NORTH SMITHFIELD – It’s an epic saga documenting centuries of village history, and locals will recognize not just the places featured in the docu-series, but the people who have helped to bring it to life.
Episode 1 of Slatersville, America’s First Mill Village premiered on Rhode Island PBS on Friday, Sept. 16, launching Season 1 of a two-season series by town-based Director Christian de Rezendes.
The product of more than a decade of work, the premiere and the five episodes to follow mark a major step forward for de Rezendes, but he’s not running victory laps just yet. Season 2 of the series, still in the making, is set to feature six more episodes.
“To me, it’s not done yet,” the director told NRI NOW. “When Season 2 premieres, that’s when the big party will be.”
Instead, on Friday, when Episode 1, “The Mental Smugglers,” lit up TV screens at 8 p.m., de Rezendes was at his North Smithfield home, acknowledging the moment with a small gathering.
“That should be fun,” he said.
The five episodes in the first season cover a period from the 1780s to mid-1920s in a total of 5.25 hours. de Rezendes noted that it will be more, “academic heavy,” than the second half of his creation, featuring events that took place too long ago for anyone alive to remember.
The director and his team have conducted more than 140 interviews related to the project, and 26 of the subjects have since died. Much of their contribution will come in Season 2.
“There’s a shift that goes on there,” he said.
First, de Rezendes takes audiences on a deep dive into village history from long ago.
“It starts, mostly, in a far-off land,” he said, noting that the first episode was shot mainly in England and Pawtucket. “You barely see Slatersville.”
“The Mental Smugglers,” tells the story of Samuel Slater, known to many as the father of the Industrial Revolution, in episode one. But audiences will get more than the dry recounting of events you might find in American history books.
“This is about the fact that he was a traitor,” said de Rezendes, noting the episode includes the perspective of those living in England at the time. “They view him as a scoundrel.”
Slater founded America’s textile mill industry by remembering and duplicating plans for spinning machinery when he immigrated from England, earning him the nickname, “Slater the Traitor.”
“To them, he’s just some kid who left with plans,” de Rezendes said.
And while he’s largely regarded as an American hero, the episode features a more complex portrayal of Slater’s role in this country as well.
“He did some good in America, but he also did a lot of bad,” de Rezendes said, pointing to child labor, and other things early industrialists initially did to make large-scale production possible.
It’s a fitting set up, he notes, for what’s to follow.
“This needs to send the entire series into motion, which is about how Slatersville was created,” said de Rezendes. “By the end of first episode, we’re on the verge of that happening.”
It’s just the start of a season this fall that will feature plenty of people and connections with the modern-day town of North Smithfield.
de Rezendes hired a recent North Smithfield High School graduate to voice a historical character in Episode 2, and she’s just one of many from town involved in the project. Asst. Producer Mark Gelinas, who grew up in Forestdale, is now interior designer in Santa Barbara. North Smithfield native Pat (Horn) Ferron – who graduated with the Class of 1979 – served as production coordinator and helped with grant writing. Zoning Board member Gail (Denomme) Berlinghof, a graduate with the Class of 1974, provided countless hours of research. Listen for current Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski in Episiode 5 as the voice of 1906 Town Clerk James Slater.
Even series musical composer Steve Gilbane discovered some North Smithfield roots after working with de Rezendes on a separate project – learning that his mother once lived in town.
The director also worked with many interns, including students from Rhode Island College, Roger Williams University, New England Tech and even one from Clark University.
“The students have been really great to work with,” he said.
With thousands of hours of editing now behind him, de Rezendes is ready for audiences to witness all of Season 1.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “That’s the best way I can put it.”
The director learned of the time sequence for release of the series on Rhode Island PBS late last year.
“Once they gave me the go-ahead, we knew the work that we had to do,” he said, noting that each episode came with its own obstacles. “It is a puzzle-making challenge.”
“We were able to dive in in a way that really hasn’t been done before,” he said.
The series is set to feature many firsts, from uncovered documents, discovered after sitting in a drawer for some 70 years, to the tying together of the American and British perspectives of the Slaters.
“We were researching up until the last minute,” de Rezendes said. “There’s so much history, and so many ties from Slatersville outward, and inward.”
Of the Season 1 product he added, “I think people are more amazed by it as a whole because they didn’t do it, but I’ve looked at it every day.”
NRI NOW plans to offer a highlight of each weekly segment through the season conclusion on Friday, Oct. 14. Following the live broadcast, episodes are also available from any location on the globe, on demand, here.
de Rezendes notes that once Season 2 begins, he hopes to host a large event, inviting all who have contributed.
“We are going to have a really wonderful get together,” he said of his team, adding that, for now, “We are party-less. It’s not that we don’t deserve one.”