The Catskills are catnip for artists, and have been ever since Thomas Cole painted his first majestic waterfall. Filmmaker David Becker is the latest aesthete to respond to the lure of the mountains, and he's making a whole film about the subject. In his documentary, "To Be Forever Wild," he talks to fly-tiers and astronomers, geologists and railfans, historians and Tibetan Buddhists about the siren song of the Catskills and the great outdoors.
Becker is sharing two exclusive sneak peeks of the film with the Watershed Post. You can watch them above and below on this story page. [Update 6/11/12: Becker has made one of the videos, of a cliff jumper, private, so we have removed it from this post. -- Ed.]
Becker is a veteran NYC documentarian who has worked with Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple on movies about the Dixie Chicks and an arts high school in the Bronx. His most recent film, about the life of Wavy Gravy, has won awards at festivals around the country.
Becker discovered the Catskills during one of his visits to the Woodstock Film Festival, got hooked and migrated to Saugerties three years ago, where he now teaches at the Woodstock Day School.
Becker began filming "To Be Forever Wild" in 2010, with the help of a crew of volunteers who camped out at the Platte Clove Artists-In-Residence Program at the Catskill Center. Students from Saugerties High School and Ulster County BOCES worked out of an office located just behind Lucky Chocolates in Saugerties to edit footage.
Last summer, just before Tropical Storm Irene tore through the region, Becker launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $10,000 to complete the film. After the storm hit, Becker wrote about its impact for the Sundance Film Festival Foundation:
As we have seen so clearly in recent days, nature also has a powerful dark side. Some of the people we meet in the film have come face to face with that side of the story – people like Stephen Tuomey of the Haines Falls Rescue Squad. In ordinary times, Stephen and his volunteer squad rescue people who fall or are injured in the mountains. The past few days, they’ve helped to rescue people from their own homes as floodwaters overtook them ... In some ways it’s an awkward time to be raising money for a film. But overall this past week has strengthened our resolve to share the stories of the Catskill Mountains and the people who live here.
The Kickstarter campaign met its goal, and Becker's crew has begun the editing process. Becker plans to submit the finished film to film festivals beginning this September. Here's our interview with Becker about the film.
Watershed Post: Why did you decide to make a movie about the Catskills?
David Becker: I usually make films usually about social issues and culture and music, and when I got to the Hudson Valley and the Catskills area, I just really reconnected with nature. That was something that was really important to me while I was growing up, and after living in NYC for ten years, every year I got further away from my roots. I became inspired to make a film about people in the Catskills and how they connect with nature, and what that brings to their lives.
WP: The Catskills are huge. What towns and counties are you covering in the film?
DB: The film profiles a wide range of people throughout the Catkills. In every town we've gone to we’ve just been embraced by the people there. People have so much pride in the Catskills, and this film is really putting that on display.
WP: Tell me about some of the people you talk to.
DB: We spent a day with with Michael Kudish and Dave Turan of the Michael Kudish Natural History Preserve in Delaware County. Dave is like so many of the people we filmed -- it was a pattern we saw. Dave lived in Washington, DC and was involved in politics. And now the Catskills have taken over his life. That was the theme from person after person. To us, that really showed the power of nature and the way that it inspires people to change their lives.
WP: I'm betting that local food is another one of the themes that comes up.
DB: Yes. It's best exemplified by a group we filmed in 2010 in Saugerties called the Fertile Minds Collective. They were a group of very young farmers who were doing organic farming in the Catskills and they had formed a collective that was very much about back to the land. They built an outdoor kitchen and really did amazing work collectively just kind of applying knowledge that each of them had. They farmed, they raised chickens, and they had goats, and they had a spirit of freedom and living off the land and living together collectively in a kind of communal environment. We were lucky enough to film part of it.
WP: Who else is in the movie?
DB: We went to some famous locations, like Fawn's Leap at Kaaterskill Falls, where we filmed cliff jumpers.
WP: Cliff jumpers?
DB: Fawn’s Leap is is a place that I think I first came across reading a book from the 1880s. Amazingly enough, to this day, on any given weekend there are dozens to hundreds of people there -- mostly young people, because those are brave enough to do it -- because it’s the perfect spot to jump from a cliff into the water. An amazing little human drama plays itself out every ten minutes there, as you see someone scared to death at the edge of this cliff, and they overcome their fear and they jump in and everyone claps. And they’re exhilarated. It happens again and again, apparently for the last 150 years, at this spot. And you’d never know it was there until you step over the guardrail and all of a sudden you see 50 people waiting to jump.
WP: One of the things we cover as a newspaper is people who die while hiking in the Catskills, particularly near Kaaterskill Falls. Do you address that in the film?
DB: Yes, we really wanted to address that. We interviewed Steven Tuomey, who works with the Haines Falls Rescue Squad. There was a young woman from Saugerties who died right before we started filming. That was on our minds as filmmakers. We wanted to look out for our crew, and we wanted to kind of pay honor and tribute to the people who had lost their lives. In addition to that, in a kind of philosophical sense, we were looking at what it is about being on the precipice and risking your life that makes you feel so alive.