The name Encounters Through Film
is one I have resuscitated in part for sentimental reasons from an entity I established 25 years ago and never used. What the name means for me now is that, for starters, the 8mm murder and war movies I started making as a pre-teener with my step-brother became a way for a shy kid to connect with other people. In the early 1950s a hobby like that was quite a conversation piece. One of those movies was actually about an attempt to connect -- a scene I earnestly adapted at 16 from a chapter in All Quiet on the Western Front
, in which the German hero begs a dying French soldier he’s just bayoneted to forgive him.
As a grown-up I believe that even documentaries at their best are a form of make-believe. In any case they are still a way for me to connect with people, whether subjects or viewers. My first 100% sync-sound film (shot in 1965 while on a Fulbright in Poland), Exchange of Words
, captures an encounter at the language barrier between young Americans and Polish university students of English. Another Place
evokes the experience of a semester of culture shock endured by privileged American high-school students on a non-touristy Greek island. My all-time favorite filmmaking experience was collaborating with the late Peter Robinson on his feature-length documentary Asylum
, about R.D.Laing’s controversial therapeutic commune in London. Along with the encounters the film depicts and those we on the film crew experienced, it is a film that still affords viewers a startling encounter with the mentally “other”...
With R. D. Laing during his 1972 U.S. tour.
Photo: Camilla Smith
Another of my favorites is William Miles’ World War One film Men of Bronze
, about a Harlem regiment warmly welcomed by the French, a project that made me see my old friend Bill – with his eye for historic imagery and a humbling persistence in the face of all odds – as a veritable Solzhenitsyn of African-American visual and oral history.
My own film Citizens
captures human dimensions of the historic alliance between workers and intellectuals called Solidarity that ultimately led to the non-violent end of Communist rule in Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film introduces Americans to ordinary citizens who for at least one shining moment in 1980-81 took their relationship to the society as a whole very seriously. As one Solidarity activist put it, “No matter whether one was a professor, a worker, a prostitute, or even a Party member, one was regarded as a human being.”
A Day at E.I.S.
confronts viewers with desperate tenants in fear of eviction as they interact with the beleaguered volunteers and pro bono lawyers at a dedicated homelessness prevention center in Manhattan. In A Cape of Good Hope
young American scholars at a graduate summer institute in Cape Town meet students from Africa and beyond and discover some of the harsh contrasts remaining in newly democratic South Africa. I recently finished a film called Facts on the Ground
about a two-day encounter with American, Israeli, and Palestinian peace activists.
Currently I am under the spell of an encounter with a remarkable community of Africans who have had to leave their homelands, and the remarkable individual who is giving them shelter. I am gambling that what moved me in the actual encounter will at least in part be felt by viewers through the medium of my next film.
Gradually I will add a few of my favorite sequences as cameraman/editor, not necessarily on cross-cultural encounters…