Anne Lewis and “Creative Vision”
I come out of a movement to change media so that it engages ordinary people and creates opportunity for positive social change. I believe in the power of telling the truth with all the understanding that intellect can offer. I have practiced the art of documentary filmmaking–frequently with limited resources–since 1968. This combined intent to create meaningful work, tell the truth about the complex world of ordinary Americans, and contribute to the independent field has determined my creative work. My approach is inclusive, informed by social change, accessible, and non-dogmatic.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, I assisted Paul Falkenburg (editor of Fritz Lang’s M) on a series of films about the arts and humanities. Paul Falkenburg was an amazing editor. I watched him edit a complex non-sync piece from beginning to end without making a mistake. He, of course, dated from before the time of Mylar splices, when every cut was hot-spliced. If he made a mistake, he would need to slug the picture with black. This kind of thoughtful precision in his editing technique earned him the title of “surgeon of the editing room.” It was a wonderful way to learn with a paycheck of $125 a week. When Paul Falkenburg hired Marian Kraft to edit a documentary film about the architect Louis Kahn, I became her assistant and began receiving union wages. Marian Kraft, a refugee from Nazi Germany was one of the first women to break into the industry. I had studied editing with her at the School of Visual Arts, but that experience was nothing compared to working for her in the field. Marion Kraft never made a physical edit. She marked the cut point with grease pencil and I worked with a synchronizer and squawk box to assemble the reels. She was a master editor who demonstrated motivation and instinct with every cut. I still show some of her work in my editing classes.
Marion hired me to assist her on ,b>Marcel Ophuls’ A Sense of Loss, a feature documentary about the conflict in Northern Ireland. Marcel Ophuls, assistant director Ana Carrigan, Marian Kraft, and I spent a year in the editing room. It was one of the more intense years I have had. I learned a great deal about interviewing; about structuring massive quantities of documentary material without the use of narration; and about telling the truth even if it doesn’t fit a popular notion of political reality.
At the same time, I began to edit short pieces with friends. I remember re-editing an old propaganda film with the Iranian Student Association to represent a more accurate history of their country. I edited a Brecht play for a student director; three minority job-training films for Columbia University; and worked on Rip Torn’s King Richard. The great fortune of finding master editors to learn from, coupled with the opportunity to try my own hand, kept me from the arrogance and creative deadening which I see in some editors today.
In 1973, I went with Barbara Kopple to Harlan County, Kentucky as associate director and assistant camerawoman of Harlan County, U.S.A. That experience radically changed my approach to filmmaking. I had been working on the film syncing dailies and reviewing material. Then a call came from the United Mineworkers that they needed someone to film in Harlan County or there would be a killing. Barbara, Kevin Keating, Richard Warner (our local liaison who had owned a sock store in Knoxville, Tennessee), and I flew to Knoxville, loaded into a station wagon with all the 16 mm gear, and drove across 2 lane roads to the picket line. We arrived at 5 am. On one side of the road there were about 30 state troopers looking mean. On the other side, there were an equal number of tough-looking women with clubs. Within an hour, we were filming violent arrests and women being dragged. Documentary filmmaking was no longer a distant and separate art. It was a way of being involved, being present. It was possible to be an active participant and still tell the truth–only from a more intimate and passionate perspective.
After production and rough cut editing was completed on Harlan County, I returned to the coalfields of Appalachia where I lived for the next twenty-five years.
In 1982, I began a long association with Appalshop of Whitesburg, Kentucky–a national arts center described by Pat Aufderheide as “an unsentimental exercise in authenticity.” I originally was hired to edit a feature length play, Red Fox, Second Hangin’, which had been shot in 1-inch video with 4 cameras and 3 performances. I then began working with Headwaters Television, a weekly half-hour television series that screened on the NBC affiliate in Hazard, Kentucky. Marty Newell handled the administration of the project and was the director of photography. I directed, did sound, and edited. We produced 27 half-hours a year that ranged in quality from the Hazard Community Choir performing Handel’s Messiah with the London (Kentucky) Symphony Orchestra to some wonderful programs about local musicians. After two years, we moved the series to Kentucky Public Television and produced seven half-hour shows a year. I am still proud of the work we produced — Peace Stories, stories of 3 veterans who decided that war was wrong (once more in active distribution); Yellow Creek, Kentucky, about a grassroots struggle against a toxic industry; Camp 18, about a state prison shotgun road crew; and a coal miners’ response to Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union. I described my work as “community directed”–I would involve community residents throughout the production. For example, in Yellow Creek, Kentucky, a community resident gives us a tour of the creek, introducing us to his neighbors on the way. I asked members of the Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens to suggest questions for the City Attorney, then asked the attorney those questions, showed the material back to the citizens, taped their responses, and edited the pieces together. I also discovered that it is possible to find depth and vitality at home–even if that home is rural and poor. It is not necessary to travel long distances or interview famous people, to find stories that have meaning and energy.
During the next fifteen years, I continued to make documentaries based in the Appalachian region. Marty Newell moved on and I became the project director of Headwaters. I had primary responsibility for fundraising and distribution as well as production of documentaries. I would like to describe how making a few of these films contributed to the development of my work.
The first shoot for On Our Own Land was a rally we filmed in 1983 on a whim. Elizabeth Wooten was fighting against the strip mining of her family farm. She was a member of the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition, a small grassroots organization. We managed to 4-wheel it up to the rally and interviewed the Wooten family a few weeks later. Then nothing much happened with the film for the next three years. Meanwhile, the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition organized into a powerful statewide organization–Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. By 1987, the KFTC had decided to end a form of injustice practiced only in Kentucky at that time–the mining of coal without regard to the destruction of surface property. This was based on old deeds that severed the surface rights of landowners from the mineral rights of companies. I decided that it would be important to follow this story, even though I would have been hard pressed at the time to find a narrative arc or anything other than a legalistic history. As we filmed people who were involved in the struggle, intense emotional content began to emerge. I remember Everett Akers who was terminally ill at the time of the interview, screaming into the camera for 20 minutes straight. This interview was almost impossible to edit, and results in one of the few jump cuts I’m proud of. The climax of the piece was when we went up on Sidney Cornett’s property and the strip mine superintendent physically attacked us on camera. On Our Own Land became a valuable tool for the KFTC when an attempt to censor the piece hit the front page of the two major Kentucky newspapers. The documentary ran on statewide PBS followed by a coal company rebuttal. Several weeks later, 86% of Kentuckians voted to amend the state constitution to stop strip mining without the landowner’s consent.
I learned a great deal making On Our Own Land: to allow a story to develop over time; to use material that speaks to the heart even though it might seem to be over the top in its emotional intensity; to edit instinctively and go for the authentic rather than trying to smooth everything over; to fight for the rights of free speech and freedom of the press whenever possible; and to let the story emerge from the material rather than impose my own meaning.
I completed Shelter, my latest hour-length documentary, in Texas at the end of 2001. Shelterfollows four West Virginia women over a 5-year period as they try to find freedom, justice, and safety for themselves and their families. I interviewed the prosecuting attorney from the county, Richard Lorenson. Mr. Lorenson was thought of as a liberal although somewhat lazy, and I approached him before interviewing one of the women he was supposed to represent. He felt that he had a sympathetic ear and revealed profoundly sexist and class related attitudes in the interview. In editing the sequence, it became clear to me that I could not just cut back and forth with the woman who he was supposed to represent. I needed to get past the particular story to some basic truth about victim blaming. In the process, I hope that I did justice to a “rough-looking, unmarried woman” with a wonderful sense of humor, Cathy Feliciano, now deceased.
Later in Shelter, there’s a support group meeting for young girls. I remember thinking that I would be a fly on the wall, allowing the group leader to steer the content. (This kind of cinema verite material has always been an integral part of my documentaries.) It became clear that the adult in charge was too manipulative to allow the girls to speak for themselves. I began to ask questions about the kind of men they would want to marry. Although these are not entirely appropriate questions to ask 10-year olds, their responses are funny and moving, and give the piece a kind of humor it needs.
In 1998, when my family relocated to Austin, Texas, I brought four Appalshop projects with me. Three of these are now complete. The fourth, Morristown, is a culmination of my work based in working class communities in the Appalachian region. I’ll complete a rough cut this winter. The piece looks across national as well as racial, ethnic, and class boundaries to provide a working class perspective on globalization. Morristown involves greater complexity in political thought and structure than any film I have made. The creative challenge is to produce an accessible and thought-provoking documentary from disparate material without one or two central characters driving the piece.
I began teaching non-linear editing at the University of Texas at Austin in the spring of 2000. I have always thought of teaching as a way of paying a debt to my mentors and contributing to the future development of an open and exciting independent field. While I had guest lectured, mentored young filmmakers, and had facilitated workshops many times before, this was the first course that I organized. I discovered that this new commitment to teaching, in many ways, informs my creative work and development. It has allowed me the possibility of reflection–stepping back, analyzing, and gaining greater understanding of the art of editing. I have discovered new forms and learned new skills. I stay more on top of current developments and new films that emerge in the field. But more than anything, teaching has given me contact with young Texans, their ideas, talents, and artistic development. That has been, by and large, a wonderful way to learn about my new home community.
My first Texas based full-length documentary, Ya Basta, documents the San Antonio Pecan Sheller’s Strike of 1938 and the March on Nacogdoches in 1987. While these stories are separated by 50 years, the San Antonio pecan shellers and the Steven F. Austin University workers shared many similarities. They were subjected to racial and ethnic discrimination; they were predominantly female; they worked in blue-collar jobs for low wages and few benefits; they had few choices for employment. Most important of all, they both organized against tremendous odds and won. The creative challenge is to make this history live with all its contradictions and its energy. I recently interviewed Bernard Rapoport (former member of the UT Board of Regents) whose father was a socialist pushcart salesman who took his son to Mexican homes and stood on soapboxes giving speeches in Spanish–“Workers of the world unite.” I’m also experimenting with ways to give still photographs depth and focus–the kind of approach seen in “the Kid Stays in the Picture.”
In the next few years, I plan to create an animation documentary about my cousin who I interviewed just out of boot camp, filmed recently after his return from the occupation of Iraq, and will re-interview once his tour of duty is over.
I have just finished a 10-minute documentary developed in collaboration with Heather Courtney and Laura Varela about efforts to register African American and Latino voters in Lockhart. Texas Majority Minority is the Texas component of the Voting in America Project, a national project about the ways communities are fighting against voter apathy. In spite of initial support for the project, the factual programmer at PBS recently said that she would prefer to schedule the documentary AFTER the election. In response, I’ve edited a piece for immediate grassroots use.
Bill Moyers in a recent interview with Terry Gross spoke about two kinds of documentaries–ones that are made and ones that are found. I would see my documentaries as the found variety–finding truth rather than inventing it.
We live in a time when ideologues preach through the media. Evidence is spun; we see ourselves as consumers instead of citizens; we live in fear of our neighbors; the market is the only determiner of value. The independent documentary field–in spite of a lack of public funding–is one of the few places where the freedom can be found to lift some of this distortion and pervasive fear. Without that truth telling, we are in danger of living in a closed and repressive society.