WOONSOCKET – There’s a lingering question on the mind of award-winning filmmaker and city native Derek Dubois.
Does anybody outside this struggling ex-mill town care about its plight and how the people who live here cope?
The adjunct film professor at Rhode Island College and the director of seven film shorts is well on his way to finding out. He just finished the trailer for his first feature-length film, a documentary that will explore the tough times through the lens of the city’s annual Autumnfest celebration.
“It’s not just about Autumnfest,” says Dubois. “It’s about getting Autumnfest off the ground. Doing that in a city that’s in the condition Woonsocket is right now makes for a very interesting story.”
“City on the Move” borrows the title from the city’s official slogan, coined some two decades ago. Though Dubois already has the trailer up on his web site, his plan is to premiere the complete film at the Stadium Theatre next September as a fundraiser for Autumnfest 2014.
That will be the 36th annual installment of the sprawling festival that sees World War II Park morph into a carnival-like setting packed with food vendors, amusement rides and fans of all kind of music. Chronologically speaking, the festival was already eight years old before Dubois was even born, which made it easy to overlook as the subject for a movie.
The 27-year-old son of City Councilman Marc Dubois says he was skeptical when his uncle, Mike Dubois, first suggested he train his lens on the city and its biggest celebration. Mike Dubois, a member of the Rotary Club, has long been associated with Autumnfest’s organizational team.
He remembers his uncle’s pitch. “There’s a story to be told,” Mike assured him.
“I didn’t think a story about something like a festival in Woonsocket would translate outside the city,” he says. “I didn’t know if people in Oklahoma or in other cities would appreciate something like this.”
Judging from the trailer, however, Dubois doesn’t seem to have had much difficulty mining some universal appeal from the story of a city once regaled as the workhorse of the Industrial Age fallen on hard times.
In a fleeting series of edits that make up the 80-second clip, we see familiar images of urban disinvestment that could be Anywhere USA: boarded-up tenements, the lonely, abandoned shells of big retail boxes and a sign above a local convenience store loudly proclaiming, “WE ACCEPT EBT CARD AND WIC.” In between a newscaster reports the latest on the city’s financial troubles and key public figures, including Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and his challenger in the current election, state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49), provide somber perspective and prescriptive cures for the fiscal blues.
Things brighten up as the focus turns, toward the end of the trailer, to Autumnfest, the neon-glow of nighttime carnival rides and the incessant, invigorating pulse of live rock music.
In case you missed the storyline, it’s there in black and white as the montage goes whirring by: “A city on the brink of ruin,” one frame says. “A thirty-five year old tradition,” offers another. It ends with the title: “A City on the Move.”
Dubois says he has managed to find conflict, passion and inspiration in the story. Some of the main players in the documentary are members of the Autumnfest Steering Committee or the Rotary Club, groups “which historically don’t get along,” he says.
“They need each other,” says Dubois. “They’re kind of stuck in a co-dependent relationship where they need each other even though historically they didn’t get along. I think what you’re going to see in the film is the bridge past that conflict.”
Despite his family ties to Autumnfest, Dubois says “City on the Move” isn’t a promotional project, but a serious documentary that he intends to market aggressively to a wide audience on the film festival circuit. It’s a nonprofit venture that he’ll never see a dime from, he says, but he’ll consider it an artistic success if he can get it in front of a broad audience, something he’s managed to do with his shorter works.
“I consider it a personal challenge to take a local news story like the current crisis in Woonsocket and make that interesting to people outside Woonsocket,” he says. “So if it does well on the documentary circuit, maybe we’ll get it on PBS.”
THOUGH THE advent of digital SLR cameras and desktop editing software has opened the doors of filmmaking to a slew of newcomers, including amateurs and the untalented, Dubois is neither.
He’s been cranking out films at the rate of roughly one a year since 2006, works that range from just a few minutes to roughly a half-hour in length. They are a mixture of documentaries, horror flicks and thrillers, some of which are doing quite well on festival circuits.
“Fallout,” a chiller about two brothers trapped in a shelter “while an unseen threat looms,” was one of 250 local films selected for competition in the recent Rhode Island International Film Festival. Just getting in was an accomplishment, but the judges later awarded the film the New England Discovery Award, which is usually conferred on a local artist seen as an up-and-comer. The Online New England Film Festival also honored “Fallout” as Best Action/Suspense Film of 2013.”
A couple of weeks ago, Dubois’ new horror flick “Lucid” took the Providence Underground Award during its premiere at the Rhode Island 2013 International Horror Film Festival.
Dubois, who also holds down a full-time job with CVS/Caremark as a project efficiencies consultant, never set out to become a filmmaker. During his early days as a student at RIC, he was pursuing a major in psychology. Along the way, in 2004, he was required to take a course in film, and that was it – he was hooked.
He wound up double-majoring in psychology and film, but he didn’t stop there. He went onto to complete the graduate program in RIC’s media studies department.
“I never left college,” he says. “After completing my graduate studies I started teaching in the film program as an adjunct professor.”
He teaches two courses at RIC, an introduction to film analysis and writing for the screen.
Writing and directing film seem like a natural fit for Dubois, who describes himself as something of an artistic “control freak.” He used to be in a band, he says, and he wanted to do it all, write the lyrics, sing the songs and play the guitar. It’s ambitious, but that’s not how bands work, he says.
Film has been more kind to his inner micromanager.
“I think what drew me to film it it’s an artistic medium where the director is prized,” he says. “Even though it’s a collaborative medium, it’s really the director who is considered the essential artist, the one who gets authorship.”