“Applause and recognition,” Nell Shipman once wrote, “are the handmaidens of creativity.”
The truth and irony of this pioneering filmmaker’s insight is ever more apparent as her legacy of writing, producing and starring in nearly 70 silent films remains a buried treasure in film history. Professor Tom Trusky at Boise State University stumbled upon Nell Shipman’s existence in 1984 and began a transatlantic search to restore her forgotten and brilliant body of work. His scholarship included a re-digitization of Nell’s “obtainable” films from 1912 forward and the publishing of her dusty auto-biography, THE SILENT SCREEN AND MY TALKING HEART. Dr. Trusky, however, suffered a sudden heart-attack in 2009 and died before he could bring Nell her deserved accolades. Once again, “The Girl From God’s Country” fell into obscurity in the US.
Today, Nell Shipman’s story is compelling because it’s an unadulterated, undiscovered adventure tale of a pioneering woman who rewrote the rules of filmmaking and in so doing, paved the way for independent voices, especially women’s voices, in film arts. In 1922, Nell personified the first action heroine long before Angelina Jolie topped the box office. Deep in the Idaho wilderness, she wrote and starred in her own films, tended her own zoo to insure humane treatment of her animal actors and nearly died performing her own stunts. An unfettered spirit, she also stepped into the first nude scene. This grainy 30-second clip in her re-mastered film, THE GRUBSTAKE, was demure by today’s standards, but shocked in 1923. The audacity of this scene typifies Nell the writer, director and producer who chose to serve authenticity and artistic integrity at the cost of professional, financial and personal tragedy.
Our documentary focuses on the unorthodox genius and gutsy “sourdough” spirit that fueled Nell’s creativity and infused her work with unmistakable passion. Rare audio interviews with Priest Lake locals who knew Nell reveal the forgotten star’s struggles with sub-zero winters and murderous neighbors. But Idaho’s rugged beauty offered more than challenges. Nell used the wilderness as a huge creative canvas and our film also explores how these same wide open spaces have served the artistic vision of residents like Hemingway, Clint Eastwood and Carole King.
Defining Nell’s contribution to the history of women in filmmaking, this documentary highlights an ignored chapter in our cultural history—how and why a generation women, once a powerful force in all aspects of the silent film industry, were silenced to this day by monopolistic major studios.
The role of independent filmmakers in Hollywood will undoubtedly continue to expand, but few today realize the price Nell Shipman paid forging that path in the wilderness of Idaho. Finally, in our film, “Girl from God’s Country,” Nell Shipman will deservedly be seen as a star among great stars –a role she has played silently for too long.