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Festival screens 'Killer Poet'

Film examines case of fugitive

Norman Porter leaves court in 1961 after a hearing in his murder case and, in 2005 (below), following his recapture. Norman Porter leaves court in 1961 after a hearing in his murder case and, in 2005 (below), following his recapture. (Boston Globe/File)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / September 25, 2008
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NEWBURYPORT - You may have stopped at the strip mall on Route 1 in Saugus lately to buy a pair of Skechers or a Starbucks coffee. But on Sept. 29, 1960, the site was home to a Robert Hall clothing store where a clerk named John "Jackie" Pigott was murdered in an armed robbery. Norman Porter fired the shotgun.

Convicted in that crime and the 1961 murder of jail guard David Robinson, Porter, a Woburn native, escaped in the 1980s and spent 20 years on the lam in Chicago as a well-known poet who called himself JJ Jameson.

When he was recaptured in 2005, his friends in Chicago were flabbergasted to learn his true identity. Now he's back in a Massachusetts prison, where he will likely spend the rest of his life.

Rowley filmmaker Susan Gray's new film about the case, "Killer Poet," is one of 19 films screening at the fifth annual Newburyport Documentary Film Festival this weekend.

The film doesn't take sides, giving equal time to the victims' families and the dedicated detectives who tracked Porter down, as well as Porter and his Chicago supporters.

"We were rejected by the Amsterdam Film Festival," Gray noted dryly."They wrote that they don't like journalistic films. They wanted us to take an opinion."

Gray, who works with Boston's Northern Light Productions, said that getting the cooperation of all the parties was one of the hardest parts of making the movie: "Everyone was suspicious. The victims' families were suspicious, Norman ended up suspicious."

Although he initially cooperated through his defense attorneys, state corrections officials wouldn't allow a filmed interview in prison.

It was only after Deval Patrick was elected governor that a single, one-hour session was permitted at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Gray said.

And Porter felt betrayed when he found out that Gray was also interviewing the police and those on the victims' side, she said.

"In the end, he did see [the film], and his response was, 'It's not so bad,' " she said.

"Killer Poet" is the featured film on Sunday night. Tomorrow, it's "Waiting for Hockney," about an obsessive artist, directed by former Newburyport resident Julie Checkoway.

Saturday all eyes will be on "The Dhamma Brothers," a film about a Vipassana meditation retreat that changed the culture of a maximum-security prison in Alabama. One of its three directors, Julie Phillips, is from Concord.

"The Newburyport area has a lot of people who are into yoga or meditation or Buddhism, and this film really shows the change that can happen when people really practice these forms," said festival director Michelle Fino.

One of the hallmarks of the Newburyport festival is interaction between the filmmakers and the audience at post-screening question-and-answer sessions and other events. Gray and Checkoway will be on hand this year, while "Dhamma Brothers" will be represented by codirector Andrew Kukura.

Fino said she's especially excited about two programs of short films. One on Saturday morning will showcase three films about women, including a heart-tugger about a handicapped woman trying to find a home for an outdated wheelchair-accessible vehicle.

On Sunday afternoon there's a program of four films about people with outsized passions, including fans of the now-departed Hartford Whalers.

What's new at the festival is "free," Fino said, notably a Saturday panel discussion with several filmmakers and a Sunday morning coffee open to filmmakers and fans alike.

The festival is also providing free tickets to high school students who attend on a first-come, first-served basis for the desegregation documentary "Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later," which will be shown Sunday at 11 a.m.

Most events are held at the Firehouse Center for the Arts or the Screening Room, both in downtown Newburyport. For tickets and information, go to newburyportfilmfestival.org; for more on "Killer Poet," go to killerpoetfilm.com.

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