Film fest opens, fusing movies and music

By Hallie Arnold , Freeman staff
09/18/2003

MOUNT TREMPER - What began as a love affair with music coalesced into a second calling for Columbia County residents Ruth Oxenberg and Rob Schumer, whose freshman film "Bluegrass Journey" is showing today at the Woodstock Film Festival.

Two of the acts featured in the movie made their own journey of sorts Wednesday night to play to a packed house at the Spotted Dog at Catskill Corners.

Opening act Buddy Merriam & Back Roads made the Catskill Mountains feel more like the Blue Ridge Mountains with the bluegrass style they performed at the film festival's opening night concert.

"It's been a real honor to be in Ruth and Rob's film, so we're going to give it everything we've got tonight," Merriam told the crowd of about 150.

Peter Rowan and Friends followed soon after, led by the larger-than-life Rowan, who, in bluegrass tradition, mingled tunes with stories about song origins and about bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, whom Rowan performed with as a founding member of the Bluegrass Boys.

Many of the musicians backing Rowan were locals, including banjo player Bill Keith, composer and fiddler Jay Ungar, and Jack Dwyer, a 14-year-old musical prodigy from Saugerties, on mandolin.

In "Bluegrass Journey," two of the conceptual streams of the Woodstock Film Festival - local filmmakers and music in the movies - converge. In addition to soliciting and showing selections each year that have local connections, the film festival has, since its inception in 2000, made music and films about music an integral part of the programming.

Oxenberg and Schumer first stumbled across the bluegrass music scene in 1994, while looking for music to go along with the country wedding they were planning at their weekend home in Livingston, where they now live year-round.

"We began listening and listening, and Rob got on this mission and brought more stuff home, and we started studying it," Oxenberg said. "We just got more and more hooked."

The next year, Oxenberg and Schumer went to Winterhawk, a long-running bluegrass festival in Ancramdale, since renamed the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival.

Oxenberg, then a network news producer, pitched a story about the bluegrass festival to ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, her boss at the network. The story was approved by the network, and, in 1996, Oxenberg and a camera crew were back to shoot the story. It was then that the idea for "Bluegrass Journey" was born.

"One of our cameramen at Grey Fox said, 'This is such a kaleidoscope of Americana, it would make a great film,'" Oxenberg recalled. "Rob and I talked about it all the way home."

Looking to music movie masterpieces like "The Last Waltz" and "Jazz on a Summer's Day," Oxenberg and Schumer set out to document the bluegrass scene, shooting at Grey Fox and at the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual gathering in Kentucky.

"It's been a journey of some considerable magnitude," Schumer said. "Making a film about this, for first-time filmmakers, has been a journey of discovery - personal, as well as musical, as well as artistic."

"We pursued it for several years," Oxenberg said. "It wouldn't let us go. We were so consumed with bluegrass, and it just really changed our lives."

"Bluegrass Journey," which cost "a couple hundred thousand" dollars to make, Oxenberg said, was financed solely by private backers. She said this was not as difficult as it might seem, because the stock market had not yet started its decline and she and Schumer soon found others just as passionate about the music as they were.

"I was just so in love with my subject, and so excited to be doing this project and believed in it so much, it was easy to sell it," Oxenberg said.

Once the couple had shot roughly 182 hours of tape and digital video, they took it to editor Nancy Kennedy, who, over the course of nine months, developed the labor of love into a feature-length documentary at her studio in Mount Tremper.

Schumer said that while the film's marketing efforts are just starting, he and Oxenberg hope the Woodstock Film Festival and several other festivals that have accepted "Bluegrass Journey" will help the movie build momentum.

"Our hope is that, through the exposure at film festivals, one hopes to attract the attention of a film distributor with national reach who will pick up the film," Schumer said. Also on tap are plans to release a soundtrack from "Bluegrass Journey."

"Bluegrass Journey" will be shown at 7 tonight at the Bearsville Theater on state Route 212 in Woodstock and again at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Catskill Mountain Foundation theater on state Route 23A in Hunter.

The Woodstock Film Festival runs through Sunday.

©Daily Freeman 2003