Filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll sees small, good things in the every day

Pamela Tanner Boll at work on "A Small Good Thing."

Pamela Tanner Boll at work on "A Small Good Thing."

“The folks we have profiled are just folks, regular people, but they’re making an enormous difference in their communities through their work.”
—Pamela Tanner Boll

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll could have made “A Small Good Thing” in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, home to lots of small shops and many close-knit communities.

“One of the things that the research shows is that if you live in a closely connected community where you see people regularly, you have much greater chance of being happy,” explains Boll, the film’s director and executive producer, talking by phone from her home in Boulder, Colo. 

Instead she set her feature-length documentary in western Massachusetts, an area nestled in the Berkshire Mountains and dotted with small innovative farms and towns that has long been a destination for change-seekers wanting solace and stimulation amid the pastoral landscape.

Seeing that so many people spend much of their lives online or in the car, she wanted to profile a “community where people had a chance to simply run into each other.”

“A Small Good Thing” has no celebrities, no famous names. “The folks we have profiled are just folks, regular people, but they’re making an enormous difference in their communities through their work,” Boll says.

One is a man named Sean, who spent time in the Coast Guard but became disillusioned.  After returning to his Massachusetts hometown, he taught himself how to raise chickens and pigs. He later ran and was elected to the town council. Now he offers a different kind of service to his country. He teaches innovative farming strategies that increase his community’s well-being through sustainability and health.

Another regular folk is Shirley, a community organizer and minister’s wife who founded and leads a dance and drumming performance group. She started the group when her children were teens. She soon realized the benefits of having kids focused on music and dance.  Shirley guides young people to live a life of purpose, and through it, she has become a more open and joyful person. 

Boll herself has small-town roots and sensibilities. She grew up in West Virginia. Her dad was a farmer. She attended Middlebury College in Vermont, majoring in English lit, political science and dancing. In her 20s, she worked on Wall Street as a commodity trader, did a stint in marketing then with a literary agency, taught a course at Harvard University with psychiatrist Robert Coles titled The Literature of Social Reflection. 

She met Paula Kirk, producer of “A Small Good Thing,” while at she was teaching at Harvard and looking for someone to help her keep up with paperwork. They got along so well that they started collaborating on artistic projects, eventually forming a film production company called Mystic Artists

Her life has been full and through it all, Boll, mother of three sons, still found time to make art. “Most of my life I have done two things, drawing and painting,” says Bolls, who calls herself “just a regular old girl from West Virginia.”

After years of writing short stories, essays and the painting, she found another passion: filmmaking. 

To her credit are “Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids,” winner of the 2004 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary that she co-executive produced, and “Who Does She Think She Is?” a film about five artists who are mothers that she directed. In all, she’s been the executive producer of eight documentaries.

Released in 2015, “A Good Small Thing, won Best Documentary at that year’s Boston International Film Festival.

Boll says the impetus for making “A Small Good Thing” was what she calls “the new era” in which “people are so stressed. Everyone I talked to. It didn’t matter if they were in the top 1 percent of income or the lower 20 percent. Everyone had the same complaints. That was they didn’t have enough time to see people they enjoyed. They were too busy either working, or if they didn’t have jobs, they were too busy just trying to survive. So work life balance seemed to be out of whack for everyone.”

Another problem, she says, is that “in our country we are very focused on short-term returns. This film is really about a longer-term return.”

—Cassandra West