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In latest film, Walpole's Ken Burns examines literary icon Ernest Hemingway

It may seem ironic that famed filmmaker and Walpole resident Ken Burns made Ernest Hemingway, the American writer known for brevity, the subject of his latest exhaustive documentary.

But Burns said close examination is warranted. In fact, he hears profound musings — on life, on love, on human nature — in Hemingway’s simple prose.

“What’s left out speaks volumes,” he said. “There’s so much more depth.”

Burns and co-director Lynn Novick explore that depth in a three-part film series, which premieres April 5 on PBS. They trace Hemingway’s life from his youth in Illinois to his time as an ambulance driver in World War I and through his literary career, first as a journalist and later a short-story writer and novelist.

Burns, whose documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, jazz and more have earned 15 Emmy Award nominations, and Novick started filming the project in 2014 after having discussed Hemingway as a possible subject for decades, they said. Hemingway, a Pulitzer Prize winner, drew their interest because, in probing his own flaws, he addresses questions of human nature, according to Burns.

“He is arguably one of the great, if not the greatest, American writer of the 20th century,” Burns said. “That’s certainly open to debate, and we’re not saying that’s what it is. We just find … this interest in pursuing these deep dives into people who are super complicated.”

Their film finds Hemingway in constant motion: geographically — in Europe for both world wars and many of the intervening years, as well as Florida and Cuba — and romantically, struggling to sustain his marriages. It explores how those experiences influenced his work, which includes celebrated titles like “A Farewell to Arms,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The documentary also details the cultural influences behind Hemingway’s illustrious career, like his time in Parisian literary circles with the writers Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, as well as his passion for sailing in the Caribbean.

And it explores the various traumas that Hemingway faced at a young age, which included struggling to earn his mother’s love as a child, seeing the horrors of war at 18 and dealing with his father’s suicide a decade later. The rejection of a woman whom Hemingway loved, as well as his family’s history of mental illness, may have also fueled the discontent that shattered his first three marriages, according to Burns.

The filmmaker said it was important to show that while Hemingway’s restlessness drove his literary greatness, it also weighed heavily on those around him, including his children. (He and Novick interviewed Patrick Hemingway, one of the writer’s three sons, for the film.)

“There are people [in Hemingway’s life] who suffer from a lot of that, so it can’t be taken in the abstract, where a writer needs to go out and experience the world,” Burns said. “We tried to account for that and own that, or at least have him own it.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his own brushes with death, much of Hemingway’s writing deals with mortality.

Novick said she found the writer’s honesty in confronting death as a natural reality “extremely vivifying and refreshing.” Burns concurred, calling Hemingway — who died by suicide in 1961 — a tragic figure and hailing his ability to explore the subject publicly.

“The great gift of him is his willingness to face the question of our own mortality with such courage and do it in so many different ways: in nature, in war, in relationship, in how people function,” Burns said. “It’s a great gift, and it will be enduring.”

Death was also a backdrop for the filmmakers’ own work, with the world battling a pandemic that has killed more than half a million Americans alone.

Filming for the documentary was largely complete by March 2020, according to Novick, who said the staff did its last in-person shoot a month earlier at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, which has a large collection of Hemingway’s writings. She explained, however, that they had not yet finished recording voiceovers for the film at the time. (Actor Jeff Daniels reads for Hemingway, and actresses Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson voice the writer’s wives.)

Work on the film continued remotely, with Burns at his home in Walpole. Novick said collaborating remotely was difficult, since staff members were used to working together in an office.

She added, though, that the pandemic helped them understand Hemingway, who was hospitalized with war-related injuries during the 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu.

“Living through this, I think it gives us a little bit more perspective on his sense of mortality and the fragility of life,” Novick said. “… That’s what we’ve all kind of had to learn in a way.”

Burns said that while Hemingway’s work addresses universal themes, his descriptions of nature may resonate particularly well with Monadnock Region residents.

“I think if you’ve ever walked outside your house and said, ‘I live in a beautiful place. How do I find the words to describe what I just saw?’, you can read Ernest Hemingway and find someone who was equally besotted with the power of nature,” he said.

As for whether he and Novick considered adding any short, declarative sentences to the film’s script as an homage to Hemingway, Burns said they left that style to their subject.

“This is the most parodied writer of all time,” he said. “Somebody can start writing a parody of Ernest Hemingway, and you know instantaneously that they’re trying to be Hemingway. I think we’re smart enough to know we’re not going there.”


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2,100 NH households apply for rental assistance program in its first week

One week after its launch, about 2,100 households have applied to the N.H. Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

The $200 million program covers current and past due rent, as well as utility and home energy costs, including Internet, and is funded through last December’s federal coronavirus relief package.

Dean Christon, executive director of the N.H. Housing Finance Authority, which is helping oversee the program, says getting about 300 applications per day is a good start, but there’s no single data point that indicates what the demand is for this assistance in New Hampshire.

That’s because, Christon says, there’s been other assistance provided to residents through enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus checks over the past year.

“It’s difficult to know in our environment exactly how many people are at risk,” he said. “But we do know from talking to a lot of folks that work with lower-income individuals or people that are the property owner managers, they feel that there’s eventually going to be significant demand for these resources.”

As of Tuesday, funds have been distributed in fewer than 20 cases.

“That’s not surprising because there’s a need for the community action agencies to review the material that’s been submitted and to do a variety of assessments, and verify who the funds need to be paid to,” he said.

Payments will be made directly to property owners or utilities, and applicants need to provide documentation that shows that the pandemic affected their ability to pay rent. Applicants have to meet certain income eligibility requirements and show they are at risk of experiencing homelessness, housing instability or live in an unsafe or unhealthy housing.

In certain circumstances, money will be given directly to the applicant.

Last year, about $9.8 million from last year’s $20 million N.H. Housing Relief Program went to more than 3,225 households. The program faced criticism early on that it was slow to roll out.

Some advocates have expressed concern about the speed in which funds are distributed this year, since the CDC’s eviction moratorium ends on March 31, although there are national reports that it could be extended.

“I would not encourage people who are at risk to wait, based on the fact that that moratorium exists or that it may be extended,” Christon said.

Property owners can submit an application for rental assistance on behalf of their tenant, with the tenant’s cooperation.

Applications are available at www.capnh.org. The program ends on Dec. 31, 2021, or when funds are expended.


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NH Supreme Court to consider legal rights of mental health patients held against will

CONCORD — A dispute centering on the legal rights of those held against their will because of alleged psychiatric concerns will go before the justices of the N.H. Supreme Court Thursday.

The case involves a woman, identified only as Jane Doe, who alleges the state failed to provide her with a hearing in front of a judge within three days to contest her involuntary hospital admission, despite a state law that spells out the need for a timely hearing.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is being represented by the N.H. Department of Justice, contends the three-day window for the hearing doesn’t begin until after the patient is transferred and admitted to a specialty psychiatric hospital, rather than when the patient is first brought to a local emergency room.

But with too few available beds at the state’s specialty hospitals to meet current demand, people in New Hampshire will often spend days, if not weeks, awaiting transfer.

A lower court judge sided with Jane Doe, ruling that the three-day clock begins tolling when the patient is first admitted to a hospital under an IEA, or Involuntary Emergency Admission petition, which alleges the person is a threat to themselves because of a mental health condition.

“That’s the essential debate between us and the commissioner,” said Gary Apfel, the attorney representing Jane Doe.

Apfel’s client was held inside Dartmouth Hitchcock’s emergency room for 17 days before she was transferred to New Hampshire Hospital, one of just a handful of specialty psychiatric facilities statewide. During that delay — a result of a long-running statewide shortage of mental health treatment options — Doe was unable to contest her confinement, which she didn’t believe was warranted.

The state’s appeal before the Supreme Court doesn’t directly challenge Jane Doe’s release, but instead focuses on when the three-day window for the due process hearing begins.

A nearly decade-old problem, made worse by pandemic

Jane Doe’s situation isn’t unique: every day, people in mental health crisis, including children, are waiting inside New Hampshire emergency rooms for a bed to open at a specialty psychiatric hospital, also known as designated receiving facilities. The practice is so common it has a name: emergency room boarding.

ER boarding first emerged in New Hampshire in 2012, when demand for mental health services began outpacing the number of inpatient psychiatric beds.

“It’s pretty inhumane, to put it bluntly, and I think that even under the best of circumstances, an emergency department is not a safe place, physically or mentally, for a person experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Ken Norton, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-New Hampshire, which filed an amicus brief in support of Jane Doe’s case.

The number of people boarded in the state has ebbed and flowed over the years, but during the pandemic it peaked, when on a single day in February more than 80 residents sat in ERs waiting to get transferred. That figure includes dozens of children.

Civil liberties groups have challenged this practice in the past, including a 2018 federal class action suit brought by the ACLU of New Hampshire. In that case, which remains active on appeal, a federal judge issued a preliminary order siding with the plaintiffs.

“It really, to me, runs afoul of the core bedrock principle of the United States Constitution, which is if your liberty is going to be taken away from you, you should be provided due process,” said Gilles Bissonnette, the ACLU of New Hampshire’s legal director, who also filed an amicus brief in support of Jane Doe. “In New Hampshire, there is none.”

State officials declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation.

In February, state Health Commissioner Lori Shibonnette announced the state would add an additional ten inpatient beds for children at the state psychiatric facility in Concord, citing the number of minors waiting inside of emergency rooms. Shibonnette added, however, that the bottleneck isn’t just at psychiatric hospitals, but also at the community level.

“We need different types of beds: supportive housing beds, transitional housing beds, affordable housing beds. Those are the types of beds we need. Not necessarily in a hospital,” said Shibonnette during a press conference.

But until those are in place in the state, people will likely continue languishing in emergency rooms: a place just about everyone agrees is the worst location someone struggling with mental health should spend time.

“No caring person should want to see another member of our community treated that way, especially since tomorrow it could be your aunt, or your grandfather or your nephew,” said Apfel. “That’s something that everybody needs to be concerned about.”


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After Supreme Court ruling, NH school funding debate headed for another trial
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The decades-long debate over New Hampshire’s school-funding formula will continue in Cheshire County Superior Court in the coming months, after a state Supreme Court ruling Tuesday in a case several local school districts originally filed two years ago.

Michael Tierney, the Manchester-based attorney representing the ConVal, Winchester, Monadnock and Mascenic districts, said he expects the court to hold a scheduling conference within the next 30 days to discuss a trial date.

“We were ready to try this back in June of 2019, and look forward to trying it as soon as we can get on the court calendar,” Tierney said. “... We feel comfortable that we can move as expeditiously as the court will allow.”

That could be a long process, though, according to Natalie Laflamme, a Concord-based attorney who co-authored an amicus brief in the case on behalf of 25 school districts statewide, arguing that the state’s current education funding formula is unconstitutional.

“Practically, this [ruling] just means the can has been kicked down the road, potentially for another few years,” Laflamme said during a press briefing Tuesday afternoon organized by the N.H. School Funding Fairness Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for changes to the education funding formula.

“By the time this case goes through discovery and through a trial, and then, most likely, another appeal, it could be a few years before the Supreme Court can really, definitively rule on the current funding system,” Laflamme continued.

School-funding lawsuits in New Hampshire going back 30 years have argued that the state does not provide enough education dollars, instead shifting the burden to local property taxpayers.

As a result, local education taxes often make up 50 percent or more of a homeowner’s total property-tax bill, and towns can pay vastly different rates depending on their overall property values.

After a series of court rulings in the early 2000s, lawmakers formed a committee that came up with New Hampshire’s current school-funding formula in 2008. But the ConVal, Winchester, Monadnock and Mascenic districts argue this formula still fails to provide a constitutionally adequate education for their students.

In a unanimous 14-page decision Tuesday, the N.H. Supreme Court sent the case back to Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff, saying he did not use the proper legal analysis when he ruled in June 2019 that the state’s school-funding formula is unconstitutional. Specifically, the high court determined that Ruoff erred by basing his ruling on the methodology that the state used in 2008 to determine its school-funding formula, and not the actual text of that statute.

N.H. Solicitor General Dan Will, who argued the state’s case before the Supreme Court, said in a written statement Tuesday that “the State will continue to defend the education adequacy funding statute” in Cheshire County Superior Court.

Additionally, in the Supreme Court’s ruling, Justice Patrick E. Donovan wrote that the trial court would need to settle the “vigorously disputed” underlying facts of the case — such as determining the components and costs of a constitutionally adequate education — before issuing a summary judgment.

“So, it’s not a defeat; it’s just not a win” for the school districts, said John M. Lewis, a former superior court judge who has followed the state’s education-funding lawsuits over the past 30 years. “It’s the Supreme Court saying, ‘No, this isn’t enough. You can’t do this by summary proceedings’.”

Ruoff’s 2019 decision came after attorneys for the state and the districts requested a summary judgment, and he ruled based on written arguments from attorneys. The Supreme Court’s ruling paves the way for a trial in Cheshire County Superior Court, where attorneys will call witnesses, such as the superintendents of the four districts, to present evidence on whether the state meets its constitutional obligation to fund an adequate education, Tierney said.

In a written statement issued after the Supreme Court decision, ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders, Monadnock Superintendent Lisa Witte, Winchester Superintendent Kenneth Dassau and Mascenic Superintendent Christine Martin said they are “heartened” by the ruling.

“Today’s outcome is a positive one for students of New Hampshire, but it is only one small step toward solving an urgent issue for students throughout the state,” they wrote. “This issue has now impacted two generations of New Hampshire children and will continue as long as the state fails to meet its obligations under our state Constitution.”

Gov. Chris Sununu, meanwhile, said the Supreme Court’s ruling “reaffirms that this is an issue that belongs in the Legislature and not in legal limbo.”

“As the most representative body in America, the N.H. Legislature must have the authority to make education funding decisions,” Sununu said in a written statement Tuesday afternoon.

Jeff McLynch, director of the N.H. School Funding Fairness Project, said he agrees with the governor that the Legislature bears the responsibility to act on school funding.

“There’s nothing in the ruling today that precludes the Legislature from acting,” McLynch said during the press briefing, which was conducted via Zoom. McLynch added that state lawmakers are considering some short- and long-term changes to school funding this legislative term, but action doesn’t appear imminent.

John Tobin, an attorney who chairs the group’s board of directors and helped represent the Claremont School District in a landmark school-funding case in the 1990s, noted that a commission led by Democratic lawmakers released a report in December outlining policy recommendations for the state legislature to consider.

“The Legislature needs to get on the stick and resolve this issue,” Tobin said. “And there was a school funding commission that laid out one possible roadmap for that, and the Legislature is not hurrying to follow that. So, this is ultimately, finally the Legislature’s job. They need to take responsibility for this.”

The ConVal lawsuit is the latest in a line of school funding cases dating back to the early 1990s, when the state Supreme Court issued its Claremont I and II decisions. Those opinions held that the state must fund an “adequate education.”

For the current school year, the state provided districts with a baseline of $3,708 per student in “adequacy aid,” plus additional amounts tied to students’ socioeconomic status, how many are in special education programs and other factors.

Statewide, districts spent an average of $16,823 per student in the 2019-2020, not including tuition to out-of-district schools, transportation, equipment and construction, according to data from the N.H. Department of Education.


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