MacDowell Downtown

MacDowell Downtown is a free series of presentations open to the public by MacDowell Fellows that takes place on the first Friday of the month from March to November in downtown Peterborough. Each season of MacDowell Downtown features a wide array of programming, including film screenings and workshops, readings, and writing seminars, art exhibitions, performances, talks, and more. MacDowell Downtown begins at 7:30 p.m. typically at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in Peterborough.

“At MacDowell,” a column in The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and featured below, profiles the presenting artist the week of the event. Visit this page and our Facebook Events page for the latest information on upcoming MacDowell Downtown events.

Writer Jeff Sharlet to Speak on the Netflix Series “The Family” Friday, Oct. 4

Jeff Sharlet had serious doubts when he was approached by Netflix to turn two of his books into what is now the hit documentary series “The Family.” After all, how do you tell the story of people who very much want to remain invisible? Sharlet, who has written for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine, says the answer was to “blend all the great nonfiction genres.” Currently at MacDowell for his fifth residency, he will present clips of the series, talk about the journey he took to help create it, and discuss the story’s continuing political relevance this Friday at 7:30 at The Monadnock Center for History and Culture.

Both the book and the Netflix series investigate the machinations surrounding a religious group wielding extraordinary political power. As a young writer Sharlet embedded himself in this conservative Christian network, a loosely structured organization that has had the ear of U.S. presidents and members of both houses of Congress for more than 80 years. Also known as The Fellowship, the group goes to lengths to avoid the spotlight, and yet are most clearly visible as the force behind the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Sharlet says the breakfast resembles “a lobbying convention for the halls of power” that welcomes brokers from around the world.

“The great thing is, we got a lot of these guys to sit for on-camera interviews,” says Sharlet, giving credit to the film’s director, MacDowell Fellow Jesse Moss. Moss set up a booth outside the 2018 prayer meeting and managed to convince a number of members of The Family to sit for interviews, “where they proceed to lie on camera.”

Sharlet, who is currently at MacDowell to further two books under contract and write a magazine story, says, “The Family wouldn’t have been completed without MacDowell. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.”

“The series is part first-person, part third-person,” he says. “It starts with a dramatic reenactment of the death of my mother. There’s cinéma vérité, some animation, and talking-head interviews. It’s a departure for Netflix, and I’ve heard some complaints that it doesn’t conform to their usual true-crime genre.”

Sharlet, who teaches a class in documentary film as “a lover of the medium and of television,” says that after print publication of The Family, NBC Nightly News did a short segment on it and the organization under scrutiny immediately denied its own existence. At that time, the organization was led by Doug Coe, who, according to Sharlet, was a charismatic type who often said, “The more invisible you make your organization, the more influence it will have.”

In the years since publication of The Family (2008) and its follow-up, C-Street (2010), Sharlet has endured the harassment of a private investigator interviewing work colleagues and threats of a lawsuit. “I thought I had left that all behind when Netflix caught up to me,” he says.

The media company hired producers and they, in turn, picked Jesse Moss as director. After a couple of false starts in attempting the adaptation (“I wrote a first draft of a treatment and got it all wrong”), Sharlet figured out which pieces of the book would actually work in the new medium of film.

“The series is oddly structured, just like the book, and by the end, I wasn’t sure what to think,” he admits. “But after seeing it, I believe what Jesse made is subtle and artful.”

With his books as source material, Sharlet will offer insights into his journey through the world of Netflix tomorrow evening at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture starting at 7:30 p.m. For this rare chance to hear directly from an author in the realm of filmmaking, don’t miss this edition of MacDowell Downtown. Doors open at 7 p.m. with light refreshments served.

If you go:

Writer Jeff Sharlet
MacDowell Downtown
When: October 4, 2019 from 7:30 – 8:30 p.m.
The Monadnock Center for History and Culture at 19 Grove Street, Peterborough, NH