BAR HARBOR — David Moses Bridges is an extraordinary man. A member of the Passamaquoddy Nation, he has in the past two decades or so taken on the task of preserving some of the Native American – specifically Abenaki – art and craft forms, carrying them forward to new generations. Sharing time between Bar Harbor and his childhood home at the Pleasant Point Reservation in Eastport, Bridges is a frequent visitor to the Abbe Museum here, conducting workshops in traditional crafts.
In a new documentary film “Rhythms of the Heart,” by Mount Desert Island native Thom Willey, which was shown at the Criterion Theatre recently, Bridges wanders through a stand of spring birch trees looking for the perfect material for his next canoe. He eyes each tree critically, running his hands along the bark. When he finds the one he wants, using his grandfather Sylvester Gabriel’s tools, Bridges cuts and peels off sheets of the silvery bark, explaining as he goes that he is careful to take just the outer layers so the tree will not be harmed.
In another shot, we watch Bridges fasten those sheets onto a wooden canoe frame. As a final touch, he etches traditional and original design motifs onto the hull of his canoe, which transforms the sturdy, watertight vessel into a masterpiece.
There are several luscious scenes of Bridges paddling one of his completed canoes down a sparkling, pristine waterway.
Willey is a fine cinematographer. He does justice to his subject and the works he creates, using soft or ambient lighting and a palette of golds, browns, reds and other earth tones. When he isn’t focused on Bridges himself, Willey is interviewing the craftsman’s friends, colleagues and family, who all have wonderful things to say about this artist, teacher and family man.
The feature-length film, which includes archival still shots of past generations of Bridge’s family and his own boyhood growing up on the reservation, could be an important historical documentation of a vanishing art form and way of life, or simply a biography of a fascinating artist. But sadly, it is not Willey’s sole purpose for creating this film.
Three years ago, Bridges, who was just 47 at the time, was diagnosed with an unusual and aggressive form of cancer – a tumor was growing in his left sinus cavity. Getting healthy was going to be an arduous process.
When Willey heard this troubling news, he offered his help as a filmmaker to create some kind of fundraiser to help Bridges and his family.
“I had planned a short film,” Willey said, “But David’s story turned out to be too big to be contained in a small film.”
In addition to being the story of an artist, “Rhythms of the Heart” is the story of Bridges’ battle with the disease – surgery, radiation, chemo – his fears about leaving his family – including three children and his beautiful Bolivian wife, Patricia. In one of the sweetest moments in the film, Bridges says about meeting his wife for the first time, “She caught my eye, just like she did this morning.”
Also he makes it very clear that he has not nearly finished his mission – teaching other young native craftsmen the skills and techniques he has learned and honed in the past 25 years.
It is a harrowing but initially hopeful tale when we see Bridges emerge from an extensive surgical procedure and other invasive treatments with his face intact and his unruly black hair grown out again and back at his work.
It would have been terrific if the cancer part of Bridges’ story had ended there. Willey could have then gone back and re-edited his film, maybe shot a few more scenes of the artists at work, making the illness just a brief sidebar in the greater story of David Moses Bridge’s life and work.
But an addendum at the end of the film informs us that the cancer recently has returned.
In one segment of the film, Bridges speculates that should this happen, he doesn’t expect to survive.
But the man who showed up at the Criterion screening – smiling, greeting people and seemingly full of energy – did not appear to have conceded the battle. In fact, Willey said, Bridges and his wife are optimistic that the next round of treatments will do the trick and let him get back to his full life and important work.
However, it will take both time and money. Willey said the Criterion screening and silent auction earned $8,000 for the Bridges family, and he hopes more folks will view the film at www.vimeo.com/ondemand/rhythmsoftheheart.
Anyone interested in helping the Bridges family is welcome to send a check to The DMB Fund, 17 Roberts Ave., Bar Harbor, ME 04609, or by checking out “The DMB Fund” Facebook page.