the idea that you have to do it yourself; really, it’s an old Yankee saying about being self-sufficient and working hard to get things done together.
EPV:What were some challenges that you faced during the project?
RF: We filmed up until fall of 1973, because of the gas crisis. There were only two of us working on it, myself and Newbold “Terry” Noyes, but the fallout was to stop work. We put it aside for five years until we got support from WGBY, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Greenfield Community College Foundation. Then the film was given away for tax purposes to the Greenfield Community College Foundation and they had it for a long time. For a long time, I mean 30 years. I ran into the head of the GCC Foundation one day and we got chatting about how he had a film that I shot and edited. He gave it to me a little while later. It was a film that I never owned in the first place but now I do and it feels great.
EPV:How has Root Hog or Die influenced your work since?
RF: I would say working on Root Hog or Die made me a better listener. I turned 27 in June 1973. I’m 68 now. The value of having met those people and gotten to know them and study their point of view on the world has stayed with me all this time. It was such a privilege to get to know them. I felt as though I was working with old friends and yet I’d never met them before. That kind of graciousness was a wonderful example for me about how to effectively work with other people, whether they are farmers or businessmen, young people or old people.
EPV:Have you ever wanted to do a follow-up?
RF: For many years, I’ve always wanted to go back and do another film based on what this one looked at. As a young man, I was idealistic and looking for the poetry in the daily lives of working farmers who, at some level, were both ennobled and embittered by their life experience. That happens to people in many walks of life, not just farming, but there’s a special character to this New England thing that really comes through in the film. It has a kind of magic about it that is very difficult to quantify. As a filmmaker who has been actively working in the years since I shot the film, I can also say that it’s very difficult to capture.
EPV:Do you have any favorite farmers from the film?
RF: Isabel Slate was such a gentle spirit, a reserved and thoughtful person. Minnie Richardson was marvelously grounded with a practical sense of how to do things and survive. She had high energy and a love of work. Her grandson still lives here in town and he adored her. Norman Field was an extraordinary thinker and homespun storyteller with a unique way of speaking. His brother was our mailman. Charlie Culver really represented both the realism and the charm of the rural way of life.
EPV:What will this film teach viewers in the next 40 years?
RF: The film represents something of a national treasure that gives us a glimpse into this basic way of living and seeing the world that has largely vanished. It’s returning in new ways now, which is wonderful, but the tradition has been largely obliterated. I’ve shown the film enough now to know that it really does resonate with people. There’s a kind of nostalgia that it evokes, which is undeniable. It’s not because of who I was or what I did; it’s because of who these people were and what they bring out in us. We are so blessed to have a chance to meet these people again now. I feel so honored that I had a chance to capture that and put it in a form that can be carried forward.
For more information about the film Root Hog or Die and filmmaker Rawn Fulton, visit SearchlightFilms.com.