North Putnam

A year-in-the-life of a yes-saying rural school district and the community it serves.
Year Released
Film Length(s)
90 mins
Closed captioning available
Remote video URL


Crafted with empathy, a hyper-real reporting lens and skillfully lush cinematography, North Putnam depicts a year in the life of a rural Indiana school district and the community it serves. Multiple storylines intersect, culminating in a narrative about the interdependence between public education and community development.

Featured review

"...tells the story of democracy from the ground up..."
Arnie Fege
Founder and President - Public Advocacy for Kids


North Putnam is a special initiative of The Castle, a nonprofit organization in Putnam County, Indiana that partners with local schools to provide learning experiences for students where they feel seen, heard, valued and empowered, and to support teachers in their ability to create environments that spill over with joy, creativity, relevance, rigor and authenticity. In Fall 2019, The Castle joined forces with award-winning director, Joel Fendelman, to make a film that aims to create a conversation about public education as a vital component of a thriving democracy and to build bridges across divides. We decided to zero in on North Putnam, one of The Castle's partners, which is exemplary in its capacity to build an intentional culture of care at the same time that it serves as a microcosm for so many rural school districts across the country. For the next two years, we essentially became part of the fabric of the schools and community while we captured—fly-on-the-wall style—the daily rhythm of life. As such, it’s a quiet film, meant to provide an extended glimpse into a world and set of concerns that so many share but are often overlooked.

North Putnam depicts the larger context in which The Castle lives, the "why" behind the programs and partnerships it develops, the urgency we feel as an organization to nurture learning environments where kids and teachers feel connected to what they’re learning and to each other. It’s not overblown to say that our public education system is wracked with challenges that threaten to subsume it, and we don’t shy away from depicting these challenges in this film. But this is primarily a story of hope. We hope audiences come away feeling inspired by the administrators, teachers, students and community members of North Putnam and energized to develop impactful strategies for their own communities.


"The threads were artfully woven unassumingly to illustrate the paradox of the rural reality."
Dawn McGrath
Executive Director, IN*Source Special Education Parent Support
"In an era when opinion masquerades as news, this fly-on-the-wall approach is refreshing. What emerges is an interwoven narrative of school and community."
Jared Jernagen
The Banner Graphic

Director Commentary

I grew up in Miami, Florida and spent most of my adult life living in New York City. I had never been to Indiana and quite frankly had a dismissive point of view of the communities that lived there. However, as a filmmaker our job is to constantly challenge our biases through film, as a way to bridge the gap between all of humanity. At least that is what I strive to do. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to make a film in this small rural agricultural community and its public school corporation, I jumped on it. In approaching this film, I decided to commit to a style of pure observational documentary filmmaking. I wanted to make a film that showed but didn’t tell. I thought this was important so that audiences from all walks of life would feel invited to the table by not trying to tell them how to think but to give them the tools to think. Films like Hale County, This Morning, This Evening by Ramell Ross or Frederick Wiseman’s films such as Monrovia were inspirational to this approach.

I was given extraordinary access to the school and its community. Most people, including myself have never sat in a combine before (machine for harvesting corn) or remember what it was like to sit in a middle school classroom. Many people have never seen the inside of a county jail or have gotten to be a fly on the wall in an intimate family setting. But for me with this is what I love about filmmaking, the camera offers a vehicle, a permission slip to be in these sometimes quite private places and just observe. This requires extraordinary respect and humility from the filmmaker for the trust that has been given. After capturing the many hours of footage, my process is to sift through, finding the moments that speak volumes, the frames that flutter my insides and challenge me to be a better person. I then share that learning and newly found compassion with the world with the theory that by sharing my own healing through the film, that it will bring that empathy to the very audiences that view it.

I learned so much about the dynamism, rich culture and passion for humanity while spending time within the communities of North Putnam and my hope is that this film can also act as a bridge between our national partisan politics by showing that there really is little difference between us. I hope that someone who grew up in a big city can see a part of themselves in North Putnam and feel closer to a place that maybe they dismissed like I did but now see the underlying connection.

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Closed Captioning

Film/Audio Languages

  • English

Subtitle/Caption Languages

  • English
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