Swiss documentary shot in 1976, ’A Quiet America,’ and its 2015 revisit, ’Back to Hays,’ will air on local cable channels this weekend
Hays Arts Council executive director Brenda Meder on Tuesday normally would be preparing for Friday’s opening of the council’s 51st annual Smoky Hill Art Exhibition.
Not this year.
Held each year in conjunction with downtown’s much anticipated Spring Art Walk, the Smoky Hill exhibit is now on hold.
But Meder hasn’t given up on a community-wide arts event.
This Saturday and Sunday, the Hays Arts Council will reprise on cable television its 2017 authorized showing of the 1976 Swiss-made documentary "A Quiet America."
The made-for-TV film is about small-town USA as seen through life in Hays. The documentary, shown for the first time here in 2017, was a hit, especially its raucous weekend night scenes of Hays kids dragging Main Street.
"Those were some of the most enjoyed scenes in ‘A Quiet America,’ " said Meder, recalling the Oct. 14 showing nearly three years ago at the Beach Schmidt Performing Arts Center on the Fort Hays campus.
Several hundred people showed up for the free showing hosted by the Hays Arts Council to mark two anniversaries: the 50th of the HAC, and the 150th of the city of Hays.
"People chuckled at those scenes of dragging Main," said Meder. "They recognized cars, they recognized their friends. It was just such a shared sense of history, culture, community, tradition."
Meder got the idea to show the documentary again after seeing the huge crowd that showed up a few weeks ago in Hays to drag Main Street bumper to bumper. The turnout was maybe a combination of nostalgia and shared community, Meder said, just before Gov. Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order. The March order has since been extended to May 3.
"We’re showing it now because I want to provide a bit of distraction from the isolation and disconcertedness of the situation we’re in," said Meder, a native of Victoria. "Our community has changed a lot in the last 45 years. We have grown and adapted to whatever change has come our way. And we will be a changed community after this."
The Swiss documentary was shot by Radio Television Suisse in the Spring of 1976 for the U.S. bicentennial, as the world was fascinated with the nation’s birthday.
"We were a baby country as far as the world went," Meder said. "The filmmakers, they wanted to show the other side of America, small-town America … One-third of all Americans at that time were living in small towns. They wanted to showcase that, a different kind of life, and they weren’t patronizing or anything like that."
The film crew scouted U.S. locations and ultimately settled on Hays.
The community opened its doors, Meder said, from VFW dinners, the bingo parlors, a press run at The Hays Daily News, and the radio station, to a traditional Volga German wedding, implement dealers, dragging Main, sales at the livestock barn, St. Anthony Hospital, downtown Main and the trains that routinely cut through town.
It featured interviews with both town officials and everyday people.
In 2015 a crew returned to create a 30-minute sequel, "Back to Hays," complete with Marc Schindler, one of the members of the original production team.
For the Hays Arts Council’s 2017 showing, the Swiss TV station supplied a version without the documentary’s French voiceover, Meder said.
"The one we have doesn’t have the narration, so we hear the interviews without the overlap of the French commentary that no one would understand," Meder said. "So we can hear our citizens speak, and hear what’s going on, like the people chatting as they drag Main."
HAC has paid licensing and fees of a little over $400 for the rights to show the films again. Meder, with the help of Nick Schwien of FHSU’s Tiger Media Network, decided to host the showing first on cable TV, with plans to stream it later on the HAC website before April 30.
"I realized that some of the people I wanted to see this the most, the people now 85 years old, were just 40 when this was shot," she said.
Meanwhile, pieces of HAC’s current exhibit, which opened just as the state began to shut down, can be viewed on the council’s website, www.haysartscouncil.org.
Meder is hopeful the Smoky Hill Art Exhibition will have its day in the sun too, perhaps by June or July.
The Smoky is the longest running, continuous juried art show in Kansas, started by HAC 51 years ago, just after the council was formed 53 years ago.
With $2,750 in cash awards, the Smoky features 2-D and 3-D art forms, from oil and watercolor paintings to variations of sculpture, ceramics, jewelry making, lithographs and printmaking. Some pieces are traditional, some abstract.
"It really covers the gamut of all art forms," Meder said. "There’s literally something for everyone. I’d really love to show the pieces off, so fingers crossed that maybe we’ll be able to do that."
This year’s exhibit has 55 pieces.
"We have not canceled the Smoky Hill. We have not canceled or jettisoned the Smoky," Meder said. "It’s just on hold."
Pieces had been scheduled to arrive in early April, with judging set for April 13.
And instead of gathering for the Smoky’s opening on Friday, Hays residents can gather now around their TVs.
"We can still be together through a shared history and nostalgia," Meder said.
Both films will air back-to-back at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 25, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 26. Through Tiger Media Network’s access channel to local cable companies, the documentary will air on Eagle channel 17 and on Nex-Tech channel 102.
A DVD with both films is still available for $20 plus postage.
"We’ve grown and evolved and made it through, and we will again," Meder said, "despite the coronavirus."