September 18, 2019

Princeton-based Filmmaker Debuts Documentary on WHYY

QUAKERS ON FILM: In this scene from the documentary “Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries,” the fog-shrouded Pendle Hill in northern England, where George Fox first had a vision of “a great people to be gathered,” served as a location.

By Anne Levin

Quakers: The Quiet Revolutionaries, a new documentary by the Gardner Group, will have its television premiere on Philadelphia’s WHYY-TV at 6 p.m., Sunday, October 6.  Princeton resident Janet Gardner is producer/director of the film, which illuminates the history, faith, contradictions, and enduring impact of the Religious Society of Friends, known as Quakers.

The broadcast date coincides with the sixth annual World Quaker Day, celebrated in prayer, hymns, and activities by Quakers around the globe. This year’s theme is sustainability of the Earth.

The one-hour film tells the story of a spiritual movement that has played a role in the religious, social, and political life of the nation, and has a significant place in the history and founding of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. Demonstrating an influence disproportionate to their numbers, Quakers have led anti-slavery, civil rights, and women’s rights movements and been strong advocates for world peace.

Gardner decided to make the film after taking part in a trip to England with an education group a few years ago. As part of the pilgrimage, they visited Pendle Hill, the site where George Fox had a vision of “a great people to be gathered,” more than three centuries ago.

“We were traveling in his footsteps,” she said. “We went to this hill, which is really a huge mountain, and climbed it. I began to think about it. I could visualize what he meant, because you look down the mountain and you see all these houses, and unspoiled green. It was very foggy. So in that foggy atmosphere, I began thinking about this film.”

An established filmmaker and founder of The Gardner Group, Inc., which does documentaries that emphasize the human experience in the context of historic events, Gardner had begun her career as a field producer, film editor, and news writer for NBC News, CBS News, and other stations. Her films have been broadcast on public television stations and won awards.

Gardner specializes in films “about hidden history,” she said. Once the idea for the film got into her head, she began researching. She found that while there were films on other religions, there was nothing she could find on Quakerism. “It’s not really surprising. Quakers don’t proselytize,” she said. “In a way, that leads to them being a little bit under the radar.”

Funding began with a Kickstarter campaign, and eventually Gardner secured a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for 2015-2016 to support the effort. “That was kind of a deciding factor which gave us a certain legitimacy,” she said. “We had been applying to some large foundations, and we had applied a couple of times.”

Gardner refers to herself as “a recovering Episcopalian,” while the film’s narrator, Richard Nurse, is “a recovering Catholic.” Nurse, who was an administrator at Rutgers University and was Crossroads Theatre Company’s executive director for five years, also served as a senior producer. Gardner’s late husband, George Morren, was a Rutgers professor of anthropology and served at one time as the mayor of Rocky Hill.

The film begins in England, where it was illegal to be a Quaker. “We got some interesting shots of the English side of this,” said Gardner. “Some people don’t know that William Penn brought between 10,000 and 20,000 Quakers to the New World. They don’t really understand Quakerism. I certainly learned a lot.”

The faith is brought into focus through interviews, archival footage, and dramatizations. The film follows its history from England to America, where Quakers found religious freedom, economic opportunity, and an evolving nation ripe for their activism.

Part of the film was shot at the Princeton Friends Meeting House. Several of its members are featured. “Friends of mine in Princeton gave me wonderful access inside the meeting,” said Gardner. While normally publicity-shy, the members agreed to allow the camera in. “I was delighted, actually, at their enthusiasm and support,” she said. “Without their support, we couldn’t have done it.”

Quakers opens with present-day father-daughter activists George and Ingrid Lakey, founders of Philadelphia’s Earth Quaker Action Team. They led a successful campaign to get PNC Bank to discontinue financing mountaintop-removal coal mining that pollutes the water and disfigures the landscape. The film also travels to locations in Ohio, New York, and Indiana that figure prominently in the Quakers’ history.

The Quakers’ impact is illustrated through their most significant causes and the people who helped lead them, from William Penn to the Lakeys. The abolition movement awakened the country to the inhumanity of slavery. The women’s suffrage movement won the vote for women thanks to the leadership of Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. Bayard Rustin brought the concept of nonviolent protest to Martin Luther King Jr., while Quakers practiced principled pacifism and humanitarianism during the the Vietnam War.

The film doesn’t gloss over the contradictions. Though Quakers were leaders in the abolition movement, they were reluctant to integrate their own schools and meetings. Their early introduction of the practice of solitary confinement is shown in a reenactment shot in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. The film takes on the two Quaker presidents – Herbert Hoover, who denied government aid to impoverished Americans during the Depression, and Richard Nixon, whose role in prolonging the Vietnam War belied his Quaker faith.

“We didn’t do this for advocacy,” said Gardner. “I kept saying, we’re not going to make a valentine to Quakerism. There has been some controversy and we don’t shy away from it. We have people to celebrate but also included the negative side. We tried to keep a balance.”

Last year, the film won the Flickers’ International Humanitarian Award Grand Prize at the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival, “given annually to films or filmmakers who inspire social change and community outreach and strive to better the world in which we live.” It also won the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary at the New Hope Film Festival, among other honors.

“We wanted to dispel the image of bonnets and buggies and the man on the cereal box,” said Gardner. “We wanted to show people what Quakerism is really about.”