MPT's 'Our Town' looks at Chestertown through residents' eyes

Z ON TV

December 10, 2009|By David Zurawik | david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Maryland Public Television launches a new documentary series this week titled "Our Town." And while it's based on a simple premise, it's loaded with rich possibilities for alternative ways of storytelling and the use of new technology to empower citizens to define themselves to some extent for TV and online audiences.

"Unlike a lot of historical documentaries seen on television," MPT says in a statement of purpose, "the 'Our Town' series will explore different Maryland communities through the eyes (and camera lenses) of the members of these communities."

The process involves "soliciting the involvement of a wide variety of each community's populace, from the mayor, to the bartender," lending them digital cameras and asking them to collect 15 to 20 minutes of video footage that answers the question, "What is special about your community?"

The first town given the chance to define itself from the inside out in a one-hour documentary is the Eastern Shore community of Chestertown. The film exploring this history-drenched setting on the banks of the Chester River premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday on MPT, and gets the series off to a promising launch.

The images are lovely: narrow, red-brick streets, white picket fences, quaint small-town shops, sunlight-dappled parks, brass bands playing in a town square and lots of blue, blue water.

The words of the residents are just as pleasing - with person after person saying how much he loves living in Chestertown. The theme of most remarks: Everyone knows each other, everyone looks out for each other, it is so much quieter and saner than the big city, and yet it has a rich diversity of residents.

While the dominant Chamber of Commerce tone is impossible to ignore, Peter Shea, the producer of the series, does a good job of presenting viewers with concrete evidence to back up some of the claims of the citizen filmmakers.

For example, viewers see and hear from Bob Ortiz, a furniture maker who has lived in Chestertown for 13 years.

"In my experience of Chestertown, it's a much more diverse place than most people really expect," he says to the camera. "If you think about me, a displaced Puerto Rican from New York making Japanese-inspired furniture in downtown Chestertown, that's not the usual image you get of Maryland's Eastern Shore."

Shea is also good in gathering a wide array of generational voices, so that viewers hear from children and adolescents as well as the expected middle-aged civic leaders.

One of the most surprising comments comes from a young girl who says there are places in Chestertown that remind her of visiting the Mermaid Lagoon in Disney's "Peter Pan." She's talking about living alongside the river and all the magic of nature that comes with it.

Washington College gets a lot of airtime, of course, and why not? One of the town folk credits it with giving the community an "intellectual and cultural depth" it otherwise wouldn't have.

In the end, the test of this series is going to be found in the balance between citizens telling happy stories about their Maryland towns and Shea's ability through selection, editing and gathering additional material to present a representational picture rather than a picture-perfect postcard.

To his credit, he brings in 1940 archival footage from the Historical Society of Kent County to contextualize all the talk of diversity today with a bit of the history of segregation and racial tension for which the Eastern Shore had been widely known.

Perhaps, he could have hit that history a little harder, but at least he added it to the mix. And for all the skilled editing and evocative images that made me want to visit Chestertown, it is that context, balance and attempt at authenticity that make me want to believe in the future of this series.

On TV
"Our Town: Chestertown" airs at 7 p.m. Saturday on MPT, Channels 22/67.

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