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Film about James Baker Hall became his final mentoring act

James Baker Hall had a habit of showing up at the right time and being a guiding force in people's lives.

Sarah Wylie VanMeter recalls when she was his studio assistant and he sent her to not only deliver his photos to the Ann Tower Gallery for an exhibit, but to select images and hang the show. It led to work with Tower, and Hall's faith in VanMeter gave her the confidence to go to film school.

For writer Whitney Baker, Hall was a powerful mentor. When the celebrated author, photographer and former University of Kentucky professor fell ill, Baker knew what he had to do.

"I decided it was time to document his life," Baker said. "I had the film bug and wanted to get some of his energy and grace on screen."

The problem was, Baker wasn't a filmmaker. He had been drawn into film after making one with his daughter and niece, but for making a serious film, he didn't even know what kind of camera he should get.

He sought the advice of VanMeter, who was then in film school at the San Francisco Art Institute. He also started working with VanMeter's future husband, Griffin VanMeter, who agreed to produce the project.

"We all had a personal connection to Jim and understood him," Griffin VanMeter said.

He and Baker eventually persuaded Sarah to come home in summer 2008 to work on the film.

"She had the technical and artistic ability to get what was in Whitney's mind on film," Griffin said. "She was the glue that held the project together."

There was just one big question before them, VanMeter said:

"What was it going to be about? What was it going to be like?"

The public's first glimpse at the answer to those questions comes Friday with the premiere of Elbow of Light, the trio's 45-minute film about Hall, shot in the final years of his life. Hall died June 25.

The screenings will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers, moderated by Tower.

The 2001 Kentucky poet laureate was in extremely poor health during filming, but "he was totally open to it," Baker says.

Sarah, who met and married Griffin while working on the film, shot a lot of the interview footage of Hall at his studio in Lexington and at his home in Sadieville.

"I had a list of questions I wanted her to ask him, and sometimes she would come back with answers to the questions, and sometimes it would be something completely different that was also great," Baker says.

He says that Hall, realizing he was at the end of his life, was reflective. In the film, he contemplates forces that shaped his life, including his mother's suicide when he was 8, and he advocates fearless creativity.

Baker had some other ideas for the film, including footage of people on the street reading Hall's work. But eventually he abandoned most of those plans in favor of a film that focuses on Hall, with commentary from his wife, novelist Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, and his oldest son, Larry.

"I decided I needed to get out of the way of the film, and it would become what it needed to be," Baker says.

Sarah VanMeter says she hesitates to call the film a documentary, "because it sidesteps a lot of the expectations for a documentary."

Griffin VanMeter, who says his relationship with Hall was more friend than mentor, said, "It's a beautiful film. It's been a great process for the three of us. I think if Jim saw it, he would say, 'Yeah, I like this.'"

And as in life, Griffin says, the film was Hall intervening in the lives of the filmmakers.

"He was a guiding force, even when you didn't know you needed it," Griffin says. "Sarah Wylie needed to make film, and Whitney needed closure."

Their late mentor's spirit was their guide.

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