Hoboken to Vermont, Doc to Fiction: Nora Jacobson's
"My Mother's Early Lovers"
by Anthony Kaufman
Seven years ago, Nora Jacobson came to the IFFM with her labor of love,
documentary-in-progress “Delivered Vacant,” an eight-year chronicle of
housing gentrification in Hoboken. An intricate and deeply human
portrait of the city and the people that lived there, the film went on
to play at the New York Film Festival, Sundance, and the San Francisco
Film Festival where it garnered a Golden Gate Award. In the doc,
Jacobson captured all sides of the real estate struggle with an equally
intelligent and wry eye, from eccentric politicians and naive
developers, to Hoboken natives and newly transplanted yuppies.
“I’ve never wanted to define myself as a particular type of filmmaker,”
said Jacobson from her home in Vermont, who now returns to the IFFM with
a very different project from “Delivered Vacant.” Called “My Mother’s
Early Lovers,” the fiction feature follows a young poet/nurse who
discovers her late mother’s diary and learns of her dark past. Weaving
between color and black and white, past and present, the protagonist’s
story and the mother’s, Jacobson incorporates her talent for complexity
and intricate storylines into the narrative form. “Even though I’ve made
experimental films,” said Jacobson, “and ‘Delivered Vacant’ which was a
documentary, and now I’m making a feature, I just see it all as
As a former experimental filmmaker (“my first film love,” she said)
under Stan Brakhage among others, Jacobson maintained the importance of
creating a story and film that was distinctly cinematic, “I’m always
trying to do work with the medium of film in a way that is more than
just presenting something, that actually works with the medium in a way
that couldn’t work in the same way in another medium.”
While Hoboken set the crumbling and quaint stage for her documentary,
her homeland of rural Vermont becomes the context for her new feature.
Examining the odd parallel, Jacobson noted, “Vermont is a special
place. There’s a mix of people here which certainly was the case in
Hoboken. In Vermont, of course, it is a completely different kind of
mix. But it also has. . . the townie, rural, redneck types and the
more alternative types of people mixing in to create this hybrid
culture.” Although Vermont may seem less hip than Hoboken, Jacobson
pointed out, “It isn’t a regional film. I am looking at more universal
issues of family.”
In creating this story of family lives, Jacobson discovered some of the
challenges and rewards in moving from a non-fiction to narrative form.
“When you’re making a narrative film, you have to create that world
completely,” said Jacobson. “From the smallest object an actor would
pick up to the way their hair is done, every little detail is up to you
to define, whereas in documentary filmmaking, you’re working with stuff
that’s already out there. You’re shaping and choosing it, but the
elements are all there. That’s interesting to me, but very daunting. It
took me by surprise, I have to say.” But while working on her doc, she
couldn’t help thinking, “Wouldn’t it be easier, instead of trying to
force these people to do what I wanted them to do, I could decide a head
of time and invent characters to say what I wanted them to say.”
So Jacobson found Vermont author Sybil Smith’s semi-autobiographical
novella about the complexity of family relationships and together, they
forged a screenplay from the work. Jane and Bill Stetson, a
Vermont-based fundraising couple, took interest in the project and
became Executive Producers. A modest budget was raised locally through
investors and grants and a vast grassroots efforts of volunteers and
local businesses soon grew around Jacobson’s Off The Grid Productions.
Jacobson and her crew shot on Super-16 for a relatively comfortable
6-week period, taking over Vermont towns for days at a time. She then
spent over a year in the editing room. On the challenge of post,
Jacobson said, “It was really like editing two films, a story taking
place in the present and a story taking place in the past, and telling
those stories and then trying to weave them together in a way that makes
sense and is also compelling.”
After completion, Jacobson was so eager to see “My Mother’s Early
Lovers” succeed that she submitted an early working cut of the film to
Sundance. It was rejected. And although she is skeptical of the
chances of getting accepted on a second-time submission, she will try
again this year. “It wasn’t finished,” she says of the first
submission, admitting the mistake. “It’s hard to submit a second time.
That’s the one thing that I’ve learned from this — there really isn’t a
Now the producer-director is hopeful for this week’s trip to the IFFM.
When she was at the market in ‘91 with “Delivered Vacant,” she met John
Pierson (“Split Screen” producer) who helped her finish the film.
Recently, she also attended with another work-in-progress called “Famous
Long Ago,” an ambitious 60’s mix of documentary and narrative. Last
year, she went to the IFFM just “to see who the players are,” she noted.
“One thing in this industry, the players change very quickly and people
are constantly moving from company to company. It’s good to know who
works where.” Her biggest hope for this year’s IFFM — big surprise!
But what makes Jacobson’s new film stand apart from the other 101
features at this year’s market? “It’s not about New York City. It’s
not about boys in the streets. It’s not a coming-of-age film. It’s not
a kid-oriented film. It’s a film that people who have lived some will
relate to,” she contended. “It’s a film about real people, the struggle
to survive as a family, learning to live with ourselves and accept who
“My Mother’s Early Lovers” screens tomorrow at the Angelika Film Center.