“A Filmmaker Looks Back: Excerpts from an Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Chuck Olin”
For more than four decades Chicago native Charles “Chuck” Olin lived a life devoted to the documentary tradition as a writer, poet, and most notably a filmmaker. His films included:
Eight Flags for 99 Cents (1970), the story of political confusion in suburban middle-class during the Vietnam War; Palette of Glass (1977), a look at Mark Chagall’s monumental stained glass piece “American Windows” (for which Olin received an Emmy Award); Box of Treasures (1983), the story of the Kwakiutl Indians’ struggle for cultural survival; Speaking for Ourselves (1985), a short film on teenage parents in Illinois; Trust in Yourself (1986), profiles of adult children of alcoholics; Out of the Silence (1990), a film studying the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as seen through struggles in Guatemala and what was then Czechoslovakia; and In Our Own Hands: The Hidden Story of the Jewish Brigade in World War II (1999), a story about the little known and only all-Jewish fighting brigade in World War II. . Olin also produced a series of films about American business, as well as biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Herbert Hoover.
After his passing in January of 2005, an unpublished interview was re-discovered. What follows are excerpts from that interview—a brief and poignant look into Chuck’s take on the work, and life, he loved.
“THOSE DAYS IN AUGUST CHANGED US ALL FOREVER”: The Beginning
It was 1966, the middle of the hot point in the Civil Rights Movement moving North, the war in Vietnam heating up as a big problem with more and more protest. The ‘60s had pretty much hit us full force in our film work and in our lives. The major politicizing event for us came during the Democratic National Convention in August of ’68. At the time, I was working for production company called Mike Grey and Associates. We were doing some last minute work on a commercial (for the late Colonel Saunders of all people), when we heard news reports of a massive protest in Chicago’s Grant park, and of violent police action against peaceful protestors. We grabbed our gear, quickly made our way downtown to Grant Park, and walked into this war zone. We proceeded to film into the afternoon and evening, getting tear-gassed, seeing people with their heads bleeding, medics all around—it really was like a war zone. For the next few days we lived on those streets, shooting every phase of the confrontation between police and National Guard on one side, protestors on the other.
Those days in August changed us all forever. We had great coverage of this controversial event that claimed so many victims among the protestors. Later, the police were denying their roles as aggressors, but our footage confirmed truth—out of control, the police themselves had rioted, and in the name of law and order had done some pretty appalling stuff. At this point, our footage became data, evidence. It was the first time that we felt the police and maybe the government, were not on our side, and we had proof on film. We also did a lot of shooting in the Black community, and coupled with the protests at the Democratic Convention, we produced American Revolution II. That film opened a lot of eyes, and even now is sometimes seen as a set piece to describe events and people during that fateful summer of 1968.
INTERSECTION OF LIFE AND ART: The power of film
We would soon understand the power of the camera ever more while shooting a yearlong profile of Fred Hampton, the young, charismatic Chairman of the then recently formed Illinois Black Panther Party. We learned firsthand how tough and dangerous it was to be a member of a Black militant group in the days of Richard Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell, the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. We came to appreciate more and more the community-based Panther programs, like free breakfasts and free medical clinics.
Just as we were about to wrap-up our filming, Fred Hampton was killed in a pre-dawn raid by the State Attorney’s policemen. We were immediately called by the Panther attorneys. We got out to Fred’s apartment before it was sealed and gathered vital evidentiary footage documenting every inch of the apartment, including the blood-soaked mattresses, the location of every bullet hole. That film, The Murder of Fred Hampton, became an important statement, describing who Fred was and what the Party stood for, as well as being a scathing indictment of State Attorney Edward Hanrahan and his raiding party. Thinking that they were being fired upon from within Hampton’s apartment, the police outside the apartment, on the street and in the alley, were actually firing at each other, but went on to testify otherwise—saying that they were under fierce attack by Panther party members within the apartment. Again, our evidentiary footage was critical.
The same day Fred Hampton was killed, the police went to the apartment of Bobby Rush, then the Panther Minister of Defense, now a respected Illinois congressman, where they found an unregistered weapon. Having already feared for Rush’s life, we had him hidden in a friend’s apartment, and were planning to drive him to Jesse Jackson’s Operation Bread Basket on the South side, so that he could safely give himself up to Black police commanders. This part really sounds like something not from this country, but we hired a camera car to drive behind the car Bobby was in, camera poised, just in case the police tried to kill him. We really believed something could happen, that’s how crazy the times were.
I also remember that we made a copy of all the footage of Fred’s apartment and hid it in a crawl space under a colleague’s house out in the country. I can vividly recall the scene of Mike Grey, hearing that the police had been to our apartments and were heading to our studio, running out the studio’s back door into the alley on his way to the airport, as if a fugitive. We, and our footage, were clearly implicated in the story as it unfolded, and again, we didn’t know what was going to happen. In the end, our footage was shown during Grand Jury hearings, then was used in successful lawsuits against the police, and did end up serving to refute a lot of the police testimony. Even more than at the Democratic Convention, we came to understand the power of film.
Then, in a strange turn of events, this all played out again years later, when I was in Guatemala shooting the Human Rights film, Out of the Silence. Guatemala was one of the worst human rights offenders in this hemisphere, and one of the least known. I wanted to capture on film the struggle for human right, but I was worried about going there. So I went under the ruse of doing a documentary about a fledgling democracy for Encyclopedia Britannica—I couldn’t have chosen a more august educational group. Britannica, whom I’d done some educational work for, willingly gave me a letter the “educational purpose” of my trip, in hopes that it would help protect me from government of military reprisal.
In Guatemala, we worked with Amilcar Mendez, a human rights activist who lived in the highlands under constant death threats. While we were there, four members of his human rights group, CERJ, were kidnapped by what appeared to be a paramilitary force. After the kidnapping, Amilcar had to flee into Guatemala City from Santa Cruz Del Quiche for safety. To get into the city he had to drive by the local military base, so we agreed to tail him in our car with our cameras at the ready. Here is was 1989, and the experience was taking me back to Bobby Rush and 1969—using the camera to provide safe passage.
I actually made the film I had set out to do, one that probed the nature of human rights violations in Guatemala, the heroic and dangerous role of activists (in this case a small but growing movement of Mayan Indians in the highlands) and the price one pays for resistance. Beyond the normal television and educational release of Out of the Silence, I also created free global outreach through which we sent tapes and discussion guides, in Spanish and English, to human rights groups and government agencies around the world. That, I thought, took the power of film another step by serving to put some pressure on the abusing governments to effect change.
What I think all these experiences speak to is the not-so subtle intersection between life and art, film and politics in the street. We couldn’t stand back and do our art without becoming, and being viewed as, involved in the various struggles.
REAR VIEW MIRROR PAIN: The Personal Interactions of Documentary Work
The connections we try to make with people through documentary work is something is something more personal than political. Since the early seventies there have been these junctures, about once a decade, where the films have been political, but in between those junctures there were the personal stories like the ones found in films like Speaking for Ourselves, about teenage pregnancy, or Trust in Yourself, about adult children of alcoholics, or Box of Treasures, about the cultural survival of Native American life.
What happens with those films is that you drop into somebody’s life as a documentarian, as an ethnographic filmmaker, a recorder of their lives, their pains and their hopes. During your time together, you elicit wonderful moments—you get some shots of their ambience as they go about their daily life rituals, and that’s a very personal experience for me. It’s a very privileged position. That’s where trust comes in. Trust is a very big part of this business. I think that through genuinely caring, through humor, and through not separating myself from the people I’m talking with, they begin to know that I am on their side, as much as I can be, and hopefully trust is established.
The challenge then is that there are some very special films that when I walk away from them, I am daunted by the prospect of justly attempting to capture so much in a short film. I’m taking their story somewhere and collapsing it into something manageable, and potentially showing it to lots of people for whom it may matter. That’s where it’s important to connect with the people, and then ask, “what has it meant that I got this story, and then left?” Because as I drive away there’s this rear view mirror pain, where I look back at the people on their doorstep, waving goodbye after having made such a personal connection, and then I’m gone. I try to stay in touch, I mean to, but more often than not, I don’t. I don’t think that compromises the integrity of the connection, but it’s hard. At the very least, though, I try to leave them feeling good about what they’ve done, and feeling that I have respected them for their willingness to open up and share a piece of themselves, their life, and at times, their hardship.
I LIKE THAT VOICE: Shaping a Story
Then there’s the challenge of the editing room, where the prospect of making sense of the material—often having shot twenty-five, fifty, even a hundred times as much interview material as will be used in the finished product—is a daunting one. It becomes a matter of being conscious of the choices we make so that they film looks seamless in the end, as if this is the only story, when we all know there are a million other stories.
There is also the matter of having integrity as we make our choices. I guess my own values come into play. The editing process becomes somewhat of a through-line for me as a person and a filmmaker. For all of us at Olin Associates (which includes Libi Hake and Matthew Palm) there is a special mission, whenever possible, to represent the underdog, to care about revealing the voice of people who may not ordinarily have a broad-reaching audience. We try to listen to people’s story, and then to express them in a way that might not happen without our having been involved. I think we like to bring the people at the top down a little, and bring the people at the bottom up a little, so that in the end there is a sense of togetherness. Sometimes it may be as subtle as one line in a corporate film where we find someone at the bottom saying, “Hey, it ain’t easy down here.” Often the client will ask that it be taken out, but when it stays in it becomes a little moment of, “we down here matter and we aren’t just cannon fodder for the bottom line.” I like that voice.
SKEWERED BY SOME, PRAISED BY OTHERS: Difficult Choices
When you finally complete a film and put it out there, you just have to live with the results. One of the more recent documentaries, Is Jerusalem Burning? Myth, Memory and the Battle of Laturn, is a case in point. It could have been a fairly straightforward telling of the story of Laturn, a fateful battle fought between Jews and Arabs in the first days of Israel’s 1948 war—a battle the Jews lost. But we chose to make it about something different, the dark and divisive myths that grew out of that loss, and how for myriad reasons the defeat remains fixed in the memories of Israelis.
In still another level, and this is where it gets interesting, we chose to use this historically based film as an opportunity not only to revisit the “foundational myths” connected to the birth of Israel—the warrior hero, a siege mentality, the settling of a “land with no people”—but to subtly, or not so subtly, suggest that Israel itself is culpable in its endless conflict with the Palestinians, a culpability that began with the birth of a country. It is a controversial position not warmly embraced by those who unequivocally support Israel’s current and past behavior. The point is, we re-framed Is Jerusalem Burning as we put it together; and as a recent Intifada uprising began during completion of the film. We made choices. In the process, we made many people who were in the film, historians as well as those who fought in the Laturn battle, very unhappy. But we felt strongly that the film, at that particular time, had to carry a message with contemporary meaning. We knew it would get skewered by some, praised by others, and it has been.
WE ARE THEY, AND THEY ARE WE: A Nod to Those Who Follow
When I first got into this business everything was very expensive and cumbersome—cameras as well as editing equipment. Today there is a whole range of improvements, including the fact that someone (we do it too) can shoot with tiny DV [digital video] cameras, sometimes as the only of primary camera. They’re unobtrusive, you can shoot thirty to sixty minutes without stopping, the quality is great, the audio is great, and the camera costs fifteen hundred to four thousand dollars. Then you can go to your Mac, or other laptop, edit the footage and you’ve made a video. So the technological side is much more welcoming, but there’s a lot more to it than simply having lightweight affordable gear and increasingly easier ways to edit.
What I hope is happening with the younger generation is that the access to equipment gets coupled with a genuine curiosity to find and tell the many stories left to be told—including their own. Young people need to find themselves in their work, the own sense of integrity, social justice, and even a kind of quiet humility for the privilege of doing this kind of work. That, as opposed to what I often see, a kind of arrogance that comes from being a member of “the media,” where you see yourself as better than the people whose stories you capture.
Finally, there’s the issue of money. You can make money doing documentary films, but it’s a rarity. Unfortunately, I’ve spent too many years in this business never knowing what the future will hold. And most of my friends in this business have careers that are filled with peaks and valleys. The valleys are always scary and you think they’ll never end. So, we do this not for the money, but for the important and compelling nature of this work. The selfish side, as it has been for me, is that filmmaking has taken me to places I never would have gone, allowed me to meet people I never would have known, and focused me in a way ordinary travel, and normal relationships don’t It’s changed who I am and what I care about.
If students, and anyone else, are ever to read this, I hope it serves as a reminder that there are amazing people in this world, amazing things happening all around us, and we have to be curious about them. Whether we are documenting those things with still cameras, writing, video, or painting, we have to approach people with a lot of respect, especially people that society may not look at in that way. We should understand, like James Agee and Walker Evans did, that people at the bottom of the ladder often deserve the most attention, even though they are getting the least. From them we find out that we are they, and they are we, if we’re open to that.
Some of the most fundamental truths come from the people we’re filming or writing about. It’s important not to separate yourself from them, beyond what is necessary in your observations. There’s just a huge amount available to people, to anybody willing to reach out around the edges, to look beyond the first answer to the second and third, and to let the best answer come, finally, not from the question, but from the person in front of you. Let it be their truth and it will be of great value to everyone, softening the distance and the edges between people, and hopefully making a worthwhile difference. Especially as the world we have continues to unravel, a combination of terrorist acts, and ill-conceived and often arrogant foreign policy. Perhaps what the work of those young people who are just starting to pick up a camera or use the written word can do—and us old folks too—is to use the medium to probe, question, look for ways to penetrate public pronouncements in search of an alternative truth, sometimes a very personal truth, and then capture that, shape it and reveal it for all of us to consider. [end]
©richard olin 2005