BY ALISE CHAFFINS
Clara Lehmann and Jonathan Lacocque embodied the spirit of their film “O Pioneer” when they traveled with their daughters from Helvetia to Mountain View, Calif., for the Cinequest Film Festival in late August.
“O Pioneer” is a documentary film following three West Virginia residents — James Morley, a chaplain in Bridgeport; Tim Hibbs, a blacksmith and musician living in Queens; and Nellie Rose Gunderson Davis, a seamstress who lives and works in Thomas.
“O Pioneer” will be screened at 8:15 p.m. today in the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center in Clarksburg, as part of the Mtn Craft Film Festival. Tickets for the festival can be purchased at therobinsongrand.com.
The film blends music, narration and animation to tell the story of these West Virginians and to remind viewers that everyday people can still be exceptional.
“One moody March night in 2020, I was thinking that oftentimes we celebrate this pioneer that is really powerful,” Lehmann said. “Curing cancer, traveling to the moon. But the pioneer of the past was much more grounded and rooted in very laborious work. You were a pawn. You may be a trailblazer, but it’s not necessarily prestigious.
“I feel like humanity is starting to do this thing where we put the billionaires over here and the everyday person over here, and we’re not celebrating that everyday person in ourselves.”
Drawing inspiration from Walt Whitman’s poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!,” Lehmann and Lacocque began considering the small, unnoticed acts of pioneering that occur locally, and how those local decisions to follow the calling of the pioneer have an impact on their communities and themselves.
“We asked ourselves, ‘what makes a pioneer?’ ” Lehmann said. “We thought of blacksmithing, seamstress, chaplains, the traditional routes that you might see when people were encouraged to go west.”
Lacocque continued, “We knew James Morley as a guest preacher at the church we attended. We love Thomas and had known of Nelly and we were drawn to her art and her persona. And Tim Hibbs would come to the Helvetia Fair with his art and metalwork. So these were three people we knew, but we didn’t know very well. So selfishly, we thought, ‘Let’s see if we can make this film about the everyday person with these people we find interesting!’ ”
The film was shot during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that plays prominently in the stories — particularly Hibbs’, as his wife is a nurse. While the three subjects were not connected, the thread of COVID runs through each of their stories and binds them together in a unique way. Their stories have some similarities, but there is a lot of diversity in their stories as well, which adds depth to the film.
While at Cinequest, “O Pioneer” won the Audience Award for Documentary Feature. Since then, the filmmakers also received a $50,000 investment from Country Roads Angel Network that will allow them to share the movie with more people in Appalachia.
Lehmann said, “You might hear people say that West Virginian’s bootstrap and are resilient, but I think that it’s really this beautiful, creative capacity to say, ‘I know that I face something difficult. I’m going to figure out how to mold it to be something that I can use to my advantage as someone who is a pioneer.’”