Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, April 1995
By Peter Stuart
I've been doing quite a bit of chairing lately. Early in March I was chair of the Directors Guild of America's documentary committee, which gave its award to Steve James for Hoop Dreams. A month earlier, I chaired the blue ribbon panel for Toronto's documentary festival, called Hot Docs. It was interesting to see that the organizing committee divided the festival into two sections: one for straight documentaries and another for journalistic documentaries made for television. It is a difference between apples and mushrooms. One taste of TV's flashing, jazzy opening teases, the palaver of the ubiquitous hosts, the built-in act breaks, and the endless talking heads causes you to go into a different mindset. It's not that TV journalistic efforts didn't contain some powerful material, but...well, you know what I'm talking about. Each section had a variety of awards for political, environmental, personal, and other sorts of documentaries.
My panel members were docu-nuts, three women and one man who were experienced, committed documentary filmmakers. Two films were outstanding winners in their categories. One of them, A Brush with Life by Martin Duckworth and Glen Salzman, was a small, intense personal drama of a gifted woman artist struggling to free herself from mental illness through her art. The second, Narmada: A Valley Rises by Ali Kazimi, was an epic story of an effort by a group of activists in India to prevent the destruction of a valley in order to make way for a dam project.
As is often the case with these small blue ribbon committees made up of dedicated filmmakers, the wheat is separated from the chaff quite easily. But there is always one decision that causes a great deal of soul searching. In this instance, we had to choose between two well-made films, the difference between them being that one was as cutting edge as they come. It was called Under the Lizards and concerned itself with the Polish renaissance in the arts since the fall of Communism, using jazz (extremely well played by Polish groups) as a metaphor for their new freedom. The filmmaker, David Rimmer, tossed in everything but the kitchen sink. The imaginative montages between musical numbers walked in the shadow of Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage. In one case, the filmmaker constantly returned to an image of a Polish police officer walking endlessly up a flight of stairs with an ominous-looking suitcase. And he climbed, and he climbed. I became fascinated, then annoyed, then determined to stick it out to the end of this Himalayan journey. Suddenly the policemen reached the top of the stairs, went to a window, opened the suitcase, took out a trumpet, and blew a few notes out to the city below. My patience was rewarded. Our little panel debated, went on to some other films, came back to this category again, debated some more, and then voted for Under the Lizard. Art must be served, at least once in a while.
Which brings me to the subject I brought up in my last column. The debate on appropriations for the NEA, the NEH, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting continues in Congress and is now moving on to the Senate. The significance of this congressional action was brought home to me a few weeks ago, when I was driving to work and listening to National Public Radio. One segment featured a five-minute piece about a set of Glenn Miller records that were made during World War II, just before Miller died in a plane disappearance. It seems that someone thought listening to Glenn Miller records would soften the morale of the Nazi soldiers. So they asked David Rose to add gorgeous string arrangements to Miller's tunes, had Miller's lead singer, Johnny Desmond, croon American love songs in German, and threw in two Dinah Shore tracks for good measure. A female German refugee translated Miller's midwest twang into German. Wow—what a great story. Now think, is there anyone on talk radio or rock radio or rap radio or any kind of radio that would research and then take five minutes to tell a story like that? We're not talking about a cultural elite—this is Glenn Miller. This is a preservation of our national experience.
When I got to my office, I sent off telegrams to my California senators and to Mark Hatfield, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. I beg you to do the same. We have sent all IDA members the numbers to use for faxes and letters. We hope a concerted effort can bring a halt to this aspect of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," which is threatening to eliminate a humane essence of American life.