The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek: Mockumentary Civil War Film a First for Valley Director Wendy Jo Cohen
A Dutchess County native gets a thumbs-up for her “mockumentary” film
A scene from Cohen’s Civil War-era film
When New York City-based filmmaker Wendy Jo Cohen set out to make her movie The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek, she knew exactly where she would do much of the filming. The movie, which centers around a fictional Civil War battle, takes place in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and many scenes were shot there. But Cohen, who grew up in Dutchess County, knew the Hudson Valley would make an ideal stand-in for the times when she couldn’t make it down south.
“Well, the mountains do look really different,” says Cohen. “The Blue Ridge Mountains really do look blue; the Fishkill Ridge doesn’t. But in terms of the rural setting I needed, there are so many beautiful places up here. I didn’t appreciate it that much when I was growing up, but now when I come here, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Cohen, who describes a sort of semirural, Shangri-La-like childhood — “We raised pigs, we had bees, horses. My dad worked at IBM but my parents did the whole homesteading thing; they built our house” — always wanted to make movies. “By the time I was 12, I was begging for a Super 8 camera,” she says. “But I had to save my own money for it. I was 14 when I got one; my dad drove me to the city to buy it.” She never looked back: After graduating from Roy C. Ketcham High School in the early 1980s, she headed to SUNY Purchase to study film.
|Four-square: This scene from The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek (above) shows the fictional battle’s unlikely heroes; a poster for the movie (right) includes a plug from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns||
Although Cohen has worked in the biz for more than 20 years (including long stints producing documentaries for cable outlets like the Discovery and History channels) this is her first feature film. Originally inspired while hiking in Virginia — “Everywhere you go you see these historical markers about the war” — she started thinking about Ken Burns’s famous 1990 documentary The Civil War. “Those movies are quite simple really: the talking-head interviews, the scenery, the photography, the old music, the archival imagery. I realized I could use the same things to tell a fictional story.”
The result is a “mockumentary” that the New York Times said has “so many ideas and so much imaginative play that the movie can barely contain them.” The premise of the film is that the battle was the one that actually saved the Union. Its historical importance has been suppressed, however, because its four heroes — a gay colonel, an elderly Chinese immigrant, a teen prostitute, and a former slave — were not considered worthy of being celebrated. “I hate the term mockumentary,” says Cohen. “But that’s what it is called. It starts out pretty straight, but then gets weirder and weirder.”
And funnier and funnier, at least according to Ken Burns. Cohen got the film into the hands of the famed documentarian’s associate, who told Cohen: “He’s watching it now — I can hear him howling with laughter.” Eventually, Cohen connected directly with Burns, who wrote a promotional blurb for the film. “We talked on the phone for half an hour,” she says. “He was very encouraging.”
The movie has been screened in Manhattan and at several international film festivals, and was released on iTunes this summer. So what’s next for Cohen? She’s already working on a new comedy film — and looking forward to a hometown screening. The Downing Film Center in Newburgh plans to show The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek for one night in September or October (check www.downingfilmcenter.com for the schedule). “I would love that,” she says. “After all, I’m a Hudson Valley girl at heart.”