Writer, filmmaker to show documentary on Black Adirondack settlement

“Searching for Timbuctoo” by Paul Miller will be shown Nov. 12 at Page Hall

When Paul Miller was a freshman in college and living in Chicago, he was deciding what psychology class to take. His friends told him not to sign up for one particular professor who had a reputation for being very difficult. “I decided to take that class anyway   and that was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Miller said.

“I ended up doing well in that class, and that professor helped me get an internship at a local television program that had just become syndicated called “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Today, Miller is an independent writer, filmmaker and photographer and serves as the senior director of advancement communications at the University at Albany.

The year was 1989 and Winfrey had yet to become a national icon, but Miller still fondly remembers his interview with her. “I was spellbound with her ability to put a nervous 18-year-old at ease, and I thought I had interviewed poorly but she offered me a job right there after we were done.”
Miller worked on the show for six years doing promotional advertising before moving on to The History Channel, The National Geographic Channel and the PBS Headquarters in Washington. “I enjoyed all those places and learned from each of them. As a promo producer I needed to tell a visual story in 30 seconds. That’s what the best of filmmaking is all about just telling a story with as few words as possible.”

As part of his master’s thesis project at UAlbany, Miller began working on a film about the Timbuctoo settlement located near North Elba in Essex County. It originated in the mid-1800s as a farming colony and was devised by real estate baron Gerrit Smith as a way for Black families to become self-sufficient and provide them with land ownership that was needed for blacks to vote.

“I heard about Timbuctoo from the John Brown Lives organization in Westport, New York. Writer Amy Godine has been keeping this story alive for years, and I became fascinated and wanted to make a documentary about it.”

As part of the New York State Writers Institute’s fall program, his film “Searching for Timbuctoo” will be shown Friday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. at Page Hall, 135 Western Ave. There will also be a panel discussion after the screening.

“I wanted to do this film because of all the compelling characters involved such as Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass and abolitionist John Brown, along with some of the Black settlers. I wanted to find out where these men started and how they ended up. No one today knows about Gerrit Smith, and he ran for president four times. He was also a member of Congress, and he got so fed up with how hard it was to bring about political change that he quit and decided he could do more good out of government.”

Smith was involved in the Temperance Movement, but his great passion was trying to end slavery. He used some of his lavish wealth to provide legal expenses for people charged with infractions of the Fugitive Slave Law, and he provided money to John Brown in his efforts to capture the munitions armory at Harpers Ferry and start a slave revolt.

“This was my first long documentary, and I discovered how hard it is to find good visuals from that time period. I knew to make this documentary entertaining I had to write this story in a compelling way and keep viewers engaged and in a bit of suspense as the story of Smith, Brown and the settlers unfolded,”  Miller said.

What inspired him was how this group of people of all mixed races came together in the mid-1800s to push back against what they saw as injustice. “In many ways that fight continues today. It’s disheartening that it’s still going on over the same issues such as the right to vote. It’s easy to imagine Gerrit Smith and John Brown today out in the streets marching for Black Lives Matter.”

Miller thinks his film would be perfect for the education market. “Hopefully PBS might be interested which would be like coming full-circle for me. I had hoped to interview some of the Black settler families like the Epps family that lived in the Adirondacks for over 100 years. They had a hardscrabble existence and became part of the Adirondack community. Lyman Epps was a great friend of John Brown, and he helped establish the Lake Placid Library, became a beloved music teacher and even helped open a trail to Indian Pass.”

It was difficult for Miller to locate many ancestors of the original settlers, and as the film shows the student archaeologists were unable to locate the original Timbuctoo settlement. “I called the movie ‘Searching for Timbuctoo’ because Timbuctoo is a metaphor for the country. We’re still searching for equal rights and justice as a country and as a society.”

Miller is excited and proud to show his film through the Writers Institute. “The institute is amazing and so many outstanding writers and filmmakers have spoken here. It’s an honor for me to be included.”

Eighteen years ago, he came to UAlbany as a producer director in the marketing department. Today Miller does fundraising communications to tell the stories of the college’s students and makes the case for the importance of scholarship opportunities.

He’s looking forward to next semester when he will be teaching his first college class on documentary filmmaking. “I know I’m going to learn a lot from my students. The elements of storytelling have not changed too drastically through the years, but the hard part with filmmaking is keeping up with all the new technology.”

Miller has been thinking quite a bit also about his old psychology teacher years ago at Chicago. “The last time I saw him I thanked him for the opportunity he gave me to intern with the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show,’ and I said ‘I don’t know how I can ever repay you.’ He told me, ‘Just help someone else out,’ and here I am all these years later and my job every day is helping students get the financial need they must have and next semester I’ll take some of my knowledge and help students create documentaries. I think he would be proud.”