CLICK HERE TO SEE VIDEO CLIPS FROM THE MOVIE ON IMDB.COM!
Excerpted from: The Valley Advocate , Wednesday, September 16, 2009 [http://www.valleyadvocate.com/article_print.cfm?aid=10528]
- By JACK BROWN / Cinema Dope
Another piece of local color comes to the Greenfield Garden Cinemas
on Wednesday, when they host a screening of Touchstone: Dancing
With Angels to benefit Greenfield Community Television and local
low-power radio station WMCB-LP FM. The hour-long documentary
about the Easthampton spiritual center, drawing on over two years worth
of footage shot by director D.S. Fine, focuses on the remarkable journey
of the center's co-founder, George "Shaker" McNeil, whose transgender
rebirth—over the course of the film, the local farmer and activist transitions
to Deborah Hall-McNeil—in many ways mirrors the sometimes tumultuous
but ultimately uplifting history of Touchstone Farm itself.
Copyright © 2009 The Valley Advocate All Rights Reserved
By MATT PILON Staff Writer
[ Originally published on: Friday, May 16, 2008 ]
EASTHAMPTON - It's been a "beautiful journey" say the owners of
Touchstone Farm and Yoga Center on West Street.
The farm has been one of the Valley's eclectic destinations for personal
spirituality for more than a decade - and tonight a documentary debuting
at 7 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Northampton will give a unique
window into the community.
It was only two years ago that various buildings on the farm were shut
down by Easthampton's former building inspector, throwing its future
Now, it appears an unusual community with an unusual mission is on the
brink of achieving a dream.
Farm owners Anja Daniel and Deborah Hall-McNeil are looking forward to
the construction this summer of eight eco-friendly homes on their
13.3-acre plot, which is adorned with gardens and woodland.
The revitalization of the 22-year-old community will hopefully bring
visitors from far and wide, who come to meditate, dance, heal, and work
in the gardens.
Southampton filmmaker David Fine, 53, of Immediate Impressions said he
chose to make a documentary film about Touchstone after meeting the
owners and visiting the farm, which he described as "a little paradise."
"I really wanted to focus on some place that was trying to live in a
different kind of a society," he said. "They honestly want to make the
world a better place."
Fine has produced several shows for public access television in
Northampton and Easthampton, including "Moments of Bliss," in which he
approaches people on the street to ask them about the most amazing
moments in their life.
The film's editor, Rebecca Rideout of Monadnock Media in Sunderland,
distilled 180 hours of Fine's footage into 53 minutes. She believes the
film's characters are unique.
"They defy all definition and stereotype," she said.
Fine said that the film, "Touchstone: Dancing With Angels," weaves a
challenging variety of storylines in the film - from spiritual rituals
to the shutdown ordered by a building inspector to a transgender
transformation of one of the farm's owners.
Fine said that he was "essentially on call" for the past two years,
driving to the farm for various spur-of-the moment happenings.
The film was funded in part by the Easthampton Cultural Council and the
Northampton Arts Council.
Fine has plans to sell the documentary in DVD format, but is modest
about his hopes.
"I really think the soundtrack could be as big, if not bigger than the
movie," he said.
The soundtrack is comprised of recordings from local artists that Fine
came across in his local travels, including Valley Free Radio DJ Peter
Sky, who wrote the movie's theme song, titled "Anja's Song."
The farm's owners have become spiritual beacons for people of various
walks since purchasing the farm in 1986.
Formerly named George McNeil, or "Shaker" to many at Touchstone,
Hall-McNeil two years ago faced up to a long-held belief that on the
inside, he was a woman.
Afraid of alienating those who had looked to him as a guide, he says he
had kept the feelings private from all but his closest companions. "I
was betraying them by not being truthful," she said.
Indeed, she says she tended to avoid the camera when Fine began filming
shortly before her transformation, 18 months ago, through surgery and
Hall-McNeil says most of her friends have been supportive, especially
Daniel, who was once in a relationship with Hall-McNeil, said that the
two are still very close.
"Debbie's essence is still the same," Daniel said. "I feel that if
everybody went toward their full truth, the world would be a more
Hall-McNeil said she believes transgender people remain misunderstood,
although Northampton will host its first transgender parade next month.
"There is a huge fascination and a great misunderstanding," Hall-McNeil
Hall-McNeil said she tries to answer any question about her
transformation - "as long as it's from the heart."
Meantime, construction of new housing at the farm is expected to begin
Several of the eight eco-friendly homes, to be built by Douglas Kohl,
are already spoken for.
Kohl has said that the homes will be built beyond Energy Star
specifications - from appliances to windows to insulation. Homes that
are certified under the Environmental Protection Agency program are
typically 20 percent to 30 percent more energy efficient than an average
The homes will be built in a cluster, so that 8 acres will remain as
open space. They are expected to sell for between $240,000 and $270,000.
Community gardens, a bird sanctuary, and a rebuilt dancing barn will be
owned by a homeowner's association.
The $10 donation will be asked at the screening at the Academy of Music,
but the filmmaker says no one will be turned away.
Matt Pilon can be reached at email@example.com.
Daily Hampshire Gazette © 2008 All rights reserved
Daily Hampshire Gazette
Friday, May 16, 2008
Touchstone Farm's spiritual harvest
The core spiritual activity at Touchstone Farm and Yoga Center in
Easthampton - the subject of a new documentary film - is a free-form
dance, usually led by Anja Daniel or Deborah Hall-McNeil that is
accompanied by live or recorded music.
The dances, open to anyone, are chronicled in the film created by David
The dance has had a strong effect on some of its participants.
Sarah McKee was nearing retirement as a federal prosecutor in
Washington, D.C., 10 years ago when a friend dragged her to an equinox
dance that would be led by Hall-McNeil at a museum in Alexandria, Va., a
McKee had received ballet and musical training as a child, but had no
idea what she was walking into. "It was safe to say it was a room full
of federal bureaucrats," she recalled with a laugh last week.
Hall-McNeil recalled looking around the room at the 100 or so slightly
confused people and thinking "what have I gotten myself into?"
But as she puts it, whenever there is something important to do, she
"jumps off a cliff."
"Sometimes you have to look like the total idiot," she said.
Hall-McNeil put on a chanting CD and picked up a set of wind chimes.
She began playing them and circling the room, encouraging the 100 or so
uncertain people in attendance to join hands.
Soon, McKee was dancing in unison with the group.
She described Hall-McNeil as "an absolute magician."
"I wish I could convey Debbie's magic with what she can get people to do
with their bodies," she said.
McKee is now retired and living in Amherst.
She plays the harp for the sick and dying at Cooley Dickinson Hospital
and Baystate Franklin Medical Center, watching the monitor as the music
calms patients' heart rates.
"It's all about how your music affects the people who hear it," she
The filmmaker participated in several dances.
"They do have a sense of transcendence," Fine said. "The movement and
repetition takes you into a different mental dimension."
- MATT PILON
Daily Hampshire Gazette © 2008 All rights reserved
Website content Copyright © Immediate Impressions
All Rights Reserved.