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Vermonter's Estate Establishes Premier Film Foundation

State of the Arts


Toward the end of his relatively short life, Vermonter John M. Bissell was largely homebound due to illness. To pass the hours, he watched countless movies at his Hyde Park home. The films proved therapeutic, and Bissell developed a deep respect for the art form that transported him from his suffering.

Bissell wanted to give something back to the medium. Before he passed away in July 2007, he stipulated in his will that his estate go toward the creation of a foundation dedicated to helping promote film in Vermont. Recently, the John M. Bissell Foundation received official 501(c)3 nonprofit status. It was then approached by the West Branch Gallery in Stowe to partner in an exhibit of artworks by Austrian Roma artist Ceija Stojka. The foundation will be sponsoring films that, while not made by Stojka, are related to her experience as a Romani in the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps during World War II.

While this debut initiative doesn’t directly involve Vermont filmmaking, the foundation’s administrators say Bissell envisioned fostering local production.

The trust Bissell left behind is worth approximately $500,000, says Ed French, Bissell’s lawyer, whose Stowe-based firm, Stackpole & French, is administering the foundation. Its mission is pretty flexible; French says it is open to giving grants to a variety of Vermont film projects. Ideally, he adds, administrators would like to subsidize the work of an in-state filmmaker next. It would not be a huge grant, French cautions. The foundation is working with the Vermont Film Commission to refine its goals.

VFC director Joe Bookchin thinks the foundation is a “great idea” — its objectives, after all, dovetail perfectly with those of the commission. To Bookchin’s knowledge, there is no other such film-focused foundation in the state.

Bookchin’s job is not only to attract film production to Vermont, but also to “grow indigenous talent” here. Bissell Foundation grants could help do just that. “Small grants can help seed all kinds of production,” Bookchin says. “It actually makes a big difference.”

Eventually, Bookchin says, he’d like the Film Commission to get involved in giving grants, too. Considering Vermont’s small size, it has a robust filmmaking community. The cost of making movies has decreased dramatically given the availability and relative affordability of digital equipment, so even small grants — say, $5000 — can go a long way.

While the Bissell Foundation is still in its early stages, French and Bookchin anticipate it will serve an important need for the state’s arts community. “It’s one step in supporting a really unique and interesting movement that’s happening in the state,” Bookchin says.