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Monumental Undertaking

Eric Futterman's "Saving Grace" preserves the preservation of a monument.


The documentary, part historical narrative, part interview and with a little bit of mystery thriller thrown in, shows how a piece of local history, worn down by the ravages of time, is rescued from the brink of total loss by a team of preservation experts. We also see the history behind the statue, erected as a monument to one of the worst tragedies in Richmond history, and how it and the church where it stood for decades now fit into the contemporary city's plans.

"Saving Grace" was filmed in partnership with the Richmond Historical Society and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, among other groups. It is set to air on PBS Channel 23 Dec. 19 at 9 p.m. and Dec. 30 at 10 p.m. in the Richmond and Charlottesville markets. An airdate is being set for Hampton Roads some time after the New Year, and there are hopes for national distribution.

The monument in question — a Stanley Cup-sized urn on a pedestal — was built to commemorate the burning of the Richmond Theatre in 1811 on the day after Christmas. The fire, which claimed the lives of more than 70 prominent Virginia citizens — including the governor, George Smith — was one of the most disastrous catastrophes of the day. Monumental Church was built on top of the site, with the bodies of the dead entombed below to serve as a dramatic memorial befitting the disaster.

The church's urn was in place for decades, surviving fairly well until the late '90s, when the ravages of pollution, especially from automobiles, nearly destroyed it. First the eternal flame was gone, then the faces withered away, and finally the urn itself toppled from its base. As "Saving Grace" points out, pollution is degrading monuments all over the world at a rapid rate.

Futterman, 44, a commercial, corporate and documentary director, became involved after receiving a call from Sarah Cooleen, managing director of the Historic Richmond Foundation. It had been decided that the original work was too far decomposed to save and a full replica was to be made using the latest reproduction technology. Cooleen wanted foremost a document of the technique used to scan a three-dimensional digital image of the statue. When Futterman learned of the history behind the piece and the reason for its degradation, he was sold on a much bigger project.

"It took less than 10 minutes to tell the story," he says, "and I thought, 'This is a great idea for a documentary.'" The back story of the monument, the film points out, includes the Herculean tale of a slave and blacksmith named Gilbert Hunt, who, after being sent to look for the daughter of his master's wife, saved many of the survivors by catching them as they were tossed from a second-story window.

Futterman captures this poignant moment in history through readings and archival images, much in the style of Ken Burns, one of his heroes. Needless to say, this job was not work. "There was one day when we worked for 12 straight hours," Futterman recalls. "And at the end of the day ... I went home and told my wife, 'That was as much fun as a vacation.' This is everything I want to do with my life. From a work point of view, it was the ultimate."

But maybe not the ultimate ultimate. Futterman would like to see the documentary on a major outlet, like the Discovery or History channel. Perhaps if that is not possible, Futterman should pitch a broader story of the degradation of monuments by pollution, truly a pressing global concern that could make an outstanding major film. "I think a lot of that would depend on the success of this one," Futterman says. "And," he adds, half joking, "I think they'd be wise to buy this one and air it, if I do say so. This was something special." S

"Saving Grace" will air on WCVE, PBS Channel 23, Dec. 19 at 9 p.m. and Dec. 30 at 10 p.m.

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