Tom Durkin: Tales from the Long Memory

I never met Bruce Phillips, but he has been a great influence in my life. He has, in fact, been a great influence in people’s lives all across this nation.

Who?!

Most people know of him as Utah Phillips.

Oh, yeah, “Moose Turd Pie.” Great story.

No! Yes, but there’s much more to Utah’s story than his infamous pastry recipe.

While not a biography of Phillips, a new “film” (video actually) called “Tales of the Long Memory; The Story of America You Didn’t Learn in School” reveals the compassionate philosophy of the homeless Korean War veteran, pacifist, hobo, philosopher, storyteller, songwriter, folksinger, presidential candidate, labor activist and homeless advocate who was Bruce “Utah” Phillips.

Made by Nevada County natives Charlie Hall and Bevin Bell-Hall, “Tales” is enjoying its ninth film festival screening this week at the Workers Unite! Film Festival in New York City.

WELCOME TO UTAH’S PLACE

Most local readers already know that Utah’s Place, Nevada County’s premier homeless shelter, is named after Phillips, who was a co-founder of the nonprofit Hospitality House.

Utah’s Place was opened late in 2013 at 1262 Sutton Way in Grass Valley.

Before Utah’s Place there was, and still is, Hospitality House, the nonprofit that runs the shelter and ran a nomadic shelter with the cooperation of 28 faith communities.

From 2010 to 2013, I worked for Hospitality House as a staff monitor, shepherding several dozen homeless folks to and from a different church every night to eat and sleep.

That’s when I first met Charlie and Bevin. They had just won the Audience Award for the Best Documentary at the Santa Cruz Film Festival. A project they started while students at U.C. Santa Cruz — “La Vie en Verte: The WAMM Movie” — told the story of the pioneering efforts of the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana.

Charlie was looking to direct and produce a documentary on homelessness featuring Phillips.

LONG MEMORY REMEMBERED

A self-deprecating man, Phillips would never have permitted the Hospitality House shelter to be named after him, but he died in 2008 and lost his voice in the matter.

“He can hate that all he wants,” Charlie laughed in a Zoom interview from New York City last Saturday.

I had seen reports of “Tales” winning awards, so when Charlie announced that the film is set to screen today, Oct. 14, at the Workers Unite! Film Festival in NYC, I decided to check in with him and Bevin via Zoom.

Speaking from their Brooklyn home, they confirmed the documentary has been an official selection in eight previous film festivals, taking home two best documentary and two audience choice awards among other recognitions.

The Workers Unite! is the biggest festival yet — and, “It will be the first time we’ve seen it on a big screen,” Bevin said.

Either by design or by pandemic, all eight earlier festivals were online. Theaters have just recently been opened to vaccinated people in New York. The couple said they are looking forward to their first Q&A with an in-person audience after the screening.

UTAH RULES

“The long memory is the most radical idea in America.” — Utah Phillips

To preserve the long memory means to never forget. Never forget the “bread and roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Never forget the unions and organizations that ended child labor, achieved women’s right to vote, and struck for decent wages and hours.

In exchange for permission to use clips of Phillips’ KVMR radio series “Loafer’s Glory” as narrations for his film, Charlie had to agree to certain rules set by Phillips and his wife, Joanna Robinson.

“He was very against biographies made of him,” said Charlie, who produced and directed “Tales.”

Bevin, co-producer added that he wanted the video to be “in the oral history tradition.”

The film shows never-before-seen footage of Phillips on what was “probably his last train ride.”

As the Phillips’ sonorous voice speaks of the people, places, ideas and ideals he found on the road as a homeless hobo, the film visits such places as the Sisters of the Road Café in Portland, Oregon, the Wobbly Kitchen run by the Industrial Workers of the World in Detroit and of course, Hospitality House.

Charlie and Bevin said any donations they receive through their website are distributed equally among five organizations depicted in the documentary.

This just in from Charlie: “There will be a virtual screening of ‘Tales’ through Workers Unite! Film Festival online Oct.15th-20th. Information will be on their website https://www.workersunitefilmfestival.org/ and ours http://www.foraifilm.com.”

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County and a of The Union Editorial Board. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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