October Country – Thoughts

(Note: I wrote this in October of 2010, prior to having any knowledge that I’d soon find myself living back in my hometown!)

I went to one of the screenings of the Human Rights Film Festival at Newhouse on late Saturday afternoon. I was particularly interested in seeing October Country as it takes place in the Mohawk Valley – Ilion, to be exact*. As you may or may not know, I grew up in Herkimer, which is right next door, so I was curious as to how the area was portrayed.

Overall, this was a poignant and intimate documentary, offering a look at a family caught in a cycle of, essentially, decay, like the season mentioned in the title and much of the industry of the area. The film was beautifully shot, with long, evocative looks at simple moments, such as the snow blowing off a rooftop or the moments in which a person tries to hold themselves together, but emotion forces itself to break through. I left the screening feeling empathy for all of the family members; some of their worst moments are portrayed, but they speak thoughtfully about their situations.

As I mentioned, I grew up in the area. However, my life was markedly different than the lives shown in this film and I can see how much that colors my perception of the Mohawk Valley. My life in the Valley was not perfect by any means, but I recognize that I had opportunity that others may not have had. Hence, rather than longing to escape my small town, I look to it as a safe port of family and familiar places (although much has changed since I first left for college). Knowing that I can leave and come back at will allows me to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and appreciate its place in time. I can’t blame the area for anything in my life.

In researching the film before and after I watched it, I found it interesting that I couldn’t easily find any mentions of it in any of the Valley newspapers. I’m guessing that this Syracuse screening is the closest it’s come to being shown in the area? I guess I’m just curious what the local response would be. As my own thesis film has Herkimer as one of the main subjects, these are the sorts of things in my head. And even though the filmmaker was a member of the family featured in “October Country”, I am always wondering about the perception of one being an outsider to the subject/place of their work. Can I really make any comment if I don’t actually live in a place? Is that valid?

I guess I just keep coming back to the idea that although I do feel like an outsider at times, there is still something that calls to me and I can’t ignore that. This place is strongly tied to my identity and is part of my own story and maybe there is something I can contribute to its story.

All that to say that this film made me think deeply about identity as tied to place and setting and I do recommend watching it if you have the opportunity. It is a difficult film at times, especially if you are a parent, wondering what you can possibly to prevent the seeds of destructive cycles from ever taking root in your own children.

* I have to admit that reading some reviews that place the film in Herkimer kind of bothered me. Yes, some scenes take place in Herkimer, but the family lives in Ilion, which I think is an important point as the family’s relationship to Remington Arms and that company’s history in Ilion is discussed. And, although they are small towns, I think it’s important to understand, however slight they may be, the nuances of difference between places like Herkimer, Ilion, Mohawk, Little Falls, Frankfort, et al.