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At Bristol TV station, community is one long movie

BRISTOL — Mary Arbuckle found her voice on the side of a Bristol mountain.
In the 1970s, after graduating from Boston University with a degree in philosophy and religion, she moved north to build a cabin in the woods. It wasn’t philosophizing from the dooryard of her new mountain home that changed her life, however — it was a simple gift.
“Someone gave me a camera for my birthday,” Arbuckle said. “When I started exploring with it, it was like a light bulb went off for me.”
By the time she completed the siding on her cabin, she knew what she wanted to do: make documentary films. She returned to Boston to study in a new film program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, moved back to Vermont and went on to make several documentaries, including “Where Is Stephanie?” (1998) and “Art & Soul” (2011).
Her latest documentary project, you might say, is “still in progress.” It’s called Northeast Addison Television (NEAT), a public access station that broadcasts to the 5-Towns and Huntington on Comcast Cable channel 16, and on the web.
Every time Arbuckle or her assistant, Shawn Kimball, point the NEAT camera and hit “record,” they’re adding another chapter to what Arbuckle likes to think of as one long documentary film about her community.
“I’ve been watching life behind the camera for more than 15 years,” Arbuckle said. “It’s like one big movie. When I’m filming selectboard meetings or school board meetings I get a front row seat to town government. It’s watching democracy at work.”
For Kimball, who has worked at NEAT for six years and has taken over much of the station’s camera operation, the work makes that democracy feel more personal.
“Being the designated camera operator for the district has made me a recognizable face to the public, making events covered by NEAT feel more like a ‘friend filming a backyard barbecue’ than (coverage by) a large news corporation,” he said.
And the filming is about more than just documenting meetings and events for the archive. By its very presence, NEAT serves as both a symbol of and the vehicle for the community’s access to its own government.
Arbuckle transitioned from big screen to small in 2002 when she was hired to set up the station from scratch.
“TV was definitely a new way of seeing things,” she said.
Right away Arbuckle reached out to Dick Thodal at Middlebury Community Television (MCTV).
“I would go to him and ask, ‘What do I do?’ or ‘How do I do this?’ Dick was really helpful,” Arbuckle recalled. “He really helped me get going in the beginning. MCTV was a partnering station.”
Since then, as NEAT’s executive director, Arbuckle has overseen transitions from VHS to DVD to the digital cloud, and added online streaming at neatbristol.com to give the station universal reach. Last year NEAT upgraded online streaming to bring it up to the capabilities of many other cable access stations.
But while broadcasting technology continues to evolve, the filming itself remains largely the same, both technologically and philosophically. After nearly two decades on the job, Arbuckle has developed a profound appreciation for her subjects.
“I have great respect for people on these boards,” she said. “So many different opinions. If you could see how hard they work and how much they talk about each issue.”
She recalled fondly the community’s response to a citizen who seemed to be constantly upset with the school district: Get involved.
“And they did,” Arbuckle said. “They joined the school board.”
Through her lens, Arbuckle watched them evolve over the years.
“I’ve watched so many people grow and change on these boards,” she said. “And the ‘personalities’ of the boards change, too. Things ebb and flow according to what’s happening.”
The town of Bristol and the Mount Abraham Unified School District board have recognized NEAT’s importance by appropriating funds for it every year. Other significant funding comes from Comcast Corp. and is based on the number of cable subscribers in the 5-Towns of Starksboro, Monkton, Lincoln, New Haven and Bristol plus Huntington (NEAT is the second-smallest public access television station in Vermont). Over the years NEAT has also won a number of grants from organizations like the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Community Foundation.
Within its budget, NEAT covers as much as it can of the community, but it does sometimes have to charge for production services and classes.
“We’re here as a community service, though,” Arbuckle said. “If something is really important we want to be able to cover it without necessarily sending an invoice for it.”
She’s never felt constrained by the budget, she added. “We always work with what we have.”
In addition to board meetings, NEAT has filmed poetry readings, musical performances and other cultural events around the 5-Towns.
Back at the station, which is located in Bristol’s Artists’ Alley, just off Main Street, Arbuckle sees herself not only as a director and editor, but also as a teacher.
“I have enjoyed and appreciated everything Mary and the studio have done for me,” said Kimball, who started at the station as an intern.
Kimball, in turn, has paid it forward.
“Since 2012, Mary has allowed me access to all of the NEAT equipment, giving me extended resources when teaching film to elementary school children, through Mary Johnson Children’s Center, the Bristol Recreation Department and Expanded Learning Programs,” he said.
What the future holds for the station depends, in some measure, on who walks through the door.
“NEAT is available for people who want to come and do TV shows or podcasts,” Arbuckle said. “And anyone who wants to learn more about film: Call the station. We’ll show you.”
For more information and to stream videos of democracy in action, visit neatbristol.com.
Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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