Film documents a boys’ rite of passage

MIDDLEBURY — Picture this: 12- and 13-year-old boys heading into the Catskill Mountains to tend a fire alone for 24 hours.
It might sound like a rite of passage from an earlier age, a challenge set for boys who might one day live on the animals they trapped or the edible plants they gathered.
This scene, though, takes place in August of 2009 and forms the central narrative of Peter Ferland’s documentary “Tending Fires,” which he will screen at Bridge School in Middlebury this Saturday at 7 p.m.
The Vermont-born writer and filmmaker, a 1986 graduate of Middlebury Union High School, said the rite of passage sprung from a wilderness program in which he and his son participated. The program, based in the mountains near Ferland’s New Paltz, N.Y., home, brings young boys, ages 9-13, into the woods to learn nature skills like plant identification and fire making.
As boys outgrew the program, Ferland said, there was a sense that they needed some kind of challenge, a ritual that would mark the transition from childhood into adolescence and adulthood. Thus came the idea of sending each boy into the woods to tend a fire.
“It’s on the threshold of this new way of being,” said Ferland. “It’s really about independence — as an adolescent you’re starting to push against the family unit, but what adolescents don’t know is how to take care of themselves.”
So a group came together to create an experience that would give the boys responsibility, place them in an unknown situation and foster independence and deep thought. Along the way, they would have mentors who weren’t their parents.
“At a certain point, a parent’s effectiveness in the life of a teenager comes to an end,” said Ferland. “But why don’t the other members of the community step in and set challenges (for the teen)? If we’re all in concert from the beginning, that’s a resilient model for a social system.”
Ferland signed on to help. Along with him was Charles Purvis, founder and leader of a number of wilderness immersion programs in the area. Mark Morey, who runs Vermont Wilderness School in Brattleboro and has run a number of rites of passage, signed on to help, as did a number of other community members.
“The boys are excellent, but they’re just starting to push back,” said Ferland. “We had influence that the parents didn’t have.”
But creating a whole new ritual wasn’t easy.
“Indigenous cultures tended to have some time set aside for the adolescents,” he said. “Now there’s a lot of trial and error, because a lot of these rituals are lost.”
And there were mixed feelings from the parents, said Ferland — some had older children who had done similar things, but others were nervous.
“He’s never been alone for 24 hours. He’s never been anything like alone for 24 hours,” one father says in the trailer.
While Ferland had never tackled a full-length film on his own, he’s written a number of film and television scripts and humor pieces and worked as a writer’s assistant on the show “Frasier.”
And Ferland said as the idea for the rite of passage developed, it struck him as an ideal theme and structure for a film.
“It was a wonderful moment, worthy of documenting,” he said. “The boys go up to the mountains, are up there for 24 hours, then they return and rejoin the group. That’s a narrative structure for a documentary.”
Add to that his existing knowledge of the subjects, and Ferland said he had a good starting point for the film.
There were choices Ferland had to make — he didn’t film the boys in the woods, since it would have added a level of self-awareness that would have changed the experience.
“Equally important was the community at large coming together and witnessing that change,” said Ferland.
 For the film, Ferland focused on the effects of the experience on the teens, the families and their community, from before the ritual to a potluck several months later, when each boy shared his experience.
The sharing wasn’t important only for the boys, said Ferland — it was just as important for the community to understand and respect the journey that the boys had been on.
After the potluck, Ferland put the footage away.
“It was partly because I felt too close to the subject to be able to process it in a meaningful way, and partly to preserve the boys’ experiences for themselves,” said Ferland.
He screened an early copy a couple of months ago at the Green Mountain Film Festival, and he also showed a rough cut at the College of the Atlantic. Now Ferland has the final cut, which he’ll be showing at Bridge School this weekend.
The screening of “Tending Fires” at Bridge School on Exchange Street in Middlebury this Saturday at 7 p.m. is free and open to the public. Ferland will host a Q&A after the film.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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