📷 A moment in the filming of Greater Southbridge. L-R: Rod Murphy, Justin Earls, Gina B. Murphy and Jerry Sciesniewski. Photo courtesy Rod Murphy.
By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor
SOUTHBRIDGE – More than 15 years ago, the town that calls itself The Eye of the Commonwealth became the subject of a documentary film that remains uniquely memorable to this day. And, love it or hate it, Greater Southbridge presented a snapshot of this small town in a way that has been described more than once with the phrase “warts and all.”
Greater Southbridge has evoked strong reactions in the years since its release in 2003, both from those that grew up or live in Southbridge and from those looking in from the outside on the strange spectacle seen in the film. Some Southbridge natives have bristled at the possibility that the film could reinforce the worst of what people already thought of the town. Others have found great humor in the film or felt recognition as some of the locals they might call characters for their quirks were transformed into characters on the screen.
The film was made by Rod Murphy and Justin Earls, who have Southbridge roots, along with their colleague Scott B. Morgan. There is an opportunity to watch (or re-watch) the film this week; it will be shown at Jacob Edwards Library Thursday, Nov. 8 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Library staff doesn’t normally require patrons to reserve a spot or sign up for regular programs. This event is different though, as it was scheduled due to significant community interest in the film, so the library asks that you call (508) 764-5426 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a spot.
Demand for this event may also be driven by the fact that it can be difficult to find a copy of the documentary. It is available in a very limited supply through Netflix’s DVD-only service, DVD.com. On Amazon.com, copies are listed at exorbitant prices starting at $84.99. And although Greater Southbridge was shared at film festivals after its release, it appears that the film was only released on DVD, in limited supply, for the general public to rent on Netflix in 2006.
The film seems to evoke strong emotional reactions, whether it be amusement, discomfort, shock or for some, that strange kind of nostalgia for the place you grew up in but could never explain to anyone. Greater Southbridge definitely looks at daily life in the town with an unflinching regard for the value of showing people as they are. The characters whose stories drive the film are not chosen because they are pillars of the community, have achieved a particular status, or are educated with a special expertise on the town. They are chosen instead because they may be interesting and unique; they have evoked the filmmakers’ curiosity.
Greater Southbridge is built on interviews with people in Southbridge, showing a variety of volatile, addicted, bombastic and otherwise unusual personalities. In the film’s trailer alone, one man tells the camera crew that he escaped from a psychiatric facility and another informs the filmmakers that he had cocaine for dinner the previous night.
It is this type of dialogue that has offended many who would have preferred that Southbridge be portrayed in a different light. But as much as it shows people in raw form, the film also shows plenty of heart, with a search for missing local man Harry Shaw and an emphasis on scenes with local man Jerry Sciesniewski. Shaw was found deceased after the filming. Sciesniewski remains a well-known and beloved part of the Southbridge community to this day; just about everyone knows “Jerry”, and many in town feel protective of him.
Rod Murphy was available recently to reflect on the film. Murphy says that he didn’t start the project with the intention of making a documentary. He viewed it more as a creative outlet and a way to get to know some of the people he saw around town. Murphy had moved back to Southbridge for family reasons and chose to take a closer look at the “street level folks” that he saw around town.
“I was looking for something to distract myself from being back in town. It didn’t start as a film. It started as an excuse to get to know these people, what makes them tick,” Murphy says.
Murphy himself admits that he wasn’t thrilled to move back to Southbridge at first. But these characters, the type that could be present in any small town in a variety of forms, provided endless material for Murphy and his fellow filmmakers – and a reason to take a closer look at the frequently maligned town.
An extended description of the movie at RottenTomatoes.com and on other websites says that “After 90 hours of heartwarming footage, many new friends and six years of filming/editing, an unanticipated sense of hometown pride arose within the filmmakers and the post-production staff, a feeling not present at the beginning of production.”
The story that the filmmakers captured did turn out to be timely for some of the individuals they interviewed. Many of the Southbridge residents shown in the film are no longer alive. Murphy says that as the film was shown at festivals, many people in the film began to disappear from the local scene. He estimates that within two years of the film’s release, about eight to ten people who appear in the film passed away.
“I had just got to know them, too. I don’t think it’s a curse or anything like that. It just goes to show just how many folks, the volume of people, that are living on the edge,” Murphy reflects. “It shows how volatile these folks are. But these are people, living in the margins. A lot of us are a paycheck or a bad break away from being in a situation like them.”
Murphy has gone on to make other documentaries and has won awards at film festivals (as listed here on his website), but Greater Southbridge remains a unique experience for him. He now lives in North Carolina, but he visits Southbridge several times a year. He still considers Southbridge a unique place full of some of the most interesting people.
“Southbridge is this place that is hard to get to, so for that reason, you have to seek it out,” Murphy says. “I’m always amazed at how there are more characters in that town than in many towns ten times the size. I’ve lived all over the place and there is still something about the wildness and the intensity of these characters in Southbridge.”
In addition to oddballs and outrageous characters, Murphy says that he also finds another type of resident to be in full supply in Southbridge.
“There are healthy people who keep an eye on people in the margins,” he remarks. “There are good people there. They’re smart and they care about their neighbors. They’re tolerant.”
Murphy gets plenty of inquiries about the film on a regular basis through email and phone calls. Many of those that contact him wonder if or when the filmmakers might produce a sequel. Murphy says that he wouldn’t rule out the idea of a sequel, but there would have to be special circumstances to launch a new project. It would have to be based on new ideas or have a new focus relevant to the Southbridge of today. Murphy might have to have to temporarily relocate closer to town and have some help to find the updated stories that have emerged in Southbridge since the original release.
“It’s exciting to me, the idea of a follow-up. If I could find to do it in a finite way, I might do it,” Murphy remarks. “It would have to have a new hook, a new idea to launch from.”
“It would have been cool to do it for the fifteenth anniversary of the film,” he adds. “but maybe there is still potential to do a twentieth-anniversary sequel.”
To reserve a spot for the screening of Greater Southbridge at Jacob Edwards Library on Thursday, Nov. 8, call (508) 764-5426 or email email@example.com.