Inspiration for the nation? Nevada City to be focus of ‘Town Between Two Worlds’ documentary |

Inspiration for the nation? Nevada City to be focus of ‘Town Between Two Worlds’ documentary

Author Jordan Fisher Smith, left, camera person Greg Davis, and director John de Graaf, on location in Nevada City, work on a documentary film on Nevada City that will feature many area residents.
Submitted photo |

How to help

If you’re interested in the related Indiegogo fundraiser for Town Between Two Worlds, visit

Consider the following 2018 headline: “Nevada City: Inspiration for the nation.” Director John de Graaf and crew will return to Nevada County in October for a second round of capturing the colors, history, and contemporary vitality of Nevada City.

They first filmed “on location” in the spring and will train their cameras on yet another season of the region in January.

Producer Jennifer Ekstrom is a Nevada City resident. She and de Graaf hope the film premieres at the 2018 Wild & Scenic Film Festival and receives wider consumption on public television. It’s a long road, completing a documentary. There’s no guarantee the film will be in the festival, but de Graaf has good reason to feel confident, because he’s screened at least six films there since 2006.

Fifteen of his films, including “Affluenza,” “Silent Killer,” and “Buyer Be Fair” have appeared on national public television.

Indeed, the Wild & Scenic Film Festival named an annual award after him: The John de Graaf Environmental Filmmaking Award. He appreciates the honor, partly because of how impressed he’s been with the festival organization and the surrounding community spirit. His appreciation for the home of the festival grew so much that he conceived a film project he hopes will spread the inspirational example of the Nevada City area far and wide.

Longtime residents ‘star’ in film

De Graaf will showcase many longtime area residents because he says they’re engaged leaders with wonderful stories to tell:

• Jordan Fisher Smith was a park ranger. This author of “Engineering Eden” and “Nature Noir” connects this film with a theme de Graaf has explored in many of his other films: “this question of balancing the amount of our lives Americans dedicate to ‘get ahead’ and have material things, against our quality of life and time to do what feeds our souls.”

• Gary Snyder is an acclaimed poet. Perhaps for related reasons, he’s an acclaimed lover of the place where he lives. He’ll be a special guest at the 2017 Wild & Scenic Film Festiva. He was among the “artists and creatives” who began moving to the Nevada City area in the late ’60s. “Stay together / learn the flowers / go light,” he said in his poem “For the Children.”

• Malaika Bishop, is co-director of Sierra Harvest, building a marvelous core and outreach. Their programs educate around 10,000 school kids about local food and farming. She refers to working on systems-level thinking with 22 local organizations that have a stake in the food system.

• Reinette Senum has been the Nevada City mayor and continues on the city council. “People are drawn to this community because they think it’s actually a place where you can change the world.”

Residents fit into a context

But documentarian de Graaf isn’t making this film to puff local celebrities and peddle kumbaya. Fundamental to sharing this exemplary story are conflicts, roadblocks, and setbacks; resilience, initiative, and nuances of persuasion.

Sixteen years of activism, for instance, led to a “Wild and Scenic” designation in 1999, covering a 39-mile stretch of the South Yuba River. A band of people which started among what Jordan Fisher Smith has referred to as the “hippie diaspora” evolved into the sophisticated South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL).

• Roger Hicks, president of SYRCL for 15 of its first 16 years and still a board member says, “Today things are really more complex and nuanced than a two sided struggle.” He teared up on camera “remembering all the wonderful times at the Yuba with my family” and associating that with the eventual success of the save-the-river campaign.

• Caleb Dardick grew up on the San Juan Ridge outside town. He left the area, returning in 2011 to become the current executive director of SYRCL. “I learned the importance and value of living in an activist, more intentional community.” He sees in the Nevada City area something “profoundly American in its aspirations” that “asks us to respect the past as we work toward a happier, healthier, more sustainable future.”

This kind of long-term advocacy about complicated, contentious concerns illustrates a central theme of the film.

“(It) started in a good way that brings people together who might not agree on everything, or might not otherwise even have been talking to each other,” de Graaf said.

The scope of de Graaf’s film reaches back 165 years to the Gold Rush, when hydraulic mining canons devastated hillsides, waterways and downstream communities. Such practices were effectively banned in 1884 by the Supreme Court’s “Sawyer decision,” sometimes referred to as our nation’s first environmental law.

Waves of “get-rich” enterprises, often related to extractive industries, have boomed and busted and evolved through the Nevada City region.

Can development and sustainability get along, one might ask?

Almost too many citizens to count

• Eileen Jorgenson — another of so many longtime active citizens — can be easily triggered to speak of “a cultural environment that seeded and grew idealized schools, healing and creative communities, and so many non-profits that work to sustain each other as well as the natural beauty.”

Conversations can be triggered with phrases such as “Historical Ordinance,” the county’s “General Plan update,” and the “Rural Quality Coalition.”

• Mikail Graham has stewarded sound and music at dozens of civic events. He helped create and keeps helping community radio, KVMR. His family hails back to the Gold Rush, and he was part of 1960s activism that tried (unsuccessfully) to keep a freeway from slicing through Nevada City. Graham knows the freeway detracted from and enhanced the area. He thinks there’s “enough common sense (around). We’ll see changes that not everyone’s gonna like, but we won’t go the way of Roseville.”

One of the weedier developments in the Nevada City area is, well, weed. The marijuana issue is about as current and contentious as it gets in semi-rural Nevada County. A fitting topic in the arc of this film, de Graaf and Ekstrom won’t be shying away from it. It’s a won’t-go-away example of something that needs to be worked out by all the people who love where they live.

What it takes to make a documentary

Shining a light on the example that is the Nevada City area is a film-worthy idea. The filmmakers have already invested their own money and hundreds of hours into research, filming and editing, travel and equipment.

But guess what? To proceed with time-sensitive filming in October and January, the filmmakers need additional funding. Foundations and agencies that align with the idea of supporting this kind of film project need to see that other people are also donating.

Telling positive, practical, tactical stories on film about sensibilities that are foremost about something other than money still involves money. The filmmakers want you to contribute now to facilitate local filming in October. They want you at least to watch the video sampler they’ve made and to read the “crowdsourcing” plea they’re making at Indiegogo.

Chuck Jaffee of Grass Valley likes to plug people into the spirit of independent filmmakers. Find his other articles for The Union at

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