Documenting A Sustainable Life
Associate Professor Blis DeVault’s award-winning film tells the story of one man’s mission to create a renewable future
She slings her equipment bag over her shoulder and follows the man with the green spark in his eyes. It’s a spring day in 2003 in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, and Blis DeVault has come to Paul Strauss’ farm to learn about plants for a documentary she’s preparing for the public television station in Athens, Ohio.
They follow the footpath, made spongy in spots by the spring rains, through fields and under tree canopies, passing rocks, a cave, an occasional waterfall, a stream. Strauss hasn’t stopped talking since the moment she rolled up at the old farmhouse, meticulously restored over the years into a functioning replica of itself. The topic today, like most days, is plants—the abundant variety of rare medicinal plants that Strauss has cultivated into a botanical business and sanctuary.
Strauss moves down the path into a hollow, where the forest floor is a tangle of dead vines and old gray leaves, and squats onto the leafy carpet, reaching for a shoot of green poking up between the roots of a birch tree. A small white flower spreads out above the green of the leaves, its three snowy petals expanding from a center of tiny, curvy yellow stamens.
He turns and looks at DeVault. “I’ve been visiting this plant for 30 years,” he says, tucking two fingers under the trillium flower. “I have a relationship with this plant.”
DeVault and an assistant set up the camera and begin filming. But her mind is churning, already leaping years ahead to the film she now realizes she must create. A health film about medicinal plants is one thing, she thinks, but this man’s story is something else entirely.
“I thought I needed to do something more about who this person is rather than just a plant identification sort of thing,” she says. “People don’t even stay married for 30 years, let alone he has this relationship with this flower.”
It took the next 12 years and a lot of fundraising and personal investment for DeVault to put the film together. Between parenthood and moving into her new job at Xavier in 2008, where she’s now director of the Xavier Television Center and associate professor of arts and innovation, she squeezed in visits to Strauss’ farm for interviews and filming sessions.
But by the end of 2012, she had completed the film—“The Sanctity of Sanctuary: Paul Strauss and the Equinox Farm”—her first independently produced full-length documentary. She entered it into 10 film festivals, including Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah. It did not make Sundance, but it did get into six others and almost immediately began to gain a national and international audience. Other films she’d made had done well but could not be entered into festivals because they were produced for PBS, not the independent film industry. This was a big first for her.
“It’s hard for independent filmmakers, because everything is digital and people don’t want to pay for movies,” she says. “But they don’t realize it helps independent film makers to have a voice, and the film festivals get the word out and bring notoriety to your project and to you as a filmmaker. I tell my students, ‘Don’t make your movies just for the awards. Be true to yourself.’ However the awards definitely help with marketing and recognition.”
“Sanctity” gained momentum because of its powerful message about the environment and its call for people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. Its title includes a descriptor about the film’s extraordinary story of the man and his land: “An Appalachian love affair between a man, his farm, and his desire to make the world a better place. This film ignites the green spark within us to live sustainably and to appreciate, cherish and protect our world.”
“Sanctity” went on to win Best Environmental Film at the Byron Bay Film Festival in New South Wales, Australia, in 2013, where it received its world premiere. The film was also accepted and screened at festivals in Jakarta, Indonesia; Athens, Ohio; Maui; The Bahamas; and the Cincinnati Film Festival, where it won Best Regional Film in a category that included both narrative and documentary films. It also won a Telly industry award.
That alone made 2013 a good year for DeVault. But on top of the awards, the film also generated notoriety for Xavier’s Electronic Media program, where students learn the technology, business and storytelling elements of film and television along with their liberal arts education. With DeVault, they also get a strong message about the social responsibility that’s part of being a good filmmaker.
Having a powerful message is key to making a successful documentary, she says. It’s something she stresses with her students, several of whom worked on the film with her, and it’s one reason “Sanctity” has done so well.
“Bringing those types of stories to life reinvigorates us as human beings and shows we can make a difference,” DeVault says. “My approach is I want to make a difference by showing people who make a difference, and show viewers they can change their thinking and be inspired.”
Alexandra Nese learned that on the job. DeVault hired her as a summer research assistant in 2012. Nese was majoring in public relations, but she worked as the Television Center manager. The job was a perfect way to learn about the industry, but the summer job with DeVault taught her how film can be transformational.
“It was really eye-opening because unless you live in a coal town, you don’t really see the damage that gets caused,” she says. “I had no idea what goes into heating a home or where it comes from.”
Nese helped find “B” roll—the background footage—to complete the film, including aerial shots of strip-mining, mountaintop coal removal, oil spills and fracking. DeVault found a video of the top of a mountain being blasted off for coal mining. The stills and video illustrate when Strauss talks about the condition the land was in when he first bought the damaged acres.
“It allowed me to see how much work goes into making documentaries and films in general,” she says. “Working on ‘Sanctity’ opened my eyes to the damage we are capable of causing.”
What inspires people who watch “Sanctity of Sanctuary?” Like the group of Australian festival-goers who were so moved by the film that they called Strauss to sign up as sanctuary interns, DeVault says they’re inspired by the man himself. In frame after frame, viewers see the trees and tender plants, the wetlands restored from toxic pools of acid water. They hear him talking about the power of the land and the importance of preserving it. They hear the sounds of water and rain, leaves crunching underfoot, the silence of a meadow, and they get a sense that what he has accomplished since arriving in southeastern Ohio 45 years ago is nothing short of remarkable.
He was only 19 when he stumbled across the area in the fall of 1970, a long-haired wanderer heading back east after spending six months living with a Shoshone Indian medicine man in New Mexico. On his way back east in September that year, he stopped overnight in southeastern Ohio and fell in love with the land near Rutland, just south of Athens. Since buying his first 80 acres of farmland, restoring the old farmhouse, and discovering an abundance of rare medicinal plants throughout the region, he’s accumulated about 300 acres of his own, including some abandoned strip-mined land that he has since restored.
Others drawn to his cause bought land nearby and together, they’ve amassed over 2,000 acres that are now protected and under cultivation, including the Goldenseal Botanical Sanctuary—370 acres of native hardwood forest and fields that are part of a non-profit group devoted to preserving native medicinal plants.
DeVault met Strauss through her husband, who was then a graduate student in Athens. They joined potluck dinners at the farm. “He had a mission,” she says. “He wanted to preserve the land. He wanted people to rethink how to live on the planet, and I realized I wanted to do more with him.”
But when she came to film, beginning in earnest in the summer of 2010, he wasn’t too keen on the idea. He didn’t know where it would lead. But he obliged, and she began by spending a couple hours just filming him talking about his history with the place. She identified the major themes for the film—his personal story, restoring the land, developing the sanctuary, his botanical business, teaching others—and wrote a script.
She did most of the work in the summers, making the three-hour trip from Cincinnati to capture additional footage. She spent the summer of 2011 interviewing other people who are part of his story. In 2012, with financial support from Xavier, she was able to hire a professional cameraman, plus a student and an editor, to help get additional shots, compile “B” roll and complete the editing process. She entered the festivals in December that year and by March 2013, she was in Australia with her film, where she also delivered a workshop.
Though Xavier helped, she raised about $16,000 through a Kickstarter campaign and funded the rest of the $40,000 cost herself. Despite the cost, the experience has been thoroughly rewarding, she says. It’s what she’s always dreamed of doing since she was a student in Cleveland where she fell in love with film under the tutelage of a photographer who taught her about surrealism. That was followed by a trip to Berlin where she witnessed the wall’s demise in 1989 and realized she should be documenting one of the most important historical events of her time.
It was a wakeup moment, she says, and she decided to go to film school, where she learned that to tell a story through film, she must always have a metaphor. For “Sanctity,” the metaphor is a man married to his farm and his work. It’s a concept she emphasizes with her students that shows up in her other films—“The Roller Derby Queens,” a film about the everyday women who skate that was produced in 2010 with an all-student production crew, and “Wandering Souls: Tet ’68 Remembered,” a film she made about Vietnam veterans.
“Documentary film sheds light on the world and people who have wonderful stories to tell and on things that need to change. Through documentary and narrative film, students must have a socially significant issue. Film is our society’s way of telling stories,” she says.
Strauss is proud of his role in the film and his relationship with Xavier, where he was given the title Practical Visionary in Residence. He’s visited twice to interact with students and oversaw planting of a prairie garden on campus. Planting wildflowers is his way of bringing hope to people everywhere and, maybe, changing the world just a little bit.
“I use this film as a teaching tool,” he says. “It affects people deeply and is an opportunity to change young people’s lives and give my point of view that I think is more sane than others.” And to show how a little trillium plant could motivate a man to change the world by lighting a green spark in everyone he meets.
FIND MORE ONLINE:
- ABOUT STUDENT AWARD-WINNERS IN THE ELECTRONIC MEDIA PROGRAM, NOW CALLED DIGITAL INNOVATION, FILM AND TELEVISION.
- ABOUT PAUL STRAUSS AND HIS EQUINOX FARM.
- ABOUT “SANCTITY OF SANCTUARY” ON FACEBOOK.
- VIEW THE MOVIE TRAILER AND PURCHASE A DVD OF THE FILM.
- WATCH A VIDEO OF PAUL STRAUSS’ VISIT AS VISIONARY IN RESIDENCE AT XAVIER.