Isham elders subject of Netflix documentary
BY JASON STARR
The quintessential rural Williston way of life is about to reach a worldwide audience.
A documentary film crew followed fourth-generation Williston farmers Ginger and David Isham around town throughout 2019. The resulting one-hour episode will be part of the documentary series “My Love” to be released on Netflix on April 13.
The Ishams were chosen out of about 130 candidate couples from all over the United States to represent relationship longevity and life as community elders. The series follows couples in six different countries in separate episodes that will all be released simultaneously.
“It’s an exploration of companionship and what it means to spend and devote your life to one other person,” said director Elaine McMillion Sheldon.
A new neighbor of the Ishams on South Road, Alison Whritenaur, nominated them for the project in 2018. Whritenaur’s sister works at Boardwalk Pictures, the Los Angeles-based company that produced the series. Sheldon had been searching the country for the right senior couple to showcase, cold-calling nonprofits, senior centers and arts organizations for leads. Finally, she asked if anyone at Boardwalk knew of a couple. That’s when Whritenaur and her sister began talking about the Ishams.
“It was hilarious because I had spent nearly three months traversing the U.S.,” Sheldon said, “and the couple we ended up featuring came from an internal suggestion from the company.”
Sheldon visited the Ishams in January of 2019. A couple days after the visit, she offered them the opportunity.
“You want someone who is not going to perform, who is very comfortable with their own story and not wanting to put on a show in any way,” Sheldon said. “Ginger and David seemed really humble … and they are very kind to one another.”
Ginger was ready to jump at the opportunity; she talked David into getting excited, too.
“When I learned more about what they were going to do and they told us we had been chosen, I said to David ‘we have to do this. We owe it to the future generations of the Isham family to do this,’” Ginger said. “I just thought what fun it would be.
“We wanted to show our state and our town and the quality of life we have living here.”
A camera crew followed the couple through the mundane and the celebratory. One highlight was a surprise 60th wedding anniversary at the farm, with a renewal of vows officiated by Williston Federated Church Pastor Paul Eyer. Also filmed were a day at the Champlain Valley Fair, a trip across Lake Champlain on the ferry to New York and the farm’s sugar-making operation.
The film crew also followed the Ishams as they made end-of-life decisions about cremation and wills. They have six children, with their oldest, Mike, now running the farm.
Despite the film crew’s presence, the Ishams were able to maintain secrecy around the project.
“For 11 years we had a bed and breakfast, so we were used to strangers coming into our home,” Ginger said. “And they were so kind to us and so accommodating.”
The Ishams’ connection to the land, to the community and to their family made them ideal subjects for the film, Sheldon said.
“Williston has so many great iconic events, especially in the summer,” she said. “It’s a huge slice of Americana. It almost feels like fiction at times because so many communities have lost these celebrations that used to be very associated with America. And Vermont, and especially Williston, has held onto those.”
The Ishams have seen their episode and are excited for the way it will portray life in Williston.
“They did a fabulous job putting this together,” Ginger said. “It made us look back on our lives and how we lived. We made it this far with good health and a wonderful family. Our life was simple, but we had what was most important such as love, security and happiness.”
A Netflix subscription is needed to view the documentary. But Sheldon hopes to have community screenings at the Isham Farm and other locations around Vermont in the coming year.
“I hope Vermonters like it and I hope that people all across the U.S. will relate to the story,” said Sheldon. “Ginger and David live very quiet lives which are often overlooked in media. We’re always looking for the extremes to be featured documentary characters, but Ginger and David are just living their lives and have simple lessons to teach us.”