Documentary | Filmmaking | Interviews

Rooted to the Land

1 Jul , 2003  

Written by Amy Roeder | Posted by:

Filmmaker Melissa Paly examines Northern New England communities struggling to maintain 'Livable Landscapes' in her documentary, screening this month at the Maine International Film Festival.

The tough choices faced by communities negotiating the treacherous waters between private rights and public good are at the heart of "Livable Landscapes: By Chance or By Choice?" a one-hour documentary screening this month at the 6th Annual Maine International Film Festival (MIFF).

Written, directed and produced by Melissa Paly, "Livable Landscapes" focuses on Northern New England; however, the issues it addresses, such as how to preserve open spaces and contain suburban sprawl, have nationwide impact. The documentary, which has aired on public television, focuses on storytelling rather than dry facts. It presents individuals who are facing these challenges in their daily lives, such as John Hutton, a New Hampshire farmer struggling to maintain his way of life despite the loss of his grazing land to a new elite golf course. Another segment examines a controversial proposed new highway in the fast-growing area around Burlington, Vermont. "Livable Landscapes" captures the sense of urgency felt by many in the region, as they struggle to develop ways to grow without losing the character of the communities they love.

Developed with educational outreach materials such as a viewer discussion guide and teaching curriculum, "Livable Landscapes" is the biggest project to date from Paly’s Cross Current Productions. The company collaborated with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and New Hampshire Public Television, and received funding from the Independent Television Service.

Launched by Paly nearly 15 years ago, Cross Current Productions develops innovative media for science and environmental education, in addition to creating recruitment and fundraising resources for clients. The company seeks to communicate the stories of real people, believing "that real passion is the currency of good television."

Filmmaking may seem like an unusual career path for someone who holds a B.S. in Geology and Master of Forest Science from Yale, but Cross Current has provided Paly with an effective means to reach an audience about the environmental issues to which she is committed. "It was never my intent to be a filmmaker," she said, although she had some experience with communications and still photography.

After grad school, Paly went to work for the New England Environmental Protection Agency in Boston. While working on ground water protection programs, she found that many people had trouble understanding how drinking water sources get contaminated. She proposed producing an educational package on the issue, which included a documentary focusing on case studies of three communities. Aimed at local elected officials and communities, the program was a big success. Paly said that she was able to get people’s attention by focusing on the everyday decisions that are made at the local level, such as whether to put a new gas station on an aquifer. "These things have so much to do with the quality of our drinking water," she said. Soon, others within the EPA wanted educational documentaries for their programs, and Paly was able to spearhead an in-house production unit. Diving into a wide array of projects, she had a great time learning as she went along. Six years later, she decided that she was ready to launch her own company.

Although Paly says that her "niche has always been environmental issues. It’s what I’m most knowledgeable and passionate about, and where I have the strongest network," she is by no means narrow in scope. She has tackled environmental and natural resources challenges from diverse angles, from locally initiated self-help projects in Africa; to a history of Puerto Rico’s coffee bean industry; to her award-winning documentary "Turning the Tide: Keeping Pollution at Bay."

Paly said that one of her primary interests is in how environmental issues impact communities and the choices they make. Her work has focused on topics such as people developing innovative solutions to storm water management, wetlands restoration and watershed protection. She has explored the environmental impact of automobiles and profiled a summer science camp for disadvantaged girls. Her documentary on the problems caused by storm water runoff, "Stormy Weather without Murky Water," was used in a training program for the USEPA.

Through Cross Current Productions Paly worked on the development of two interactive exhibits for the Great Lakes Science Center about the effects of pollution. She has produced several comprehensive curriculum packages, including "A World in Our Backyard: Teachers Guidebook." Developed in conjunction with her documentary of the same name, it helps teachers develop "a wetlands education and stewardship program in middle schools which is experience-based, hands-on, and community-connected." She has produced Public Service Announcements for radio and television, created video and CD-ROM profiles for clients, and published articles on environmental issues.

Paly currently is working on a project that is a bit of a departure, but is still driven by the "fascinating and compelling human stories" that thread through her work. In "Boys Home," a one-hour documentary for PBS, Paly delves into the history of this country’s first institution for mentally disabled people, the Fernald State School. The 155-year-old building, located in Waltham, Massachusetts, is slated to be closed due to state budget cuts. The program is being developed in collaboration with the Coruway Film Institute and WGBH-Boston, with funding from the Independent Television Service.

For more information about the Maine International Film Festival, visit See for more information about Melissa Paly and her work.

For more information about the Maine International Film Festival, visit See for more information about Melissa Paly and her work.