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Animating Reality

Flick Chick

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Freshly laundered clothes fluttering in the wind. A man planting pumpkin seeds. Vibrant autumn leaves. These are a few of the everyday images depicted with layered, translucent tissue paper in "No Place Like Home," Meredith Holch's 30-minute animated documentary about refugees and asylum seekers in Vermont. The East Hardwick resident uses those simple touchstones as the visual backdrop for recorded interviews with people from Bosnia, Sudan, Somalia, Burundi and Tibet who have resettled in Burlington and Winooski. The film will screen this week at the Plainfield Community Center and Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover.

I want to increase awareness of the refugee experience," explains Holch, a 44-year-old Connecticut native. "I'd like Vermonters to understand their struggles and successes."

Her own success story was already evident in 1982, when Holch graduated magna cum laude from Duke University. A public policy and French major, she soon found herself in the Green Mountain State picking apples. Then, while working at an organic basil farm in Putney, Holch caught a Bread and Puppet show and remembers thinking, "Wow, this is really cool." She migrated further north in the mid-1980s to join the troupe, a stint that lasted for five years.

Filmmaking entered the picture when Holch used her father's old Super-8 camera to shoot "The Hunt," a 1994 live-action short that improbably combines deer season and the kind of gloomy characters populating an Ingmar Bergman classic.

Holch moved to New York City for six years, earning an MFA in film and video from Bard College in 2000. She taught at New School University, did post-production chores on docs for HBO and MTV, and visited Macedonia to shoot a dance performance that was streamed live over the Internet. She notes that her work has been showcased at film festivals around the country, as well as at "various nontraditional sites, including the walls of endangered community gardens, courtyards of downtown cultural centers, public libraries and the sides of old barns."

"Rocket Girl's Revenge" is a 1993 short-fiction film targeting an unpleasant landlord. Made in 2000, "Hdwd Floors, No Fee, No Pets"-- the title borrows lingo from newspaper ads for apartments-- skewers the urban real-estate boom. Other Holch projects have zeroed in on subjects ranging from the U.S. military in Iraq to drag night at a lesbian cafe in Brooklyn.

Upon returning to Vermont in 2001, she says, "I chose Hardwick at random because most of my creative base is in the Glover area."

Holch has since taught animation in after-school programs and video to adult-education students. She created public-service announcements for the Dr. Dynasaur children's health initiative. A fellowship at the MacDowell Arts Colony in New Hampshire during the winter of 2004 further bolstered her career.

With "No Place Like Home," Holch faced new challenges. "It was hard to meet the people I needed to interview because the agencies that help refugees are concerned about confidentiality," she says.

But Holch discovered that her dental hygienist hails from Bosnia. Through other instances of serendipity, she eventually met enough refugees willing to talk about their lives in Vermont.

Her animation process-- the stop-action method rather than computerization-- generally involves found objects and art that she constructs. Holch's 2003 short, "Spoon," conveys an antiwar message with miniature toys and kitchen utensils. "My Hero," a 1995 effort, turns a stainless-steel vegetable steamer into a flying saucer.

In "No Place Like Home," the translucent tissue paper periodically makes room for magazine pictures or her hand-drawn likenesses of ordinary materials. Holch sketched a length of chain-link and cut out the holes with an Exacto knife to represent the top of an enclosed yard at a detention center that has no windows. In the case of asylum seekers who have been incarcerated in the U.S, "The sky through a chain-link grated ceiling is the only glimpse of America [they] can see," she says.

Holch added a grace note to this critique of the government's repressive measures. Geese winging their way south over the autumnal pumpkin garden earlier in the film are later glimpsed soaring above the refugees' grate-- surely a symbol of the universal desire for freedom.

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