Stranger Than Fiction - "When We Were Kings" - May 20, 2008
Tuesday night at IFC Center, a second week of nonfiction film programming co-presented by the Woodstock Film Festival for the weekly series Stranger Than Fiction, showcased director Leon Gast's 1997 Academy Award-winning documentary feature When We Were Kings, about the events surrounding the famous 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Forman in Zaire.
Gast was on hand for a Q&A, along with producer David Sonenberg and editor Jeffrey Levy-Hinte. A sneak peak clip of Levy-Hinte's companion piece Soul Power, that focuses on the music festival that occurred in Zaire before the big fight, was also screened.
Meira Blaustein, WFF co-founder, who moderated the discussion, started out by mentioning how the film had been finished in 1974, but took nearly 22 years to come to the screen. She asked Gast to talk about how that came to be? Gast said the film had been hung up in litigation for many years. Don King had decided to sue the film production. Gast couldn't even get a work print of his own film. Levy-Hinte added that Gast eventually got physical possession of the film, and 17 years laters, finally got the copyright.
Now that he had both possession and copyright of his film, Gast was ready to show it to distributors. Gast said he first showed a cut of the film to Island Films' Chris Blackwell, who loved it and made an offer. But Gast went to Sonenberg it wasn't a good deal. They eventually showed it to Taylor Hackford who also loved it, but wanted to bring it more into the present by showing interviews with more contemporary artists such as Spike Lee, who Sonenberg felt had street credibility.
Blaustein then asked about Levy-Hinte's approach to the great cris-crossing of the music and fight scenes in the film, to which he replied Gas had already done a tremendous amount of work by the time he came to the project. He was in an interesting position, because he didn't know much about the fight at the time. He had this wonderful opportunity to take his editing into the storyline by showing a poetic and rhythmic value. And the reason it took so long to edit was because it was won enjoyable to cut.
And finally, Gast said the lesson he learned from Ali was that dreams do come true. Gast said that no sports writer or boxing fan thought Ali had a chance against Forman to win that fight, but he prevailed. Gast alluded to a moment when Ali hypnotized himself by pounding his fists together and repeating to himself, "There's no way he's going to beat me."
Be sure to attend next week's third and final co-presentation of STF with the WFF when Jonathan Demme will be there for his 2003 documentary The Agronomist about Haitian radio journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique.