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On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard gunned down four unarmed people at Kent State University during a demonstration against the Vietnam War — in particular against President Richard Nixon’s decision a few days earlier to widen the conflict by invading Cambodia. As outrage spread across the nation, many colleges simply shut down for the semester.

This pivotal time has rarely been addressed — or, at least, addressed well — in fiction, but now Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven is bringing the Kent State story to the big screen. Unlike his previous work, The Year That Trembled is not adapted from a Howard Frank Mosher novel. The author in this case is Scott Lax, who also served as co-producer.

A resident of the Northeast Kingdom, the 51-year-old Craven was hired to write the script and direct the feature, which was shot in Ohio. Billed as “a coming-of-age drama, war chronicle and unconventional love story,” the picture follows three teens caught up in the tumultuous events of three decades ago. They shelter an activist trying to avoid the FBI and become immersed in the problems of the people living next door, a couple traumatized by the war in Indochina.

The assembled Trembled players are eclectic. The old-timers are Fred Willard (Best in Show), Martin Mull (The Player), Bill Raymond and Henry Gibson (Craven’s Where the Rivers Flow North). Newcomers include Kiera Chaplin (granddaughter of Charlie), Danica McKellar (TV’s “The Wonder Years”), Sean Nelson (Fresh), Jonathan Brandis (Hart’s War, being released this week) and Charlie Finn (Super Troopers, also about to open).

Although not intimate with the Buckeye State, Craven seems an ideal match for the project. “Two days before the shootings at Kent State, I was elected student president of the liberal arts college at Boston University,” he recalls, adding that his notoriety had been ensured during an arrest for selling “all-natural hot dogs” from a shopping cart outside the student union. The school did not appreciate competition with its food service.

On the heels of election victory, Craven helped lead a BU campus strike. In the fall of 1970, he joined a National Student Association delegation headed for North and South Vietnam to sign a “people’s peace treaty.” Later, he testified at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about the war, and was an organizer of the massive 1971 May Day demonstrations in Washington, D.C.

Craven worked with John Lennon to form a national campaign by staging three concerts a week across the country; one of them even planned to rock out near the 1972 Republican National Convention. This movement “was then immediately crushed by the Nixon White House, using the immigration department against Lennon,” Craven explains.

The former Beatle battled this politically motivated deportation threat throughout the waning years of the war.

Craven’s experience with the counterculture zeitgeist prompted him to push for authenticity in Trembled, which got “six stock-footage sequences to evoke specific themes and historical contexts,” he says. “This required intensive research and negotiation — and about $70,000. We also needed 17 period source music cues, in addition to the score by Jeff Claus and Judy Hyman of The Horseflies.”

After a world premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival on March 22, Trembled will have its New England debut March 29 at the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier. A four-day run begins April 1 at the Savoy Theater, and a one-night stint at Dartmouth College’s Spaulding Auditorium takes place April 6.

Meanwhile, Craven is teaching film three days a week at Marlboro College and trying to raise funds for his next endeavor, another adaptation called Disappearances. The 1977 Mosher book concerns a dairy farmer who tries to save his herd by smuggling whiskey over the Canadian border during Prohibition.

“Kris Kristofferson remains committed,” Craven says of his casting efforts. “The script is now with Vanessa Redgrave. . . Other actors who’ve expressed interest include Billy Connelly, Rip Torn, Gary Farmer, Rusty DeWees and Tantoo Cardinal.”

The money game is always daunting. If major investors do not materialize this year, “we’ll mount a grassroots campaign to shoot in the fall of ’03,” Craven pledges, “come hell or high water.”

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