Writing and Filming Local History: That Ever Loyal Island and “Loyalty & Rebellion”

—Phillip Papas and James Verdi

We experience history every day in the neighborhoods, people, street names, architecture, and geography of the places we call home. By engaging history from a local perspective, the grand patterns of socioeconomic and political change are transformed into stories that reveal history’s complexities and shed light on the details of the everyday lives of ordinary people. The aim of local history is to present the ways locales and communities interacted with the seminal events of the past. This approach explains how individuals intimately experienced these events and is essential to increasing our understanding of historical processes and how those processes have shaped society and culture.

front entrance of Billopp House, provided by James Verdi
Front entrance of the Billopp House (or Conference House), site of the failed peace conference between John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge, representatives for the Continental Congress, and British Admiral Richard Lord Howe, on September 11, 1776. Courtesy of James Verdi.

Local history attests to the impact of an event like the American Revolution on individuals such as the residents of Staten Island, New York. When thinking about New York and the American Revolution, Staten Island does not usually come to mind. The island’s geography sets it apart from the rest of New York City and from the consciousness of many historians. Although scholars have largely ignored this locale, contemporaries of the American Revolution were very much concerned with the activities of the Staten Islanders who saw socioeconomic and political advantages to maintaining ties to the British monarchy.

Located at the southernmost point of Staten Island is the Billopp House, known to most as the Conference House for the failed peace conference between John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge, representatives of the Continental Congress, and British Admiral Richard Lord Howe, on September 11, 1776. The serene vista of this 17th century home, situated atop a small hill overlooking the Raritan Bay, represents the perfect blend of history and geographical beauty that a documentary filmmaker seeks in a location. The Billopp House caught the attention of one such filmmaker: Staten Islander James Verdi whose fascination with the site led him to create a short video blog in May 2016 for the New York City Parks Department’s Conference House Park.

drone image provided by James Verdi
Fresh Kills on Staten Island with the skyline of Manhattan in the distance. Courtesy of James Verdi.

Through his research for the vlog, James became more interested in the history of his community—Staten Island—during the American Revolution. On the suggestion of a family member, he read That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution. The book had a profound effect on the way James viewed his hometown and its role in the history of the American Revolution. In That Ever Loyal Island, author Phillip Papas presents an intimate account of the American Revolution from the perspective of local history, engaging readers to appreciate the difficult choices ordinary Americans had to make when confronted by the events of the war. Those choices emerged from local considerations and the lived histories of the people who made them. Realizing that he had discovered a larger story that most New Yorkers—let alone Staten Islanders—did not know, James set out to transform this history into a documentary film: Loyalty and Rebellion.

Title scene still from James Verdi
Title scene of Loyalty & Rebellion. Courtesy of James Verdi.

Creating an historical documentary is challenging. Like the historian, the documentary filmmaker must piece together the narrative and re-tell the story for the viewer. Whereas the historian relies on documentation to support an argument, filmmakers must use words, sound, and images to present their arguments. Loyalty and Rebellion is a 39-minute film that explores the experiences of Staten Islanders during the American Revolution; it tells the story of lives transformed by more than seven years of British occupation and by incessant raids conducted by parties of Whig partisans from New Jersey. Using panoramic views of Staten Island shot from drones, as well as images of contemporary maps and landscape art, Loyalty and Rebellion visually demonstrates how the island’s location at the entrance to New York harbor, proximity to New Jersey, and varied terrain were of strategic importance to the British military. Capturing the mood is critical to the effectiveness of an historical documentary; in Loyalty and Rebellion contemporary musical compositions were used to frame scenes and to inspire the audience. The film also draws on quotations from primary sources to portray the thoughts of contemporaries towards the political loyalties of the island’s residents and to capture the perilousness of life for Staten Islanders during the war. On-camera interviews with scholars, including Phillip Papas, give authority to the history, while the use of contemporary portraits provide a human dimension to the narrative.

Loyalty and Rebellion is intended to enhance classroom study of the American Revolution and to spark conversations about the complexities and nuances of the local past. Building a broader public understanding of the relevance of local history to national and transnational events is a challenge for local historians whose core audience is often the immediate community. But web-blogs, e-books, social networks, and film documentaries like Loyalty and Rebellion allow for wider audience engagement with the ways in which ordinary people experienced global or national events at the local level.

The filmmaking process, like the writing process, is a rewarding journey. As a film or book evolves from an idea to a completed product, the filmmaker or writer become more attached to the subject of their work. And for historian Phillip Papas and filmmaker James Verdi that subject is the neighborhoods and people of their hometown: Staten Island.

 

Front cover of PapasPhillip Papas is Senior Professor of History at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey and the author of That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2007) and Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (NYU Press, 2014).

James Verdi is a native-born New Yorker with a passion for filmmaking. He began creating short films through Youtube, eventually receiving a Premier and Art Fund grant through Staten Island Arts & the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. Recently his films were screened at the New York City Independent Film Festival and the CUNY Film Festival.

All images in this blog post as well as the feature image are film stills from James Verdi’s film and used with his permission. If you are interested in watching the film, please consider attending an upcoming screening, on July 11th on Staten Island!

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