May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The documentary film, “The Human Tower,” follows three manifestations of human tower festivals around the world — in Spain, Chile and India.
These events involve crowds of people forming multi-level towers by climbing up on one another in competitions and performances
The film, co-directed by Ram Devineni and Cano Rojas, began when Devineni invited Rojas to join him in the research for the project.
Rojas had lived in Barcelona for a year at one point and was already familiar with the phenomenon. In Spain, the towers are an endeavor by the Catalan culture, from northern Spain, and Rojas said that their towers are very professionally done in comparison to others.
“It’s very well-done, very professional, very rigid. They never fall,” he said. “In India, it’s very messy, very chaotic, very organic. It’s like a breathing thing. And then the Chilean one is shy, is full of passion, it’s way below the other two in terms of accomplishment and size.”
In Spain, human towers are a middle-class enthusiasm, and the people involved have the resources and technology to make it a year-round and slick effort. The Indian version is enacted annually by members of the lower caste, who train intensively for two months prior to the event.
“These guys that are ignored by society all year round, for one day a year, they become celebrities, rock stars,” Rojas said, “and that’s something that’s really beautiful to see, how much pride they’ve put in this thing and how much they work to kick ass on this one day. The spectacularity of India is much more entertaining, because you have a huge crowd and it’s much more messy and the colors are just beautiful.”
“Spain is like another level. They have maps of each tower, they do transversal cuts so you can see each person in the base and on each floor. Their program of training in Spain is amazing. It’s a very well-calculated effort, the position of the people, the size of the people that go in each place, there’s no randomness at all in the Spanish one.”
Because of this, the towers created in Spain tend to be more complicated and imposing than those elsewhere.
They also turn it into a communal effort, with trainings set up as family events that include meals and involving all family members, not just those in the tower.
The Chilean effort is still too new to challenge the Spanish ones. Their towers are smaller, but Rojas said the story about building a community that is contained in their efforts is special and engaging.
Human towers aren’t confined to the three locations covered in the film. Rojas points to Italy and China as sites of other efforts.
“We shot the Italian ones for a tiny bit,” he said. “It’s only two levels and they move around and dance. “
Any others in the world are actually off-shoots of the Catalan tradition, who see spreading the tower events as a show of pride in their culture.
“It’s random guys who moved to a town in the middle of nowhere and they started doing this thing,” said Rojas. “Through the team in Spain, they do it in this country and that country. Even in the U.S., there are a couple of people who are trying to start it on the West Coast that are actually part of the team we shot.”
Rojas participated once in a human tower, a small one of four people, that brought him a better understanding of the actual emotions involved.
“Even though it was a tiny tower, the amount of concentration and pressure you have in your head, knowing that you have two kids above you who are depending on your equilibrium and concentration, it’s fascinating,” he said. “It brings you to another level.”
A tower isn’t a collection of individuals piling up on each other, but a super-organism in which the slightest aspect of each part affects all the other parts. Each part is equally important.
“You feel responsible,” said Rojas. “You can’t look to the side, you have to keep pushing and pressing and stay super focused.”
It’s this inherent egalitarianism that holds much of the fascination for Rojas, who sees the human towers as a ground-breaking sport that does not discriminate or exclude.
“It’s like the future of sports,” said Rojas. “It’s an amazing activity where any body of any size or any age can compete on the same team, which is crazy to think about. We had people like 65 years old on the base, we had kids like 6 years old on the top, we had women, we had men, we had the short little stubby guy, we had the long skinny guy, all sizes and all shapes.”
Tower building also is community-building and strengthening, and Rojas thinks all this explains its growing popularity among certain populations — this is not an unattainable, exclusive goal, but just a part of ordinary lives.
“These people are crazy about building towers,” he said. “All they do all day is think about towers.
“You go to their house and all they have is pictures of towers on the walls all over, and they speak tower and breathe tower. It’s amazing.”
“You have this physical activity, you have an artistic approach and you have the every day life. They date people from the team, they marry people from the team. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.”
January 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A new documentary film focusing on the Philadelphia jail system reveals harsh truths about public safety everywhere, and what really needs to be done to find solutions for what ails the institution.
The movie is a direct result of director Matt Pillischer’s present working with his past. Currently a lawyer in Philadelphia, he attended Bennington College and studied art with a focus on film — his film playing at Images is a double thrill for him since that’s where he used to go see movies all the time.
“Broken On All Sides” resulted from an effort to create a public education piece about prison overcrowding.
“I worked on my firm’s last lawsuit against the city,” Pillischer said, “and went in and interviewed prisoners and saw some of the conditions first-hand. That’s actually how I started the movie.”
He first created a short version that focused on overcrowding, and continued work on it to expand it into the current movie.
“Strangely enough, law school lead me back to filmmaking,” said Pillischer. “I love what I’m doing right now. It’s a very unique combination of all my interests and skills, and I’m hoping I can continue doing this public education/advocacy through storytelling and filmmaking. That’s where I’m hoping to continue going. “
As captured in the film by Pillischer, the system of incarceration as we currently practice it is one of a replacement for the social programs that are routinely dismissed by conservatives. The money is going to be spent because the problem is not going away, with poverty and crime becoming a government expenditure that’s impossible to dismiss from the spreadsheets — it’s more about the form that spending takes.
“We could have instead had an increased war on poverty, but instead, the war on poverty was ended and the war on drugs was started to deal with the same problems, the same communities,” Pillischer said.
“If you’re really interested in public safety and dealing with crime, the current system actually creates more crime, and creates a permanent second class citizenship, particularly for people of color, that are permanently cut out of the legal economy.”
Pillischer cites affordable housing, increased education efforts, better healthcare, job training, drug treatment programs and mental health programs as all proven initiatives that bring down crime and incarceration rates, but have been politically decimated as options. It adds up to a societal manifestation of blaming the victim.
“We hear personal responsibility, it’s a catch phrase, and it moves away from societal responsibility,” he said. “If we can convince society that poor people are that way because of their own failings, and not necessarily because of certain institutions in society, then that takes the blame or the responsibility off society at large, the government and the majority of people, to even care about the problem. It makes us say that those people deserve to be in jail because it was their choice to not get a good education and instead turn to a life of crime.”
Pillischer draws a straight line to laws during slavery and the Jim Crow era that put limits on the African American population and then held them responsible for the results of those limits. Though shifted on paper to the criminal population, these attitudes affect African American communities more than any other, thanks to inequality in targeting and sentencing. The white population use drugs statistically the same as the black one, but the black population is victim of more vigorous law enforcement efforts.
“If you control for joblessness, compare jobless white men to jobless black men, the differentiating rates of violent crimes disappears,” said Pillischer. “We know that people are put into certain circumstances where they are chronically jobless. That leads to violence and has nothing to do with the color of their skin or their race.”
“I don’t think most people understand that or know that. Independent media and activists need to be mindful of creating a narrative that is telling the truth and trying to hammer it across these people’s heads that some of the things you believe just aren’t true. Even things like violent crime in poor communities.”
Pillischer says that the result of this is a bigger crime rate and less public safety. What is often missed in the debate is the way incarcerated felons are transformed into permanent ones who, through entirely legal efforts, are stripped of their ability to just get by in life. No opportunities breed desperation, desperation breeds crime. Punishment breeds more crime. The simple fact is that even hard-liners on crime, even racists, will benefit from humane prison reform.
“If we can reduce the amount of people in prisons, if we can start to talk more humanely and compassionately about people who go to prison and are branded with criminal records for the rest of their lives, it actually helps all of us,” Pillischer said. “You don’t want people pushed out of mainstream society and marginalized to the point that they can’t survive in a legal way. That is just going to perpetuate crime, because they have to figure out some way to make money in this society, especially as social service programs and social safety nets are being cut, cut, cut.”
“People have less access to welfare, public benefits, job training, education, and if on top of that employers are legally allowed to discriminate against them because of their criminal record, if the government is allowed to not give them certain grants for school, if the government prevents them from getting certain licenses like becoming a barber or bus driver, things like that, because of a criminal record, this just forces them into the illegal economy. That’s the way we create more crime. “
Pillischer says that though there are very definite solutions to many of these problems, he can’t actually point to many legislative examples of enacting them. One he does cite is the recent California reform of the three strikes law.
“In some cases you had people going to prison for life for their third offense, which might be stealing a videotape from a K-Mart or really ridiculous things, the possession of a joint of marijuana. California modified the three strikes law and I think that’s a great example of how we could start to change sentencing laws.”
Pillischer also points to the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado as positive moves forward as well. The ideal, he said, would be for full legalization and a new strategy treating drugs as a public health problem, but these are small steps. The point is that the standard methods have not lessened drug use and the time has come to try something different, something that would not only cope with the drug problem, but the crime and incarceration problem as well.
“We should be shifting to look at more of a restorative justice approach, rather than a law enforcement, criminal justice approach,” Pillischer said, “which means we need to look at the harm that it’s done in the community when a crime has been committed, and try and right those wrongs, instead of just the state punishing the actor.”
Pillischer points to the idea of drug courts and mental health courts, which some programs are trying to introduce in the United States, and which have be appearing in Africa. These would divert the appropriate issues to savvier courts and allow the criminal courts to better handle crime sentencing.
Pillischer says that the traditional way such things have happened has been through the public making it happen. In today’s current protest-friendly climate, and the echoes of the Civil Rights movement showing what good crowds can accomplish, it no longer seems impossible, especially in the kind of economic times where anyone could find themselves incarcerated just trying to survive.
“We’re probably only really going to start to see some of these major reforms if a real social movement puts some pressure on politicians and courts to enact some of these things,” he said.
November 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
More a meditative and philosophical poem than a documentary, Payback is the film adaptation of author Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book, “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.” The title might make it seem like it’s about finances, but that’s only marginally the topic. It’s best described as being about the symbolism of finances as the measuring instrument of equality, of finances as the combustible spark to conflicts and punishment, of finances as one manifestation of owing something.
The book was a compilation a series of five lectures that Atwood gave in 2008 covering various aspects of fact-based historical and cultural examinations of the nature and practice of debt. For the film, director Jennifer Baichwal, the challenge is to mix segments of Atwood’s spoken pieces with stories that examine the manifestations of debt, both ethereal and tangible, into something that is less academic and more lyrical.
To this end, Baichwal juxtaposes several case studies in debt. The most mesmerizing is the tale of Albanian families feuding over property and, thanks to a 300-year-old tradition, causing more dysfunction and despair after a shooting and the call for reparations in the incident.
Also included by Baichwal is an examination of slavery amongst Florida tomato-harvesters and the way that British Petroleum turns their debt for the Gulf oil spill into a further swindle, as well as some personal asides, including a very affecting portrait of an ex-addict who must face the psychological damage his crimes have inflicted on one of his victims.
At root, there is no final eureka about the nature of debt, about the need to demand it between humans or about whether the symbolic manifestations meant to fulfill our need for vengeance or compensation really do, except for the suggestion that it may not be a valuable form of change in the world.
What is apparent is that payback is, as the saying goes, a bitch, but not exactly in the way the saying means it. Payback’s a bitch because it’s so complicated, sometimes unfair even to both parties and often terribly unsatisfying to the point that the problem it’s meant to render solved is very often extended, and painfully so.
October 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In the new documentary film, “Circus Dreams,” the old idea of running away with the circus is updated and revealed as not only a legitimate career move for kids, but an enriching one.
Circus Smirkus is a youth circus program that offers intensive training camps and touring for kids who are seriously interested in circus performance. The organization, based in Vermont, has existed since 1987, and offers big top shows with a cast ranging from ages 10 to 18.
Director Signe Taylor first encountered the group at a performance in Boston in 2003. She was producing guest spots for the television show “Zoom” at the time and thought Circus Smirkus would make a great three-minute piece. That segment never happened, but the idea stayed with her and, when she found herself relocated to Vermont in 2006 and having the desire to finally pursue her dream of creating independent documentary films, Circus Smirkus was the first thing she thought of.
“I approached them in early 2006 and that was the point that I learned that they had actually suspended operations the previous year,” she said. “I hadn’t realized that. At first, I was like, ‘Oh, no, this is bad,’ and then all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, no, this actually a pretty good dramatic hook, as long as it works.’ “
It wasn’t the sort of project that she could just pop in and pop out with her camera and expect to maintain a level of in timacy with her subjects, so Taylor brought her family and camera person to live with the circus.
“We cashed in my teacher retirement fund — I taught high school for 10 years — and we bought an RV and I went on tour,” Taylor said. “My husband went with me, at the beginning, and my two kids. We also had an au pair with us and my camera woman was driving our old Saab with a pop-up behind.”
“In the beginning, there was a little bit of distrust, a little bit of discomfort. Anytime you bring a camera into a room, it’s going to create anxiety, but then because — for the kids in that 2006 troupe — I just became part of their summer, like the cook or the counselor, like the tent crew, then there’s the film crew.”
As Taylor filmed their lives unfolding over the several months of Smirkus Camp and Big Top Tour, she found not only a fascinating story to be told, but also a kinship with her subjects that extends to many in the film’s audience.
“I think that it’s a very joyful summer, it’s a very extraordinary summer, but it’s not an easy summer by any means,” she said. “Everybody who’s there does a lot to get there. In some ways, as a documentary filmmaker, I didn’t choose an easy route, so I could relate to the kids and the whole circus ethos of ‘Can you juggle four balls? Well go try juggling five.’ You just keep pushing yourself and you want to do the best you can, and not because anybody’s going to reward you, but because you just want to achieve the best that you can achieve for yourself.”
Taylor completed the film in 2009, but felt it wasn’t all it could be. She ended up re-editing the film and structuring it from the point of view of Joy Powers, a girl clown with aspirations to turn the male-dominated world of clowning on its ear, alongside her partner in clowning, Maddy Hall.
Taylor edited in dialogue from 50 hours of interviews with Powers in order to shape it all into a narrative that not only guided viewers through the events of the training and tour, but also the minds of the kids experiencing it.
Many of the kids in the film present themselves, in context of their lives outside the circus, as the weird kid. There is a level to which you don’t have to be a circus kid to identify with that — any creative person could — but it also speaks to a cliché that might be etched in reality. The old idea of someone running away with the circus almost always has to do with the young person who isn’t like anyone else, the oddball with big dreams, and many of the participants in Circus Smirkus really are the spiritual and even actual descendants of this archetype.
“Most of the things in circus are really simple,” Taylor said. “It’s like a string that could be hanging from the top of a barn. It’s balancing on a tightrope, which could be walking along a fence. It can be performed as a very high tech art form, like Cirque de Soleil, but the basics of circus, it’s a swing, a trapeze is just a swing, and I think those kids are still the same.”
“It’s the dare-devil kids who walked along the roof line. A lot of kids talk about how their grandfathers, there would be pictures of them doing dare-devil stunts. I think it’s still the same on so many fronts.”
Taylor points to unicyclist Taylor Wright-Sanson, who is featured in the film, as giving her one of the clearest depictions of what it’s like to be a circus kid out in the real world and how that becomes part of a mission to find your own family.
“He said, ‘These are my people,’” she said. “At home, he spends all afternoon trying to figure out how to do different things on his unicycle, like day af ter day after day, and most of his friends don’t really do that and don’t really want to do that.”
“When you get to the circus, no matter what you’re particular passion is, whether it’s being able to contort yourself into a pretzel shape or to go as high as you can in the air and do a triple split extension, or juggle five clubs, they’re all very driven to succeed at what they want to do. It’s not necessarily like a normal thing, so then they become their own little tribe.”
Taylor realizes that the perception of circus has changed recently, after years of being relegated to the background of popular culture and entertainment. Thanks to modern circus organization, most notably Cirque de Soleil, kids are once again accessing the circus as a normal form of amusement.
“When I was in high school, circus was nothing,” said Tay lor. “Ringling maybe came once a year, but it had no ap peal. Because you can see Cirque online, circus plays a bigger role in youth culture for the kids now than it has probably in a couple of generations.”
“A lot of times for kids in the circus, they see the circus once and say, ‘That’s what I want.’ For most people it really doesn’t strike them that way. They may think of it as a fun entertainment.”
The impression sticks with many of the Smirkus participants after their involvement with it is done. Taylor says that half of the troupe from the year she filmed is either in a professional circus training program or professionally performing in circus, including narrator Joy Powers, who has toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and is part of the clown troupe, the Piccolini Trio. One member from that year now performs with the pre miere group Seven Fingers (Les Sept doigts de la main) and another in the Cirque de Soleil show in Las Vegas, “KA.” Several more at tend École Nationale De Cirque in Montreal and have formed their own touring circus troupe.
“They’re pretty driven kids,” Taylor said. “This is their dream. They’re lucky in a certain sense. For most of those kids, circus is their dream and they’re being given the glorious chance to pursue their dream but then along with that comes the desire to really achieve that dream.”
Taylor has a newfound appreciation for circus, thanks to her experience, but her next film, which she is currently editing, is called “Telling My Story,” a documentary about a Dartmouth College class that takes students to a local jail, where they work with incarcerated women to write and perform a play.
Taylor’s summer of running away with the circus is behind her, but the kinship she feels with the troupe is not.
“When circus speaks to you, it really speaks to you,” she said. “I love it now and get a total kick out of it, but it’s not my dream. Documentary filmmaking is my passion and dream. For these kids, circus is what makes them tick.”
July 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine, 2,178.3 miles, and filmmaker Katherine Imp decided to hike every mile of it with a film camera, just to see what happened.
The resulting documentary, “Beauty Beneath the Dirt,” screens at Images Cinema in Williamstown on Saturday, July 14, at 2 p.m., with a reception following at Nature’s Closet, to be attended by one of the film’s subjects, Imp’s brother, Brandon.
It was Imp’s fascination with film and a desire to learn how to make one that led her to the Appalachian Trail with her best friend and her brother. None of the three had done any long-range backpacking before, but all of them were ready for adventure.
“I think that our lack of experience makes the film somewhat entertaining, because you see how we look like fish out of water,” Imp said. “But you learn quickly on a five-month hike how to live in the woods.”
Most of the group’s preparation for the journey involved research. For Imp, that meant consulting with film professors and professionals that she contacted in order to find out anything and everything she needed to know about making a film under the duress of a through-hike. All three of them spent time reading up on the subject, so at least they knew what was ahead of them. “Approximately 2,000 people attempt this hike each year and only one in five finish,” said Imp. “We all finished, and we had no experience. You can say that’s beating the odds or an example of people who prepared physically – actually, no we did not prepare physically. Prepared mentally and did our research.”
And although all three were in good physical shape, none of them did any specific training to get ready.
“I had every intention of getting in shape before we left,” said Imp. “I had this long plan about how I was going to wake up every morning and do X amount of miles on the Stairmaster at the gym, but I was actually studying for the bar exam for the month prior to doing this trip, and I just didn’t have time.”
One of the reasons Imp chose the Appalachian Trail over any others was the culture of the trail, especially the existence of trail angels, residents in the towns the trail crosses through who are renowned for helping hikers with their needs. “One of our favorite things about the trail was meeting trail angels and people in these towns, and just enjoying the kindness of strangers,” said Imp. “That’s also why we had so many days that we didn’t hike and other days that we hiked an extreme amount of miles.”
The reasons people decide to hike the trail are as diverse as the hikers themselves. Imp compares it to the way some people will announce that they are going to backpack across Europe and find themselves — it’s a chance to displace yourself from your own life, without any crushing goals, and to spend a lot of time away from civilization in general.
“I don’t know if everyone who does it actually comes to a conclusion, though,” said Imp. “I do feel like every person who attempts a through hike, whether they make it a week or five months learn something new about themselves.
“By capturing our experience on camera, I was forced to learn a lot about myself, both the good and the bad, by watching our story unfold in the editing room. I think that all three of us learned something, and it was different, and I don’t regret anything that happened and I’m happy I did it.”
By going in a group and taking the parts of it out its context, Imp found that the journey brought unexpected truths to the surface, and these manifested in ways that no amount of research could have forewarned her. “Our group started with three people and about half way through, a fourth person was added and that fourth person is Prophet, that’s his trail name,” Imp said. “By adding a fourth person to the group, the social dynamics significantly changed and inevitably changed the direction of the trip and our experience.”
Although the experience had a profound personal effect on her, equally important is the creative one. Imp says that quite a lot of people discouraged her from making the film initially — both people on the trail and people at home, who felt she was wasting her time and should just go to film school instead. Imp had the feeling that she would benefit from an experiential diving in project, and that’s exactly how she feels about it still.
“This whole process, despite the fact that it has been an emotional roller-coaster ride, has only inspired me more to continue to make more films,” Imp said. “I don’t think that I would ever through hike a trail again, but I would make a film again, and as soon as this one is finished up, I will probably start with the next.”
As Imp glances back at her achievement, it also moves her to look forward at what’s to come. And the one creative goal is to challenge herself and not coast on repetition — fiction seems a likely direction for her to go in.
“I’m done making films about my life,” she said. “And I’m done making documentaries, at least for now.”
Since finishing the film, she has been taking some individual film classes to fill in the gaps of her experience, as well as taking the film on a tour of Appalachian Trail towns. Her experience on the trail taught her filmmaking, and she plans to take those lessons to the next step in her creative career. “I didn’t go out there and just turn on the camera,” said Imp. “I did do preparation and I looked to other people for advice and always kept an open mind, but I also made a lot of mistakes, and by doing that, I learned how to make a movie.
June 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In Anthony Burgess’ novel “A Clockwork Orange,” the violent protagonist, Alex, has a much different ending than in the probably more-widely experienced film. In the notorious 21st chapter — which wasn’t even available in the U.S. for about 20 years after the book was released and which the film ignored — the wild boy does something unexpected. He grows up.
In the sweet and brutally honest film “The Other F Word,” any number of possible Alexes are presented for us to get to know. Their common link? They are all punk rock dads, but not only that — they all come from varying degrees of dysfunctional nightmares far too common in the childhood of my generation, the kind of home lives that victimize you, push you into the position of self-destruction and blame you for what’s been done to you.
The other thing they have in common is that they all moved past what had been laid out for them and made their own lives, largely through the experience of being dedicated parents.
The main focus of the film is on Jim Lindberg, lead singer for Pennywise for the last 20 years who is facing his own parenting demons — absence. He didn’t plan to make a career of being in a punk band, but it happened and, like any father looking to provide for his family, he goes with the opportunity. But now it’s taken over his life, especially given the economic realities of the music business in the 21st century that demand even the most modestly successful bands constantly tour to maintain a nice upper middle class lifestyle. He just wants to be there for his kids.
Lindberg’s struggle is shared with plenty of other dads featured in the film, including Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tim McIlrath from Rise Against the Machine, Ron Reyes from Black Flag, Tony Adolescent from The Adolescents, Lars Frederickson from Rancid, and others. But there is also the larger question — how did they move from rebelling against the system, sometimes violently, to being as much a part of it as any other family?
Director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins traces this journey and, more importantly, demonstrates how a generation of misfits was able to take all their parents’ mistakes and use them as a primer for what to do when you find yourself with kids. It becomes the ultimate revenge, in a way, turning out to be a model citizen with great children.
One great strength of Nevins’ film is that any walls between the realm of disreputable bohemian kids and the rest of the world is torn down in the name of unity — revelation to the world, these guys aren’t much different from any other dads, and you don’t have to necessarily be a punk, ex or current, to see yourself and your friends in their stories. In an era where the popular culture is devoted to the portrayal of the man-child, it’s refreshing to see a portrait of those who pushed back the mainstream as the grown-ups in the room. These guys are happy to let go of their adolescence and be the grown-up. They’re happy to center their life around their kids. They’re happy to channel their energy into changing the world not through song, but through parenting.
And that may be the greatest revelation in this film — parenting can be as much an act of revolutionary creativity as any artwork. As Lindberg muses, it may be the most valid way to change the world. “The Other F Word” is a touching celebration of the guys with rough edges who wanted to change the world, and then grew up and figured out how to actually do it.
June 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A new documentary about photographer Gregory Crewdson captures not only his creative method, but his life-long relationship with the Berkshires, which fuels his photography.
The film “Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters” makes its area premiere at the Berkshire International Film Festival on Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.
Crewdson’s renown has centered partly on the production values of his photography and partly on their locations. Treated like a movie shoot, Crewdson scouts locations, builds sets and casts photos like a film director would, with results that show the fruit of the intricate conception and pre-production. His chosen area of focus is the Berkshires, and his huge photos of Pittsfield, North Adams and many other places in the region have graced museums around the world as well as Mass MoCA and the Berkshire Museum.
Director Ben Shapiro first encountered Crewdson when he was asked in 2000 to film a piece on him for the public television series “Egg,” a show covering the arts. This footage of Crewdson photographing a beanstalk scene was taken in Lee and used in Shapiro’s film. The two men became friendly and four years later, Shapiro was asked to do another piece on Crewdson by another television program. After that, Shapiro began to devise a larger work based around Crewdson and his photography.
“I had a sense of how I would represent him and his work on film,” Shapiro said.
“We got to know each other a little bit, and based on that, he felt comfortable inviting me to come to the sets and to follow him and keep on filming.”
Shapiro’s film follows Crewdson as he creates the body of work known as “Beneath the Roses” as well as utilizing the older footage, which captures him at work on “Hover” and “Twilight.”
Crewdson’s focus on the Berkshires began from his childhood encounters with the area. Though he was a Brooklyn kid, his family took regular trips to Becket, which ignited a fascination and communion that continues to this day.
Shapiro has a similar connection to the Berkshires. He was born in Stockbridge, though he grew up in Southern California. His parents would bring him to visit friends throughout his life and have returned to the Berkshires more recently, as has Shapiro’s sister.
Even with the commonalties to the region, Shapiro didn’t have an preconceived plan for a film about Crewdson other than the starting point of how interesting he was. Any thesis took shape with time spent observing Crewdson.
“I knew that after I had visited a couple of his sets that there was something very special happening in the way he created the pictures,” Shapiro said. “I felt like there was a drama there and a visual interest there that went beyond and was even apart from what’s captured in his photographs. That was very compelling to me, so I knew I wanted to do that.”
What always surprised Shapiro and further seduced him into Crewdson’s work was the scale of the productions, which were so large in service of capturing something so ethereal, as measured against the concerns of the creator, which were things Shapiro says any of us could relate to. There was a gripping humanity within their scope.
“Even though the scale of the work was so large, his concerns are the same kind of concerns anyone else has on a project,” he said. “You’re working on an article or you’re working on a film or you’re working on a photograph and you hope it will be good, you hope it comes off well, you hope you can pull it off. Things come off well at some point. Some things seem more difficult. Gregory’s concerns are very much what anybody goes through when they’re making any kind of creative thing.”
Just as ideas float around Crewdson’s images, they also float around his work space, triggering thoughts that the filmmaker would file away for the editing room. Crewdson himself, however, is not so apparently as large as life as his photos are. In fact, he’s an unassuming, nice guy who, to meet, you might not connect with the psychologically charged photos that hang in museums. The images are equated with a fascination with the dark corners of the world, but Shapiro maintains it is more properly characterized as a wider interest that is inclusive of said dark corners.
“There is certainly a dark side to Gregory’s photographs, but there is also an interested side — interested in people, interested in how the world looks, interested in the experience of seeing,” he said, “and I think those are all obviously very much a part of him. When you talk to him, those things become apparent, as well. I wouldn’t want to reduce his work too much in a one-dimensional way so that the work is strange.”
Rather than wearing his obsessions on his sleeve, Crewdson chooses to focus on getting them onto the wall. His photographs exist like outside representations of the what goes on in his mind — thoughts for which the surroundings they are created in are crucial, so creating a melding of the psychological and the physical. There’s enough there that is personal to Crewdson, but he also populates his images with prompts that any viewer can latch onto, as well as elements of the locations that are specific to the spot. The images could not exist without the landscape Crewdson has chosen.
“It’s a fusion,” Shapiro said. “It combines elements of documentary photography and something constructed, including the fact that a lot of the people in the photos are from the communities where the pictures take place. So it is merging imagined aspects and these documentary aspects.”
It’s not so much that the images are the stories of these places, but the stories as Crewdson has chosen to divulge them after years of unraveling them in his head.
“The imagined aspects are an interpretation of those places,” said Shapiro. “They’re very connected to those places and also Gregory’s life-long response to those places.”
Scouting is a crucial component to Crewdson’s process and highlights his relationship with the landscape. The film shows the amount of time the photographer spends just driving around the Berkshires, parking, staring, communing with possible locations. There’s quite an intricate and prolonged “getting-to-know-you” period with any location before he settles on using it. Crewdson’s give and take with any location becomes so intimate, though, it’s as if he’s looking into its soul as well as his own, something that could only result from a relationship.
“It’s funny. There are some photographs that I wasn’t around for when he made them, and I’ll be driving around the area and I’ll spot a location,” Shapiro said. “It happened with that motel shot, and I was driving up from Monterey to North Adams and I drove by that place and thought, ‘Oh that’s where that is.’
“That was interesting to me because I knew that Gregory must have driven past that place just as I had. It’s not like these buildings are things he’s discovered. He’s probably seen them all many, many times. But after visiting them over and over again, at some point, some idea comes to him about that particular place and he follows that train of thought. That’s just how his process works.”
Even more than taking residence here, his travels have cemented him as a member of the community, and these connections add to the way his work unfolds. It’s become a key component to the photography since he lives in his own canvas.
“There’s not a solid barrier between him and his work and the community he lives in, or the community he’s part of up there, which is significant,” Shapiro said. “He meets people and interacts with people in the community. He spends a lot of time driving around looking at things, and so part of his work involves connecting with a community in those ways.”
“Visually, by inhabiting it, by having history there, those things all contribute to his work. That’s one of the things I was hoping the film would draw out a little, all those things about his relationship with the community, his interests and his life that all go into the making of his pictures.”
May 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
When Jeff Malmberg saw an article in the arts magazine “Esopus” about the photography of Mark Hogencamp, he was taken by Hogencamp’s images of action figures acting out a narrative, as well as the story behind them.
Hogencamp was beaten to near death by five men outside a bar in Kingston, N.Y., went into a coma and came out with scant recollection of his past life. His way of rebuilding the self has been to document his life — both inner and outer — through a series of stunning photographs, in which dolls inhabit a miniature world he created in his back yard called Marwencol.
Malmberg’s film of the same name — his directorial debut — has gone onto widespread acclaim, receiving numerous awards and honors and offering Hogencamp with a feature length film that explains his personality and his work to the world. This gave him a platform for understanding what had happened to him and who he had become.
For Malmberg, it was a fortuitous pairing that led to creating a work that reflected what he had always wanted to do, in subject matter and process.
“It was very much a case of me and the people I was working with, and Mark, traveling down the same road,” he said, “because of his memory loss and because of his brain damage, it was the perfect fit of these people going, ‘We’re going to figure it out together.’ Those were some of the most satisfying things, giving him that sense of closure.”
Malmberg had already been on his own creative journey when he encountered Hogen camp’s work. More to the point, he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with the creative side of his film pursuits. His years in film school gave him practical skills and experience, but he was unclear how that would translate into personal work, and that sent Malmberg on a road of creative soul searching.
“I found that I had the most fun doing little goofy things by myself,” Malmberg said. “So when it came time to graduate, I didn’t quite understand how I was going to run a crew of 100 people and be a, quote-un quote, capital-D director, and still do a good job and do something that was interesting to me and something that was close to the kinds of films I really liked, which were artistic, interesting films.”
Editing became the skill that brought him regular employment, and the resulting stints editing documentaries helped him realize that the form was very reminiscent of running around on your own with a Super 8 camera in film school — casual, intimate, immediate and personal, as well as the thing he most loved to do.
” ‘Marwencol’ was definitely a synthesis of all that work,” Malmberg said. “I always felt like the editing was always practice, practice, practice. It’s wonderful work, and I loved cutting more than anything. But in the back of my mind, I was hoping that it could be practice for something that I could do.”
Editing also prepared him for the true challenges of documentary filmmaking and where they deceptively existed in the process; they weren’t quite what Malmberg thought it was going to be.
“I thought it was going to be directing exercise, but the directing part was easy,” he said. “Here’s this subject, who’s literally photographed his inner-self. It’s not like I need to bring out a fancy camera. The challenge was the ed it ing, trying to do the detective work, the psychological stuff. They become the same thing after awhile.”
Malmberg initially thought he was going to dip his toes into documentary filmmaking, but found Hogencamp held much more substance behind his work than either imagined. Hogencamp was a mystery to be solved, and the process of filming only accentuated the levels that Malm berg would have to peel away for a comprehensive film that did justice to the photographer and his work.
“I thought ‘I’ll try directing a short,’ and I think the week I decided I was going to do this, I saw his photographs and thought, ‘Okay, this is my short,’ ” said Malmberg. “I thought it would be this clever little eight-minute short and it was just going to be so simple. I had already mapped it out in my mind. You fool yourself that you get to decide, so I had it all storyboarded, and then I went out and met him, and he filled in all those things that I was imagining. But there was clearly 100 things more, so I just kept filming and filming and filmlng, and slowly that clever little short went to the wayside and I was 300 tapes in.
“I feel like documentary can work really well when it’s about something that’s hard to define, the gray area stuff. At least for me. Maybe it’s be cause I like to edit and think about stuff more than I like to shoot it. I like subjects to be complicated. You’re going to be working on it forever anyway, so you might as well go on this big journey.”
Encountering each other gave Hogencamp an extra di mension to his own journey while offering Malmberg a subject that demanded investigation and affected him emotionally, not just as a project. The film became as much about Malmberg’s creative awakening as anything else.
“He was really not only an amazing person, but somebody who was really at the crossroads and was willing to share that,” Malmberg said. “That’s the rarest thing in the world.”
The film ended up being embraced by audiences as well as the subject, so much so that Hogencamp carries around a copy with him for whenever people don’t understand him — he can just hand it over as his explanation.
“Mark always said to me, it was like a chorus when I first met him — no one understands,” Malmberg said. “No one un der stands. That was the first note card I wrote. No one un derstands. Make them understand. My job at that time was to figure it out and then present it in a way that people would then understand him.”
The film Malmberg is currently working on has similar origins and themes when it comes to the concept of art as a tool for self-discovery and expression of the soul to the point that the art is actually an alternative version of the reality it is meant to represent.
Malmberg’s film will focus on an Italian hill town that has existed since the 1400s and its very unusual practice of the last half-century, which has seen it mount a play each year in which all the townspeople play themselves and the drama addresses all of their issues. Often, the town will invite others they might have a conflict with in order to spur conversation.
“A few years ago, there was a modern bungalow-style development being built down at the bottom of the hill,” Malmberg said, “and they were very upset about this and felt like it was affecting their town. So they wrote a play about that and invited the people from those new houses to watch the play and discuss.”
The project began with a chance encounter four years ago that Malmberg would not have thought would ever lead to anything.
“We were early for dinner and we had 20 minutes to kill, and we went in this painter’s studio,” he said. “This man was painting in the corner and he invited us in, but he was clearly very intent on what he was doing. I remember thinking, ‘What’s going on with this guy?’ I really wanted to find out more. Turns out he’s the guy who directs the plays and has been involved in the theater for their entire history, and is one of the leaders of this theater group. It’s strange to me that we were here and it just popped in my head.”
The project has made Malmberg realize that his job is literally answering one of the most basic questions everyone asks themselves at any given moment of the day.
“You walk down the street and you think, ‘What’s that guy’s story?’ ” said Malmberg. “You never expect to find out, so it’s weird to me that we’re actually here now, four years later, when that day I said, ‘Hmm, what’s that guys story?’ “
Malmberg says the first guy he thought that about, Mark Hog encamp, has seen his own transformation continue on from brain damage survivor to photo grapher to documentary subject.
“I swear he feels like a different and better person,” Malm berg said. “He’s much more social. He’s got a girlfriend. He’s really much happier. He’s in a position now where he’s going to start selling his artwork.
“I saw him last in August of last year — my wife and I went out to dinner with him, which he never would have done in the first place. The most I could get him to do was go to Burger King, because he loves Burger King, but we went to a nice sit-down restaurant in Kingston, and it dawned on us during the course of the meal that he had really changed. He would say himself that he’s grown up through all this.”
As a side product of his own development, Hogencamp has given Malmberg the opportunity to do what he always felt he wanted to do — and the per spec tive to know how to do it right.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s a ton of money in documentaries, anyhow, so you might as well do what you really care about,” Malmberg said. “You’ve got a choice, and there’s no point in selling out in documentaries. What’s the price being paid? Just go do something interesting.”
April 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Emily Tay, a gay woman, first-generation American from Burmese immigrant parents and a basketball player for Harvard, might have very specific circumstances, but the messages that spring from her experience are universal.
A new documentary about Tay, “No Look Pass,” screens at Images Cinema on Saturday, April 7, at 2:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A with director Melissa Johnson.
Johnson began filming Tay in her junior year at Harvard, though the bulk of the film covers her senior year in college and her first year in the real world. Over that period of time, Johnson captured about 300 hours of Tay’s life on film, which she had to pare down to 90 minutes— that’s 18 seconds per hour of film shot.
Over that three-year period, Tay’s story offered myriad points of interest and Johnson found that part of her job was to find a common ground for all the different threads.
“You can lean the story in different ways when you have a lot of options, as we did,” Johnson said, “but I always wanted to tell this not fundamentally as a gay story or a sports story or an immigrant story specifically, but more an American dream story about this really fascinating, funny, irreverent, talented, vulnerable, extraordinary young woman living her version of the American dream, which is very different than her parents’ versions. Within that, I wanted to tell a fundamental story about growing up and I think that’s what it is.”
The central theme of Tay’s story — being who you want to be — struck Johnson as a universal one.“She says at one point, ‘No one knows who I am here, so I can reinvent myself.’ We’ve all had that feeling at some point, in a new town or at a new school or a new job, and the exhilaration of saying that is something that you don’t need to be gay or Burmese or a basketball player to relate to,” said Johnson. “I think Emily is very accessible as a person, even though she has this extreme talent and this very unusual situation where her parents came from and her particular story. Her story is very specific but her feeling is very accessible and general to a lot of folks.”
Johnson — a former Harvard basketball player who measures in at 6 feet 4 inches — met Tay while filming a short documentary on coach Kathy Delaney-Smith.
“When I walked into the gym for a long weekend of shooting, immediately my eye went to this gorgeous Asian-American girl who was hanging from the rafters and throwing these ridiculous passes straight out of the Harlem Globetrotter’s playbook,,” she said. “My director of photography leans over and he says, ‘Okay, you pick whoever you want of the current players to interview about Kathy for the short, but it’s my responsibility to tell you that the camera loves that girl.’” Johnson interviewed Tay for that project, and while she found that session was mostly useless to the short film, it heralded in a burst of ideas that pushed Johnson in a direction that she hadn’t expected.
“I had literally walked out of the locker room, where we had conducted an interview late on the wintery Sunday night, and it just hit me like a thunderbolt,” Johnson said. “I just knew this was the film I wanted to make and in a much bigger way. I went back to campus, I live in NYC, a couple weeks later and took her out for coffee and said, ‘I have this crazy idea, what do you think?’ and that’s where it all started.”
While Johnson chronicles Tay’s navigation of the world of women’s basketball and her professional goals, which were intertwined with those of her roommate and best friend, Katie, Tay’s sexual identity runs directly up against her family one, and that provides a lot of the personal tension within the film. As the filming progressed, neither of Tay’s parents apparently knew of her homosexuality and though Tay presents the film as her way of coming out in one scene, Johnson understood that she had to proceed gingerly with the issue, while still being supportive of Tay. “I told Emily that I am happy to support her, however she would like, giving them the film, or facilitating that, but really, it’s got to be a moment between parents and their child to sort that out,” said Johnson. “It was incredibly tense and stressful shooting this film and knowing that they didn’t know or they knew, but didn’t talk about it ever.”
This was the center of multiple late-night conversations between the director and her subject, and it was such a heavy burden at points that Johnson began to seriously wonder if she needed to stop filming.
“I was unsure,” Johnson said. “These aren’t actors, these are real people’s lives and I don’t want to cause damage to family relationships. That’s something I take very seriously. It kept me up at night.”
When she was able to take an emotional step back, Johnson realized that these were all the components of why she had wanted to do the film in the first place, to capture the process of a young person striving to take the reins of her own story. Johnson also realized that, far from being intrusive, the camera became something that gave Tay strength that she was eventually able to direct toward familial conversations, as in the last scene of the film where a confident Tay speaks frankly to her parents about her professional goals and views of living in contrast to theirs.
“Emily told me that she was so excited to be able to talk to them the way she does in that scene, because it’s almost like having a camera there enabled that kind of conversation that she couldn’t have off camera, couldn’t do in real life,” she said.
“At the end of the day, in order to have clear conscience about it, I had to always be in communication with her and say, ‘I’m not interested in making this film and have you be upset with me at the end of it for not telling your story right or well, so I have to have your permission to keep after you, because I am by nature a worrier, to know that you are okay and you want to proceed with how we are doing this.’ ” An additional fear came in the form of Tay’s girlfriend, Angela, who she meets halfway through the film and who posed a particular challenge because she served in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in effect when they filmed and was only repealed shortly before the release. Even that didn’t quell Johnson’s fears.
“Literally, it was two days before our premiere that we thought it was safe enough to remove the blur effect on Angela’s face. We had her face blurred for a long while, because we knew with certainty that the repeal would kick in, in September and she wouldn’t be kicked out or lose her benefits or something serious like that. It was a huge risk. When I wasn’t worried about Emily and her situation with her parents, I was worried about Angela and her career.”
More than even the gay issue, though, what attracted Johnson to Tay as a subject for a film was the core of Tay, herself, whose integrity seeped into every aspect of her decision- making. One of the most significant signposts is Tay’s decision for her professional life — she ties it with the prospect of playing with her best friend, Katie, over all other opportunities, and fulfilling her emotional and intellectual interests in life, rather than fame or fortune.
“She could have gone Division One if she hadn’t been with Katie, but she wanted to sacrifice that to have her friend with her, she wanted that experience,” Johnson said. “She perhaps could have made a WNBA team, been a little more highprofile, but she wanted the experience of traveling and experiencing different cultures in Europe with Katie.”
“This is not someone who’s not traditionally ambitious— she has very clear goals and she is ambitious — but she didn’t play by the rules that most other kids at Harvard do, the I’m going to put myself first, my friend can’t make the team, whatever, I’m going by myself, I’m going to go to the absolute best, and push to the max and put everything else second — it’s a very different framework that she operates in.”
Johnson notes that the irony isn’t really ironic at all — rather it’s a lesson that everyone might heed and follow. In being true to herself, Tay ended up getting exactly the life she wanted. As measured against her parents’ desires, Tay realizes that the one way to be happy in life is to not live it for someone else.
“What is she looking for? Is she really looking to be a huge superstar? Is that really what’s motivating for her? She wants to win, she wants to be compet-itive, she wants to do her best, but that’s not it,” Johnson said. “What she’s really looking for is home. She’s looking for her home, and ironically, of all places to find it, in this small town outside of Frankfurt, Germany, with a woman who grew up in Ventura, Calif., 45 minutes from her, same age, it’s incredible that way.”
February 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
As time moves forward, so many look back and find atrocity upon atrocity heaped on American citizens by its own country, so much so that it is hard to view injustice as an aberration. In that context, it’s hard to look at the country as fair or perfect or even good, but rather a fight between those who want it to be good and those who want it to be as it is. That might well be the definition of the American way of life.
But in many situations, people are willing to forgive institutional injustice and move on because all they really want is to live their lives as they see fit. That’s at the center of “The Loving Story,” the idea that though Richard and Mildred Loving’s story of interracial marriage and their legal battle for legitimacy is part of a larger brush of social history, it is foremost a personal story of people whose lives are affected by the huge monuments of oppression. The Lovings weren’t out to change history in the beginning — they just wanted to be together. At some point, however, they began to see their personal lives in context of the battle — if everyone could come to that realization, we’d be a much more informed nation.
“The Loving Story” will screen at Mass MoCA on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m., following the film’s Feb. 14th debut on HBO.
In 1958, the Lovings found the sheriff in their hometown in Virginia looming over their bed at four in the morning, shining a flashlight in their eyes and questioning them. They were then hauled away to jail and charged with an illegal marriage — he was white, she was partblack and part-Native American. A trial found them guilty, though instead of imprisoning them, the couple spent the next decade fighting for their right to not only return to their home state, but for their marriage to be recognized.
Enlisting the help of the ACLU — if you ever wondered the purpose of that organization, then this film can go a long way to explaining to you — the couple fought all the way to the supreme court against the backdrop of a racist society that justified its actions by evoking the word of God as the final one in the reasons for segregation.
The story is mesmerizing and powerful on its own terms, but director Nancy Buirski draws you in thanks to a miraculous wealth of original footage — TV reports, interviews, a filmed roadside meeting with lawyers debating about possible arrests, telephone consults, home movies and even the audio for the case being argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court — that not only meticulously paints the world the Lovings lived in, but brings them to life as rich characters in their own drama. Richard Loving is reserved, rendered mildly awkward by the attention, while Mildred is the epitome of grace and the heart of the film — her kind eyes, her patient tone and her friendly smile in the face of such a stressful struggle speak volumes to the strength that was contained within her.
It’s a lesson worth remembering in our current era when gay rights and marriage are hot topics, and the tolerance of which is prescribed as anything from the end of marriage to the end of the world. There are still plenty of people who fixate on their own arbitrary prejudices in order to manipulate justice in order to cling to power — and following the day when gay citizens don’t have to fear for their rights or their safety, there will be another group of people who have to fight for what should be basic. With any of these oppressed, most of them will only partially care about the big picture — so many of them will be motivated by the desire to live their own lives in a free society.
I don’t know when America will ever get to that point, but when it does, I hope it doesn’t ignore the battles fought to achieve the perfection it always pretended it had.