Kristi Jacobson and “American Standoff”

Kristi Jacobson has produced and directed many social-issue documentaries. She produced Defending Our Daughters, a film about women survivors of the war in Bosnia and collaborated with Barbara Kopple on Justice for All, covering the injustice in the capital-punishment system.

American Standoff puts the viewer on the strike lines across the U.S. right alongside the Teamsters during one of the largest and most crucial strikes in their history.

What made you chose the teamsters as the subject for a film?

There were a couple of reasons we chose the teamsters to make this film. One of the most important ones was Jim Hoffa’s election as president of the Teamsters union. He came on in a really controversial election because of the legacy of his father. There were a lot of expectations of him–both good and bad. There were a lot of people who felt that Jim Hoffa’s election meant that the union was going to be saved and returned back to the glory days of its strength and power. There were others who feared that because of his father’s reputation and alleged connections with the mob, his election as president would bring the union back to its dark days.

The other important reason is that it’s such a large union we felt that if we could understand where things were with the Teamsters Union, we would have insight into the modern labor movement of today.

Why did you choose their fight with Overnite as the basis for the film? 

When we started to research, our goal was to try to understand who the teamsters are, what kind of problems they’re facing today, what their goals are. And it seemed that everyone we spoke to said you really should look at this Overnite campaign, at that point it wasn’t a strike, it was an organization campaign that the Teamsters had been involved in since the early ’90s. Everyone from journalists to teamsters from the prior administration to the Hoffa administration said that this Overnite campaign is really going to be significant for the Teamsters and really show where things are.

So as the film progressed, your premise also evolved.

That’s right. We didn’t set out to make a film about the Overnite campaign. We set out to make a film about the Teamsters. We actually shot a lot of stories. There are hundreds of locals across the country, each with their own interesting struggles and courageous acts but once we met John Murphy, the director of organizing, we realized that we had a good character in him. And as the story started unfolding, it just became so big that we decided to focus it. And it represented a fundamental problem in America today–the lack of American workers’ right to organize. That premise also grew out of learning from the film, we didn’t set out to make a film about the right to organize; it just became the predominant thread.

How and why did you hook up with Barbara Kopple [Harlan County, USA]?

I’ve worked with Barbara for a number of years. We met when I was hired as a field producer on a television special that she was executive producing. And I had always admired and respected her and her work and any young women documentary filmmaker’s dream is to work with her. I was fortunate enough to get that job and we just clicked on a number of levels, so I continued to work with her after that.

What did you learn from her?

I learned lot from Barbara, primarily the importance of collaboration in filmmaking; it’s not one person that makes a documentary. There as tendency to say ‘this film was directed by so and so, they made the film,’ but it’s definitely a collaboration. Not just between the filmmakers but between also the filmmakers’ and the subjects they’re filming.

I learned about the importance of building relationships with your subjects that are real. I don’t think you can just go into a situation with an agenda, you’re going to sway people and you’re going to get one thing. If you go in and you’re curious about people’s lives and their stories. I learned a lot from these incredibly courageous people, I was inspired by them and felt a closeness to them that was real and that will continue my whole life. That’s an aspect of making documentaries that bring the stories to life in a way that the audience can connect with them.

I also learned how critical persistence is in documentaries. Never take no for an answer. Even when you’re really, really tired and you feel you have to go to bed, stick it out because things happen at the most surprising of moments. You need to be persistent to stick with it.

Where did you find your major obstacles?

There were a couple of areas. One was Jim Hoffa. We really wanted to get a better understand of who he is because he’s an important part of the Teamster’s Union. And, of course, the legacy of his father remains so present in every way. But because of what happened with his father, he’s very protective and protected, and with reason. So it was a real challenge to try and get some footage with him where he was a little bit more open and a little bit more real, you know, those real moments. It actually wasn’t until a year and a half later of being around and proving our loyalty–to the film, not to him or the Union, but to the film and the subject–that we finally did get an interview with him in his home where he was relaxed.

The most critical area in the making of the film was spending a lot of time with the strikers. At first, the strike is called and everyone is excited and it’s like the beginning of a football game, everybody comes out ready to go. And as time went on, the days pass into weeks and the weeks pass into months, it was important for us to remain as present as we possible could, given the constraints of money, of course. Because I think that the more time we spent on the picket line, and that didn’t always mean we were shooting, the more our relationship with the strikers evolved. The longer I was with these people, the more I was able to capture their sacrifice. There were a lot of 4am wake-up calls to hit the picket lines before the trucks started coming out. I think that made a difference mostly because we were women among a lot of men, so it was important to earn their respect. If all the guys were meeting in the lobby of the hotel at 4am, we had to be there at 3:45 because we had to be ready to shoot. And the more times that happened, the more they were like these aren’t just some girls, they’re tough, they can hang with us.

Another obstacle was getting access to Overnite, and that, you might have noticed, we never completely overcame. When we set out to cover it once it became a strike, we thought it would be really interesting to cover it from both perspectives. How does a union approach a strike, how do the strikers deal with it, and then how does the company deal with it. So getting the access to Overnite was one of the biggest challenges to find what was going on inside the company that could parallel the kind of access that we were getting to the Teamsters. But we were repeatedly denied that access. After countless attempts and pleading, we finally got the CEO interview you saw in the film. We were given an hour with him versus many hours with the Teamsters. That was frustrating but we overcame it in that we were at least able to include that perspective in the film.

That lack of access certainly worked against them in the film.

We kept telling them that. We said if you don’t tell us your side, it’s going to be very difficult for us to convey it. We sent letter after letter saying it’s really important to understand where they’re coming from and that means more than an hour-long interview with your CEO.

You didn’t end up interviewing the workers who crossed the picket line, how come?

The major obstacle to interviewing the workers who decided to continue to work through the strike was that they were told not to talk to us. So they weren’t as forthcoming because they had the fear of getting in trouble or losing their jobs if they spoke to us. There is that one scene in Long Island where George confronts Lenny who left the strike to go back and we were glad to have gotten that exchange.

Why did you choose titles over a voice-over narrative? 

I think because of my training with Barbara Kopple and because she was producing the film. She historically has not used voice-over in her films so the leaning was to not use it. When you’re reading the text and you see that it gives the information, we saw that it was a technique that would work. The real reason is often when there is a narrator in a film, you feel that the narrator is telling you what to think and how to feel. And we wanted the viewer to decide how they felt and what to think and we didn’t want to be telling them the story, we wanted the story to tell itself. Sometimes when you revert to a narrator, you use it to tell parts of the story that otherwise can be told through the characters. So we wanted to let the characters tell as much of their story as possible. We only used text out of absolute necessity. When we were screening it with people and they didn’t understand, we asked what would make you understand and decided the best way to get that information across was to write it down. We didn’t want to have that 3rd person voice in the film and who’s voice would it be?

Did you look for a woman, such as Hope Hampleman, for another perspective, or was it a coincidence?

In the beginning, we met the leaders and she was one of the Chicago leaders. I can’t say I was looking for a woman to cast. But I knew the minute I met her she was someone that was not only going to be a great film character but someone who was a real fighter. It all just started coming together and it was unscripted. We just found her and she grew into the role that she took.

What about the other members of your production team? 

I worked with two great associate producers who were working with Barbara already, Tania McKeown and Mary Woods. The cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson, had worked with Barbara and me before and was with me all the time so we collaborated in field, and our very talented editor Bob Eisenhardt.

Since American Standoff is your first feature-length documentary, what did you learn from this extended form?

I think that one of the differences is the obvious, which is the amount of footage, we had hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage and the process of editing was much more complicated and challenging than I had ever experienced. I was lucky because Bob Eisenhardt had edited feature-length films before. He screened almost every thing and I had previously eliminated some of the storylines because our eyes were bigger than stomachs.

He taught me a lot about the structure of a ninety-minute film, because you really need to have a lot of different elements than if you’re telling a ten-minute story. And during shooting, there were a lot of decisions that you make because you’re not just there for the quick hit, you’re there for the long term. And that makes some things easier but there’s a lot more pressure. There was a lot more pressure to making a ninety-minute film for HBO than anything I’d done before!

What would you do differently?

It’s funny, I thought that every time I would watch the film I would have a regret about this, or wish this was in there. But the first time I saw it on the screen (it premiered at Sundance with an audience) it all came together for me and I have never looked back and thought, I wish that scene were in there. And I thought that would happen because I’m sort of that way but it didn’t. I think that we, as a team, did everything we could have done to make the best film we could have made.

I think in the beginning, I would have paid more attention to the manual white balance, which we learned after a few months of shooting. Color correction was a godsend. I had not had that much experience shooting and although Kirsten Johnson was the cinematographer, in the beginning we couldn’t afford to have someone. There was a lot of it where it was just me and John Murphy day in and day out and I was learning to shoot as we went. Before the strike was called, I had gone for what was supposed to be a day in Boston to film this one conversation, so I just brought a backpack and the equipment and it turned into almost two weeks.

American Standoff was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, what kind of response did you receive?

It was really positive. All the audiences have been really responsive to the issues that were raised in the film. Everyone wants to know, how is it that these labor laws work, how can a company violate workers’ rights that much without ever having to pay any consequences. And people really responded to Hope and Mike and Joe so it’s great when they’ve been able to be there with the audiences.

When did the film air on HBO?

It premiered on June 10th and aired throughout June. All the Teamsters saw it.

Are you doing outreach with this film? For example, are union and labor activists using it in their activism?

Leading up to the broadcast we had a number of screenings in a bunch of cites that were organized by Jobs with Justice, which we worked with while making the film also. It’s a great national organization that has affiliates in hundreds of cites across the country.

We would get the word out about the broadcast and also have outreach screening where either I, or a member from Jobs with Justice, or John Murphy, or someone would be there to have a question and answer session following the screening. Now that the film is broadcast, I’m trying to work with a number of different groups, including Jobs with Justice, to work on getting the film out there further, to labor groups and colleges and universities. The outreach aspect is new to me so we’re developing more of a strategy now.

How many screening have you had so far with Jobs With Justice?

I’d say 5 to 8 screenings. There’s a surprising number of labor film festivals, which are really great because the people who are interested in labor films are also interested in the issues. We’ve been in three of those and we have another two coming up.

Besides the specific labor audience what kind of audiences are you trying to reach?

I think that people are also using it as a learning tool. What can we learn from what went wrong here, and what can we learn from what went right?

The best responses that we’ve had have been at non-labor film festivals where people who where uninterested in the labor movement were moved by it and realize that they really had the wrong impression of unions. Students are a good audience because they don’t learn about this and certainly not about the human side of it.

What’s your next project?

The film I’m working on now is something very different. It’s a historical film about Toots Shor who was a famous personality in NYC and his restaurant thrived in the forties and fifties and became a was sort of men’s club where people like Joe DiMageo and Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Hoffa hung out. Every president from 1940 through the 70s ate there and knew Toots but so did mob bosses and supreme court justices and often at the same time. I have passion for this story because Toots Shor was my grandfather and because I tend to take my work a little too seriously and this way I get a chance to talk about booze and sports and learn about my family.

Since I finished American Standoff, I’ve started my own film company called Catalyst Films and I’m hoping to develop more social justice films to tell the untold stories and continue that line of filmmaking. I’m also developing some projects related to the juvenile justice system and the programs that are working for them and those that aren’t. So I’m developing my own ideas and talking to people about their ideas.