RHODE ISLAND

Vin Fraioli

Cherry and Arnold

Cherry Arnold is a Woman Filmmaker to Watch


Two prominent family names in Rhode Island history. How coincidental, I think, that they should combine as someone’s full name, Cherry Arnold, who is a film director and native Rhode Islander. How coincidental, too, that she should have spent years making a documentary film about archetypal Rhode Island personality, Providence major, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, a man whose name has launched her into a sort of shadowed limelight. But this interview is not about Buddy. This is about Cherry Arnold.

Cherry Arnold directed BUDDY, a film that screened to sold out audiences at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August. Photo by William Loggia.

I dial the phone. It’s one of my first questions.

No, no relation to those families,” Cherry tells me.

Really?”

No. My family got here to Rhode Island a long time ago, but no relation to those families.

Hmm. She seems young over the phone. She speaks, as I will soon discover, with the cadence and level of a documentary filmmaker, in close, steady waves with an occasional lift to the end of sentences as if a declarative should be a question. Modesty, I feel. But, not without passion.

I left Rhode Island in the ninth grade,” she says. “I came back to Providence in 2001 because my step-father was very sick. To me, being outside RI was really cool and having this insider-outsider thing going on. People would ask me, “What’s it like living in a mob city with a mob mayor? People are fascinated by urban myth. And the farther away I got the more “mythologized” these became.

I know what she is talking about. Years ago, especially, I would get the “ah, Mafia” look from people when they found out I was from Rhode Island–especially when my dark hair was darker. And after all, I sport a vowel at the end of my family name…”

But in Europe, people heard, ‘Long Island,’ so I just went along with it.

How did you get into film?

Years ago, in Newport, I got involved producing photography with the sailing photographer, Onne VanDerWal. It was commercial work, a lot of crazy shots, from helicopters, etc. Later, I did some jobs in Florida. I had to walk along the beach and go find ten different people so they would look like families and put them on boats.

Then, I went to Philadelphia where I got hooked up with a commercial photographer and then produced his work which involved everything from set-builders to casting actors and animals (I have such good animal stories from those days!). I’m sorry if I’m dragging you through my resume…”

No, not at all, go on.

I went to New York where I did the same thing. In 1993, I got involved in the Internet, which at that time was just about to take off. The Well, an online community, launched in 1985 on the West Coast, asked me if I would grow their business on the East Coast. For me, repping was a challenge. Getting reels to people was an arduous process and the idea of using reels online was so great that I started to look into that. I was already very intrigued with that technology. Then, the Internet took off.

I became well known as an Internet specialist, with the mix of producing and marketing. I got a job with Barnes & Noble in their on-line marketing department, which they just had launched. They were going head to head with Amazon, it was an exciting time, so much fun, and we had a great run. Working in retail was such high pressure, but I missed doing films, more and more. 

Vincent A. Cianci as seen in the premiere of BUDDY, a documentary about the former Mayor of Providence. Directed by Cherry Arnold with narration by James Woods. Photo courtesy of Cherry Arnold.

All during that time, I was doing film work on the side. My stepfather was dying back home in Rhode Island and my mother had been diagnosed with dementia. No one was minding the shop, so I took a sabbatical from New York. I jumped right in, doing a lot more stuff. I made a three year commitment and took on the Cianci documentary.

Such a pairing of contrasts, I think, right out of Aesop’s Fables, as in the Lion and the Mouse, yet, a balance: the sturm und drang of Cianci and the halcyon, observant eye of Arnold. Always curious about the thread which leads people to do what they do, I ask the simple and inevitable; what was your major in college?

I majored in English and Political Science with a Minor in Art History.

What do you like to read?

What do I read? I read almost strictly non fiction. In fiction, I feel, a thin, implausible plot line, or a character which is not properly developed. I know it’s a curse to be this way…

But, for me, non fiction is also fiction.

Right now, I’m reading “Blink,” by Malcolm Gladwell. In general, my favorite books to read are biographies. “A Personal History” by Katharine Graham is my favorite. To me, truth is more interesting than fiction.

That’s certainly befitting one who makes documentaries…

I do see the world through documentaries.

I love documentaries so much. I love that “take” on things. As an example, look at A BEAUTIFUL MIND, in the narrative version. It’s a great movie with actors like Russell Crowe. Then take the documentary of the same subject, A BRILLIANT MADNESS. It was so fascinating, so over-the-top. Better than the Oscar winning movie. No, I’m not saying one is better than the other. Just different “takes” on it. It’s more interesting to me from real life.

As for the film about Cianci…I  haven’t seen it myself, but I know that people flocked to see it. One friend told me it was not as controversial as she had expected -and the guy’s middle name is controversy. He elicits such strong emotions from people, adoration, revulsion…documentaries cast a cool eye on things, don’t you think?

Yes, I would say that was the greatest challenge especially with this subject matter. Which side of Cianci to use as a measuring stick. I didn’t want to make a movie for Rhode Islanders, but for national audiences. I didn’t want to get dragged down by local details, fascinating though they may be, but not to someone in the middle of Ohio.

By the way, I teach yoga. The philosophical arm of yoga helps me tremendously in grounding me. Also, it helps generate some income.

Income? How do you as a director generate income?

Good question. The circumstances under which I came back to Providence were unique. I did well in the Internet Industry so I came here with a chunk of savings. I didn’t intend to go through it, but I did augment my savings by teaching yoga. Also, there were grants from the Rhode Island Council on the Arts and Humanities. They helped me make the movie, but so far, I haven’t made a dime.

Right now, we’re looking for distribution. It’s a matter of finding the right sales rep. I didn’t go the way of a lot of filmmakers with the credit card thing, running up a lot of debt and at the moment, I have a number of paying jobs, films for non-profit, involving kids and animals.

As for the film, whatever happens with BUDDY will happen. We’ve done all the right things. As a yogi, I believe that whatever happens is the right thing.”

Thank you.

Before I let you go, I want to tell you about what happened during those three years I worked on the film. It was tough going. My stepfather died. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and we had to find assisted living for her. I had to sell the house my grandfather built in 1924. Then my sister died. There were some days I was afraid to get out of bed. The whole time, this movie, I was making was an anchor for me. It gave me a sense of purpose. It’s life.

I don’t have any words for her after hearing this. Those were events that would have crushed most people and I can only imagine…All I can say is” thank you” and truly mean it. I hang up the phone. It hits me, her voice, so young and positive, doesn’t waver. She really does cast a cool lens on life, even her own.


Vin Fraioli was born in Providence Rhode Island. He is a classical guitarist, writer and sometime actor. He also travels all over the world lecturing. Vin still lives in Rhode Island with his wife and two children.