Jerry Monkman has spent countless nights on the tops of New Hampshire’s tallest mountains, pointing his camera at the sky and capturing lingering sunsets, sparkling galaxies, and dramatic sunrises that fill the horizon with color. But if the Northern Pass project comes to fruition, Monkman believes those sights will be in danger. Northern Pass is Hydro-Quebec and Eversource Energy’s plan to run some 180 miles of power lines from Canada through New Hampshire, going through Concord and then down to Deerfield.
That’s why Monkman is fighting back with his camera. The filmmaker’s new documentary, “The Power of Place,” examines the complexities behind the project and how it would impact the lands and communities it could run through. The film made its debut in Concord recently and will come to 3S Artspace in Portsmouth on Thursday, April 9.
“To me, it was just as important to show that this will impact places that are really national treasures,” Monkman said. “It would affect not only northern New Hampshire, not only those along the right of way, but the people who live outside of it.”
Monkman grew up in Illinois and moved to New Hampshire in 1993. Filmmaking is a new venture for Monkman. He’s primarily a nature and landscape photographer, and his specialty is something he calls “adventure photography” — shots of people interacting with nature in a non-motorized, sustainable way.
“It’s easier to create a story that people will actually identify with,” Monkman said of his work. “They will want to learn about that place, and protect that place if they see other people interacting with the environment.”
About five years ago, Monkman began meeting people involved in conservation projects. At the same time, digital video cameras were becoming more accessible. That inspired him to start making short documentaries about those places and people.
“I was meeting a lot of interesting people that were worth interviewing for these conservation stories. It was often … families and landowners, whose land has been in their family for generations,” he said. “The Power of Place” is his first feature.
“He said, ‘Our roots are deeper than your pockets, and this will ruin our land.’ To me, that was an extremely compelling story.”
— filmmaker Jerry Monkman
It was in 2011 that he became interested in the Northern Pass project. He was working with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which opposes the project, and began meeting landowners opposed to Hydro-Quebec’s plans to string high-voltage lines from 1,500 steel towers running in a line down the middle of the state.
“I was really struck by the passion of some of these people I was meeting,” Monkman said.
Those people include Rod McAllaster, a dairy farmer in Stewartstown. McAllaster’s farm has been in his family for generations, and according to Monkman, McAllaster turned down a $4 million offer from Northern Pass officials.
“He said, ‘Our roots are deeper than your pockets, and this will ruin our land.’ To me, that was an extremely compelling story,” Monkman said.
Monkman was likewise compelled to act, and he began gathering material for the film. He raised $35,000 from some 300 backers through Kickstarter in 2013 to finish shooting footage. He said some of his Kickstarter funders even came out on the Appalachian Trail, which intersects the proposed Northern Pass route, and helped lug gear for eight miles at a time, sometimes spending the night.
This isn’t the first New Hampshire-made documentary about the Northern Pass. In 2013, Jan Marvel and Michelle Vaughn of Thornton released “Northern Trespass,” in which they attempt to debunk Northern Pass officials’ claims about the project’s benefits. Monkman is familiar with the film but said the project is complex enough to warrant different approaches.
“I think my 20 years of experience as a landscape photographer, and knowing a lot of the places impacted, would allow me to create a film that was visually much different,” said Monkman. “For me it was taking my strength and creating a piece of work to complement what (‘Northern Trespass’) did. I think their work was excellent at drumming up the opposition, getting them active and angry and working on this issue.”
The project is still seeking approval from state regulators. New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee, which approves energy projects, is expected to begin its review in 2015. Monkman hopes his film will help draw renewed attention to the project.
“I’ve gotten emails from people who’ve watched the film that can’t believe it’s New Hampshire,” Monkman said. “Unless you spend a lot of time hiking in the high peaks of this state, you don’t know how rugged and wild it can be.”
“The Power of Place” screens on Thursday, April 9 at 7:30 p.m. at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $8 and are available at 3sarts.org.
At top of page: filmmaker Jerry Monkman