Filmmaker depicts changing Berkshires in ‘Downside UP’

A review of Nancy Kelly’s documentary “Downside UP” is necessarily also a review of sorts of the town of North Adams, Mass., specifically the transformation it has undergone since the arrival of MASS MoCA. The contemporary art museum has, at least according to “Downside UP,” been the driving force behind the revitalization of both the economy and the community of North Adams.

More than 500 people, mostly North Adams residents, attended the documentary’s Feb. 7 premiere at MASS MoCA. “I know most of the people here,” said North Adams resident Roberta Betourney. Betourney used to work at the Sprague Electric Company, whose offices once occupied the mills that now form the sprawling complex of MASS MoCA.

Speaking before the film, Kelly explained her reasons for returning to North Adams. A documentary filmmaker who has created films on subjects ranging from cowgirls to immigration, the story of MASS MoCA inspired her to turn her camera on her own past.

The film opens with Kelly, a North Adams native, connecting her defeatist attitude toward life to the decline of her hometown. Her narration, voiced over shots of old postcards and newspapers, describes how North Adams thrived as the industrial center of the Berkshires until the mid-1980s, when the Sprague Electric Company closed its doors – a decision which put 4,000 people (nearly half of the workforce in North Adams) out of a job. Kelly’s family moved away after the factory closed, but the town continued in its economic downward spiral.

Then came MASS MoCA. Although the story of the museum’s painful stop-and-go evolution could easily constitute a documentary of its own, Kelly’s film concentrates on the years after 1998, when construction began to turn the old Sprague buildings into the largest museum of contemporary art in America.

Continuing the trend of personal exploration, Kelly evaluates the museum’s impact through conversations with her family, many of whom are ex-Sprague workers. The audience hears their discussions of the museum in the abstract, followed by their reactions to the concrete reality. While their immediate impressions are by no means unanimously positive – ranging from tolerance to straightforward dislike – Kelly follows how the residents’ opinions change as the museum becomes less of a novelty and more of a community institution.

Running alongside these personal stories are more traditional interviews with John Barrett III, mayor of North Adams, and Joe Thompson, director of MASS MoCA. Barrett’s interviews reveal his commitment to North Adams and an openness to new ideas, while Thompson’s changing hairstyles unintentionally mark the passage of time. The film also includes appearances by several MASS MoCA artists and local business owners, along with a prototypical Thomas Krens commenting on “culture as industry.”

Williamstown also receives its share of criticism, achieved visually by juxtaposing the broken windows and abandoned houses of North Adams with the green grass and well-kept streets of Williamstown.

Repeated twice was the joke that for the people of Williamstown, the best solution to the “North Adams problem” would be to flood it – instant “beachfront property” for wealthy Williamstown residents. The film’s stark distinction between the towns provoked a question from an audience member after the film: “Has your attitude toward Williamstown changed at all after making the movie?” While Kelly admitted that the contrast was exaggerated, she explained that as a filmmaker it was necessary for her to “deal in extremes.”

However, Kelly neglects an important “extreme,” one that would not have needed any exaggeration to achieve its effect. Her portrayal of pre-bust North Adams concentrates only on the economic well-being of the town, neglecting the thriving community which existed for so long. Indeed, according to some longtime North Adams residents who attended the show, their memories centered not on the factory, but on the thriving community life that existed in the town before the 1980s.

“There was always something going on,” said Kelly’s mother. “When you went downtown there were never any parking spaces free.” Emphasizing this dilapidation in community richness would have helped the audience to understand the magnitude of North Adams’ losses in more meaningful terms than just dollars and cents.

Even though Thompson emphasized in the program notes that “this movie does not cheerlead,” its overriding message is one of hope, the same hope verbalized by audience members at the post-show reception. The effects of MASS MoCA have changed not only the town itself, but also its national reputation.

One of the biggest laughs of the film was achieved in the opening sequence, when Kelly read an excerpt from a 1980s New York Times travel article. Addressing visitors to the Berkshires, the article recommended that upon reaching North Adams, the best way to avoid the post-industrial decay was to “turn your car around and head in the opposite direction.” Attitudes toward the town today are much different. According to Jeff Kleiser, president of Kleiser-Walczak, a tech firm occupying some of the museum’s converted factory space, MASS MoCA’s PR efforts have succeeded to such a degree that “when I go to a place like New York or Los Angeles and mention MASS MoCA, they actually recognize the name.”

“Downside UP” is an inspiring and well-made documentary whose power comes from the potency of the story it documents. It is not a story of taking a bad town and making it good, but a story of finding an innovative way of giving a good town what it deserves.

MASS MoCA, by tapping into the same spirit of community and sense of past evident at the film’s premiere, has done just that. Dorothy Farinon, who worked at Sprague for 42 years, commented that the chairs at the reception “were the same ones we used to sit in on our lunch breaks. The backs would always fall off.” The film, Farinon said, “meant a lot to people from town.”