Winonan Anne Pellowski leads workshops all over the globe on how to make cloth books for children, including in some communities that don’t have any children’s books.
She is the subject of Winonan Mary Farrell’s second documentary film, which premieres at Frozen River Film Festival in two weeks.
'Latsch' filmmaker's second film features Winona storyteller
by CHRIS ROGERS
One good mentor, one inspirational example, can change lives in ways they may never see.
Sister Eone urged them to go, so they went. Anne Pellowski was just a young woman when her Saint Theresa’s College professor sent her and her classmates scuttling off to Winona State to see the famous Norwegian storyteller, Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen.
Thorne-Thomsen was a diminutive woman, but when she started spinning yarns — classic Norwegian folk tales like the Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body — the audience hung on every word. “She just had them in the palm of her hand,” Pellowski said.
Pellowski had never seen such a powerful storyteller. “I was just bowled over,” Pellowski remembered. “I said, “I want to do this.’”
She did. Pellowski followed in Sister Eone’s footsteps, becoming a staff storyteller at New York Public Library. Later, the Winonan would travel the world promoting children’s literacy. At Pellowski’s house, two suitcases are waiting to be loaded up with supplies for her next trip, to Nicaragua, where she will show local people how to make early children’s books in Spanish and in their native, Indigenous languages.
“Anne Pellowski: Storyteller to the World,” a new documentary film tracing Pellowski’s journey and her work, will premiere at Frozen River Film Festival on February 11. The film is the product of another Winona storyteller: Mary Farrell. Farrell and Winonan Blake Darst produced the film “John Latsch” that won last year’s FRFF People’s Choice Award. The documentary on Pellowski is their sophomore effort, and it features footage from Farrell’s 2014 trip with Pellowski to a bookmaking workshop in Kenya.
For years, Pellowski has travelled all over the globe to lead workshops with teachers and parents on how to make create children’s books. She has helped Guatemalans make books in their native Kaqchikel and helped Kenyans make children’s books in the Taita langauge. She has met Barack Obama’s step-grandmother, and was allowed, once, to chip a jewel out of a closely guarded opal mine deep underground in Australia.
“I only work with people who work with little children because that’s what is so needed in these countries,” Pellowski said. “They often have books for older readers. There are almost never books for little children.”
Pellowski met Farrell when she moved back to Winona from New York City in 1997. Farrell was running the Winona Catholic Worker house, and Pellowski, who had heard of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City, put such a high priority on being able to volunteer at the Catholic Worker house in Winona that she bought a home next door to it.
Cooking communal meals together in the kitchen of Catholic Worker house, Farrell soaked up Pellowski’s travel tales, and told Pellowski, “Someday I’m going to travel with you.”
Farrell finally made good on that pledge in 2014, when Pellowski was invited to lead a workshop in rural Kenya and Farrell was allowed to come along and film it. Their hosts, Mwasi and Connie Nyatti had donated money to build a library in Mwasi’s home village. When Pellowski came to lead a workshop there, Farrell remembered Mwasi’s speech to the village: “Please, this library is for you. We want you to take advantage. We want you to come here. We want your children to come.”
What is it like to have a documentary made about yourself? Pellowski laughed. “It’s just wonderful. I think it’s fabulous,” she said. She has been on camera plenty of times before. Pellowski ran a weekly storytelling show for New York public television for two years, and appeared once on a very popular national public televsion show. She’s not saying which. It’s a surprise, but the footage is in Farrell’s film. “It’s just wonderful to have all your things pulled together like that,” Pelloski added.
Filmmaking is not Farrell’s full-time job, but for a while, she was working on both the Latsch and Pellowski documentaries at the same time. Pulling all the pieces together to make a film takes a lot of work, but it is really enjoyable, Farrell said.
In both documentaries, Farrell seems to have chosen people she admires for their morality. “I was to drawn to their strong values and convictions and their personal sacrifices in order to make a difference in the lives of others,” Farrell said of Pellowski and Latsch.
Farrell said the film looks partially at Pellowski’s way of living, which Farrell described as very simple. “I think her personal lifestyle is reflective of how she has seen so much poverty around the world,” Farrell said. “She can’t stand food waste. She just can’t stand it. She’s seen too many people malnourished.”
Who knows what is next, Farrell said of her filmmaking hobby, but she expressed gratitude for the many people, including Frozen River Film Festival organizers, who helped and supported her.
FRFF is back: Feb. 7-11
Frozen River Film Festival (FRFF) is bringing 82 films to Winona this year, with everything from a cutesy kids movie about animated avocados looking for love in New York City (“The Pits”) to another local film about Saint Mary’s University students’ trip to El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, (“Conversations Near the Border”). As usual, the festival’s lineup includes thrilling adventure sport films, including “Jeff’s World” that tracks wilderness rock climbing north of the Boundary Waters, and intriguing environmental and social justice documentaries, including “Dolores,” the tale of Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez’s under-appreciated female partner in organizing farm worker unions. “That’s a huge film,” FRFF Assistant Director Daniel Munson said of “Dolores.” “That’s getting accolades all over the country.”
For a full lineup and schedule visit frff.org.