By WILL DIGRAVIO
MIDDLEBURY — “The Collinwood Fire,” the latest animated film by Middlebury’s Daniel Houghton, begins with a filmmaker and a journalist racing toward a column of smoke rising above a small town.
When the duo arrive at the scene, they record what they see on film and paper: children fleeing their elementary school as it is devoured by flames, forced to run past the corpses of their classmates and jump off a fire escape that does not reach the ground.
If you want to witness these events yourself, you can view the film online right now.
“The Collinwood Fire” is part of the PBS Online Film Festival, which features 25 short films from around the country. Viewers of the all-digital festival can vote for their favorite for a week beginning July 17. This year’s films can be seen at pbs.org/filmfestival.
As evidenced by the numerous accolades it has received at film festivals, “The Collinwood Fire” has resonated with audiences. This past April, at the Cleveland International Film Festival, it won the award for Best Ohio Short. Last October, the film was awarded Best Short at the Blender Conference, an animation festival in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
That is no surprise to Eric Ford, the senior manager of local content at Vermont PBS, which submitted Houghton’s film to the national PBS competition.
“Just the technical side of what went into making this film is really an achievement. It’s something you would expect coming out of a major city where you have lots of high-level people working on it,” Ford said.
“The animation and sound design is amazing. And that’s not even talking about the content. It’s telling this amazing story with no script. It’s just visuals, you’re just seeing what’s happening. There’s real archival footage combined with the animation.”
The story Houghton tells in his film is based on real events that transpired in Collinwood, Ohio, on March 4, 1908, where 172 children and two teachers were killed in a fire at Collinwood Elementary School. By the time the fire was extinguished, a rescuer had died and the school was burned to the ground.
Houghton, 34, teaches animation and video production at Middlebury College. He finished the film last fall after working on it for nearly two years. He co-wrote it with Middlebury Professor Michael Newbury, whose extensive research on the topic provided the basis for the film’s story. Roughly a dozen animation students and research assistants also contributed. Houghton and Newbury are credited as the film’s director and producer, respectively.
In the film, the animated journalist begins to envision copy that will captivate a nation: “Collinwood in Tears While Bodies of Little Dead are Being Borne to the Grave,” “Mothers Driven Wild By Grief,” “Parents’ Agony Touches Hearts.
One of the more prominent ideas explored in the film is the sensationalist tendencies of the media, specifically, how it dealt and continues to deal with carnage.
“We used (actual) newspaper stories as a guide. We took real headlines and put them in the animation,” Houghton said. “In reading the stories, I (examined) their tone, how sensational they were and how they affected my sense of good taste. As far as they crossed the line, we crossed the line. (The articles) described the (story) in great detail, really grizzly detail at some times.”
The fire was also one of the first major tragedies in history to be captured on film. At the time, cameras and film were a new technology, and the role they would play in capturing and delivering news had not yet been established. In “The Collinwood Fire,” the animated cameraman stands just a few yards away from the school, filming the students as they either survive or are taken by the fire. At one point, he captures a tiny body being carried into a makeshift morgue.
“People were just appalled there was a camera operator there who, three days later screened it at his local cinema in downtown Cleveland. On one hand it is appalling, and on the other hand it’s unclear what he was actually showing,” Houghton said. “All that survived is two clips from the Library of Congress. One is the smoldering interior of the school and the other is the public burial. They banned him from showing the film. He left the town and went on tour showing it.”
The outrage expressed by the public over the film, Houghton argues, was somewhat hypocritical. At the same time the footage of the fire was showcased, journalists were printing sensationalist stories full of falsehoods.
Houghton’s film explores this dichotomy in a scene where dozens of children attempt to cram through the school’s front door to escape. They are unable to squeeze past one another and thus are taken by the flames. As the cameraman attempts to capture their deaths, a policeman blocks his camera and pushes him out of the way, but does nothing to the journalist standing right beside him. The newspaperman later described what he saw in misleading and hyperbolic terms: “Children in Mad Panic Rush Into the Jaws of Death and are Trapped Like Rats By Closed Door.” That language is drawn from a real story in the wake of the event.
“It says something about the media, about the written word and what that does to our imagination versus the still image, the moving image, and now the interactive and virtual reality,” Houghton said.
“Each one of these things gives a more intimate view of the carnage and we both hate it and love it. We say something in (our film) about that too. This dual nature of what we’re willing to pay attention to. There’s always this dark thread to what we’re willing to read.”
One of the harshest deaths depicted in the film is that of 11-year old Glenn Sanderson. In the film, Sanderson is in the school auditorium when the fire begins. To avoid the flames, he shimmies up a pillar and jumps to a chandelier. He attempts to use the chandelier to swing to a nearby window, however, he falls short and perishes in the flames.
This account of his death was reported in The Cleveland Leader, which said the crowd witnessed Sanderson’s attempt to escape by looking through a third-story window. The story was then picked up via news wire services and published in papers like The New York Times, Boston Post, and Baltimore Sun. However, as Houghton and Newbury point out, this is most likely fabricated, as it would have been impossible for a crowd to look through a third-story window.
“Nobody outside the building could have witnessed such daring. The report of Glenn’s acrobatics, though, became ‘true’ in the telling, conveying something more than the purely factual,” wrote Newbury in an essay about the boy’s death. “His story sold newspapers and, in a portrait of bravery, offered some small consolation to readers shocked by the purity of the horror. Maybe the vision of Glenn swinging valiantly provided solace to his parents.”
“(Our depiction) is over the line as far as I’m concerned, but it’s drawn basically verbatim from a (false) news story,” he said. “It says something about our need for resolution to things that our unresolvable. You can’t resolve mass tragedy. There’s no end to it, there’s no moral conclusion to it.”
He said one of the most difficult aspects of the film was deciding how to depict the death of children.
“The first questions were how do you do it without being entirely distasteful, because it is an event full of carnage, and then what do you say. We tried to keep back from most of the characters and kind of look at the thing epicly,” Houghton said.
“The horror of the (fire) I could understand and see value in making (a film). The part that I struggled with was how to invite an audience into that space successfully. How do you warn them what they’re getting into and then treat them fairly while they’re there? You’re asking them to go to some uncomfortable places.”
In addition to the aforementioned accolades, “The Collinwood Fire” won the awards for most creative use of archival footage and most innovative film at the Vermont Filmmakers Showcase, presented by the Vermont International Film Festival in December of last year.
One of the people sitting in the audience there was Ford, of Vermont PBS. After seeing the film, he decided to feature it as part of “Made Here,” a Vermont PBS program that broadcasts the work of local filmmakers. The first showing of “The Collinwood Fire” on VPTV will be next Monday, July 24, at 9:53 p.m. on Vermont PBS.
“We’re lucky that we have such a breadth of platforms to share folks’ work,” he said. “To be able to share stories that are made locally with such a wide audience is exciting and I’m so happy I get to do that.”
The film is also accompanied by an interactive website (collinwoodfire.org) created by Newbury. The website features Newbury’s essays and scholarship on the fire, as well as archival photos, maps, data, and other historical facts related to the period.
“We’re constantly trying to find ways to continue the conversation and have a deeper conversation,” Ford said. “The fact that he has a website devoted (to the event), where people can dive in and learn more about the history (is great).”
Watch and vote for “The Collingwood Fire” this week online at pbs.org/filmfestival.