A scene from
A scene from "9/12: From Chaos to Community."

Communities, nostalgia and terrorism

By Brooks Robards - August 3, 2006

In the 1970s, life on the Vineyard was so good some people claimed they would live many years longer here. Filmmaker Susanna Styron, who grew up spending summers in Vineyard Haven, captured those simpler times in her documentary short, "Suspended Sentence." To celebrate the 30th anniversary of its making in 1976, the film will be shown tonight, August 3, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, along with Ms. Styron's more recent work, "9/12: From Chaos to Community."

In the mid-1970s, jewelry maker Cheryl Stark had recently opened up her shop in Vineyard Haven, and Hugh Taylor was busy building his own house up-Island. The Art Workers' Guild still provided a center for artists, and Johnny Seaview was tending bar at the old Seaview Hotel, now an Oak Bluffs condominium complex.

Ms. Styron, the daughter of summer residents William and Rose Styron of Vineyard Haven, was finishing an undergraduate degree at Yale, where she had put together her own filmmaking major. She moved to the Island for the winter to make "Suspended Sentence" as her senior thesis. The film is about young people who chose an alternative lifestyle on the Vineyard.

Says Ms. Styron, the Island could have a negative effect on motivation. Vineyard winters weren't easy, and many who stayed on after an easy summer went on welfare to make it through the off-season. Winter on the Island meant no nightlife, no movies, and very few restaurants open.

"Most of these young people who move down here spend every night in the barroom," one interviewee in the film says.

A heart-warming portrait

In sharp contrast to the black-and-white nostalgia of "Suspended Sentence," Ms. Styron's hour-long documentary, "9/12: From Chaos to Community," recounts the work volunteers performed to support post-9/11 rescue efforts and the camaraderie that developed among them.

"I poured a lot of cups of coffee," says Ms. Styron, who was one of those who volunteered at Ground Zero. She spent six months serving food and finding supplies as part of the Ground Zero support staff. She describes their function as helping the workers decompress, listening when they needed to talk, and simply being there for them.

"What amazed me was these people who put their lives on hold," Ms. Styron says. One retired fireman describes how he met 20 other fathers digging, looking for their missing sons.

"I do not miss one minute of working in that pit," says one volunteer. Some workers got married; one got throat cancer. The one thing workers couldn't do was cry.

Ms. Styron had no intention of making a film about the Ground Zero volunteers. Then two years after the fact one of the people she met there suggested it and helped her raise money for the project from members of the financial world. Many of them had lost colleagues in the 9/11 attack.

"There was a lot of desire to give something back to the effort to find their loved ones," Ms. Styron says. The film is a heart-warming portrait of one of the peripheral communities formed from the Twin Towers tragedy.

After finishing college, Ms. Styron went to work in the documentary division of ABC-TV, eventually attending the American Film Institute as a directing fellow and receiving an MFA. In 1984, she married actor Darrell Larson and settled in Sacramento, Calif. After having two children, Emma, now 18, and Lilah, 16, the family moved to Nyack, N.Y. and Ms. Styron began teaching in Columbia University's graduate film program.

The Vineyard has always been an important part of her life, and she spends two weeks here every summer, staying with her parents. Her first job at age 14 was working for Cheryl Stark. "She taught me how to make silver jewelry," she remembers.

"I still come up every year in the dead of winter," Ms. Styron adds. "I take a week off from my family to come up here and work."

Ms. Styron based her 1998 feature film, "Shadrach," starring Martin Sheen and Andie MacDowell, on a short story written by her novelist father. The movie, which she directed as well as wrote, is about a former slave who asks to be buried where he had lived as a slave. Ms. Styron is at work on the screenplay for a new independent film, to be titled "Things about Fire," that she'll also direct.

"It doesn't feel as isolated here now," she says about the Vineyard. "It's a lot less oppressive in its bleakest months."

Film screening, August 3, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Martha's Vineyard Film Society presents filmmaker Susanna Styron and two of her films. Tickets $6 or $4 for members. For more information, call 508-696-9369 or visit

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.