FREEMAN — Marnette Hofer’s ancestors fled hardship and persecution several times over the centuries.
The German-Russians were often treated like strangers in their own land. After moving from country to country, many of them settled in the Freeman area of southeast South Dakota.
The German-Russians included three Anabaptist groups — Hutterite, Swiss Amish and Low German Mennonites — who arose from the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s.
Hofer often heard stories about the faith and traditions of each group. But the story was never really told of how they settled and worked side by side.
"I’d always had in my head that this presentation needed to be recorded so that it could live on, but I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed with that," Hofer said.
Now, she has helped turn their story into a full-length movie.
Hofer serves as executive producer of the film "Three Groups, One Story." The 75-minute film will premiere at 5 p.m. Sunday, March 4, at the Lund Theater in Viborg. The film will also be shown during Schmeckfest in Freeman later this month.
Hofer serves as administrator and archivist for the Heritage Hall Museum and Archives (HHM&A) in Freeman. The museum partnered with the South Dakota Humanities Council — which provided a $3,500 matching grant — to create the film. The production was shot by FiveCore Media of Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.
Hofer hopes moviegoers will learn more about a unique group of immigrants.
"The Freeman community is the only place in the world where these three Germans-from-Russia Anabaptist groups settled in the same place during the 1870s," she said. "Although distinct ethnic groups, they learned to work together, and they’ve offered a lot to the Freeman community over the years. Schmeckfest itself is a celebration of these three ethnic groups."
Hofer and her husband reflect the area’s unique heritage.
"My background is with the Swiss Amish folk who originated in Switzerland," she said. "My husband’s background is Hutterite although, as is explained in the film, it has been generations since his people lived in a colony."
Marnette’s great-great-grandmother married into a Hutterite colony. When the woman’s husband died, she returned to the Swiss village with her children. These Waldner children eventually changed their name to "Waltner," which is a common name among the Swiss today.
"There was actually quite a bit of intermarriage between the (three) groups over the years that I don’t think most people are aware of anymore," Marnette said. "And of course, the descendants of all of these Anabaptist settlers have spread well beyond Freeman or South Dakota."
PURSUING THE PROJECT
Hofer became even more passionate about pursuing a film project after she became the HHM&A archivist in late 2014. The facility was undergoing a complete remodeling and reorganization of the archives and library.
"We have an impressive amount of books and documents about these three Anabaptist groups," she said.
For Hofer, the project fulfilled both a personal and professional need.
"As (local historian) Norman Hofer says in the film, once you discover your connection to these people, history comes alive," she said. "So this (film) has been very enlightening and meaningful for me. Plus, as archivist, I need to know all of this (information)."
In fall 2015, she pitched the idea of getting one historian from each ethnic group to gather and piece together the "big" story. In January 2016, she began holding weekly meetings with local historians Robert Engbrecht, S. Roy Kaufman and Norman Hofer.
"We talked and questioned everything and researched and talked some more," Marnette said. "(We) wrote and rewrote scripts, narrowing things down to the stories we really felt needed to be told. By April, we were ready to give the presentation at Schmeckfest 2016. And it went well — standing room only!"
Marnette wanted to record the presentation for future use and a wider audience, but she was unsure how to proceed.
She turned to her son, Josh Hofer, who works as the Freeman community development and marketing coordinator. Using his background with grants, Josh assisted Marnette with applying for a South Dakota Humanities Council grant.
The Humanities Council awarded the grant in late 2016, which set the project into rapid motion. The three historians — Engbrecht, Kaufman and Norman Hofer — again spoke before a full house at last year’s Schmeckfest.
BRINGING IN THE CREW
Meanwhile, Marnette looked for a production company to take the project to the next level. The project made use not only of the South Dakota Humanities Council grant but also a crowdfunding effort allowing the hiring of a professional film crew.
"I pitched it to several regional and area production companies and got some very competitive bids," Marnette said.
She finally settled on FiveCore.
"FiveCore Media’s manager asked such good questions and really worked to get to the heart of what we wanted in this project before he ever agreed to take it on," she said. "I really felt like he ‘got it.’"
Goshen College assistant communications professor Kyle Hufford launched FiveCore Media as a new initiative in 2011. FiveCore, an educational program at the college, has won regional and national awards in its short history.
"Marnette came to us to capture this re-telling of Freeman’s history because she knew of our work due to her children attending Goshen College," Hufford said.
Marnette wanted the FiveCore group to shoot on location, which presented some logistical challenges.
"At first, we were a little reluctant to take on such a large project, not because of the size of the project but because of how far we were removed from the Freeman community," Hufford said. "So you might be able to understand our nervousness in being responsible for a production that told the history of a community we were not a part of."
However, Marnette persisted because she liked the connection to the college and the use of the project as a learning opportunity, he said.
ARRIVING ON SCENE
Hufford traveled to Freeman with three film production seniors from Goshen College: Tim Litwiller of Phoenix; Riley Mills of Milltown, Indiana, and Tabitha Immanuel of New Delhi, India.
"One of the challenges was to bring all of the equipment we needed (for the trip). We were not only filming locations — we were also filming dramatic re-enactments and a four-camera multi-cam presentation," Hufford said. "We couldn’t just go back to the office to get something we forgot. The week before we came out, we set up a mock-up of the presentation in a large room back in Goshen to make sure we had everything."
Upon arriving in South Dakota, the FiveCore crew recorded a presentation by the three local historians. The crew then gathered with Marnette and the three historians to discuss the film project.
The FiveCore crew asked Marnette to line up area residents to re-enact various parts of the story. The film crew then turned to settings for the film.
"They asked if they could film some historically significant areas," she said. "I took them around Freeman, down to Yankton, to some (Hutterite) colonies, to cemeteries and to areas where they could fly their drone over the countryside. And, of course, they filmed some things around our museum."
The FiveCore crew worked non-stop when they arrived in Freeman, Hufford said.
"We only had five days on the ground, so we had to make the most of it. Most days were at least 12-hour days, but that’s the life of film production and it’s really good to have the students experience that," he said.
"Another challenge we had with this project was that most of the history covered in the presentation happens before 1880. There aren’t a lot of pictures from that time period, so it became a huge task to find not only the right images to use but also ones we could get the rights to use.
"In the end, we utilized more than 20 resources and amassed hundreds of pictures to include in the 1 hour, 15-minute program."
As a way of adding to the visual presentation, the crew filmed various re-enactments in Freeman with local actors.
"These were a lot of fun to do but a challenge to get the right clothing and to find the right locations that made it look like it did in the late 1800s," Hufford said.
To add to the authenticity, three individuals were recorded speaking one of the dialects from their childhood. For the film’s theme and music, Marnette’s sister-in-law, Sherilyn Ortman, improvised a piano rendition of the hymn "Take Thou My Hand, Oh Father."
The FiveCore crew felt gratitude for the warm reception they received as "strangers" telling a local story, Hufford said.
"We had a great time getting to know everyone in Freeman," he said. "The people were so accommodating and welcoming."
One experience stood out in particular, he said.
"One of the special moments for my students and me was the chance to share a meal with some of the families we visited at the Wolf Creek Hutterite colony," he said. "We were there to film their dialect. They found out we had not had dinner, so they made sure we were fed. Such a great time of fellowship and an experience our students won’t soon forget."
After returning to Indiana, the FiveCore film crew sent Marnette a follow-up list of desired materials.
"They sent me a list of all the photos and maps they would love to incorporate, if they existed," she said. "So I went digging in the archives and checking with various resources around the country. I sent them a variety of illustrations to consider adding to the film."
The FiveCore crew members were pleased with the final result, Hufford said.
"We have done similar documentary-style productions like this, but nothing that had this mix of presentation, host and interview, pictures, re-enactments and location footage," he said.
"By utilizing a section of host and interview style, we were able to give the audience some context and introduction before jumping into the presentation itself. Our goal was to make a program as professional as possible — something that would be polished enough to put on (the Public Broadcasting System)."
MAKING A DEBUT
The decision was made to premiere the movie on the big screen, with the Lund Theater in Viborg as the nearest site. Admission is a freewill donation.
The movie will also be shown March 16-17 and March 23-24 during Schmeckfest on the Freeman Academy campus. The film will be shown on a large television in the historic Bethel Mennonite Church on the Freeman museum complex. The daily showings are set for 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. The movie will be free with the $5 museum admission.
While the film portrays an Anabaptist Mennonite story, much of it was true for Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic Germans-from-Russia neighbors that arrived in the United States after 1870, Marnette said.
"(It reflects) all of these German-speaking folks who left Europe in search of a better place to live, found refuge and privileges in Russia, and came to America in the late 19th century when the Czar decided to revoke those privileges and Russianize the country," she said.
The FiveCore crew members are unable to attend the local showings of the movie, but they hope for screenings at Goshen College sometime this year, Hufford said.
Meanwhile, Marnette sees the film as just the first step in the museum’s vision for this initiative.
"At the Heritage Hall Museum, our mission is ‘to preserve the natural and cultural history of the Freeman community and surrounding area,’" she said.
"We believe the greater Freeman area has a compelling story to tell, and this is just the beginning. We want to tell more stories about this region, but it starts here."
For more information on the film, check the museum’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/heritagehallmuseumandarchives. For more information on Freeman’s Schmeckfest, visit online at www.schmeckfest.com.
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