Prolific filmmaker Spike Lee was honored at the Charles Guggenheim Symposium on June 19th. Clips from Lee's documentary work were played including 4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, We Was Robbed and Jim Brown: All American. And a preview of Lee's upcoming narrative feature, Miracle at St. Anna (In Theater Sept. 26), was also screened. Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy moderated a discussion with Lee. I've read a lot on other blogs that Lee came across as arrogant, but I thought he was just responding honestly to Kennedy, who for the most part, seemed to know her Lee film history well, but often times became redundant in her questioning and struggled to come up with questions. Below are highlights of the opening remarks and some of the questions asked during the discussion.
Silverdocs AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival
Silver Spring, MD
June 19, 2008
AFI President Bob Gazzale introduced the discussion referring to Charles Guggenheim, for whom the symposium is named. Gazzale said: "Without question (Guggenheim) is one of the central figures in American film history. A documentary filmmaker who chartered a record of this nation's history, of its people and its stories across five decades... Charles made over 100 documentaries. From films that documented political campaigns: Stevenson, Kennedy, McGovern to name just a few...films about architecture, the civil rights movement. We all remember the film about the Jonestown flood...a levee that broke in 1889. His work defines you and me. The heroic struggles of every man and every woman, and the dignity in that struggle. At the very heart of all of his films, even if it's about the St. Louis arch, they are films about inspiration probably best defined a moment in the very end of the film about Bobby Kennedy when Kennedy says, 'You can do something about tomorrow.' That's Charles Guggenheim. That's the spirit that carries us into this room today...and to our honoree tonight. He arrived in our collective cultural consciousness in the 1980s a fierce and a fearless voice in American film. His narrative work is of such a singular place in our world that...I think if not he, who? Who would be telling these stories? Who would be challenging us to see America as a diverse and vibrant and complicated place that it is filled with art and music and hope and color and anger and inspiration. Who would create those characters that are smart people on screen who smash stereotypes. Each well written, well spoken, well acted work. They are people we all aspire to be. They are heroes and yet they're humble. When his name is on a film, you better be up for a challenge. Think of the end of Do the Right Thing. A quote from Malcolm X. A quote from Martin Luther King. He's a filmmaker who does not ask us to think his way, he asks us to think. This is never more true than when you look at his nonfiction work. He's made several documentaries including Four Little Girls, which is reason enough for us to gather here tonight. But then a storm began to brew out over the Atlantic Ocean and it became Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster and a national disaster. It tore the roof off of America we had become a little too comfortable with. And if it weren't for our honoree tonight, the truth would be gone like the storm itself. The tragedy and its causes would be lost in a sea of sitcoms. But instead, we have a documentary that reminds us who we are as a nation and how far we have to go. And it reminds us of what Bobby Kennedy said that you can do something about tomorrow. So we gather tonight to honor a great man of American film and a great man of America. His name is Spike Lee.
Lisa Kennedy then made her introduction: "Because Bob did such a lovely job of contextualizing what Spike really means to us and has meant to us for more than two decades now, I want to take a moment to probably be a little bit more personal. When I started writing, Spike was also starting to make feature films. I used to think he did something along with a couple of other filmmakers that came after him called letting us in on the black 'familiar' -- little moments, conversations, looks, gestures, ways of talking, but also things like progress. It just reminded me that he got it. He got the texture of African American life. He loved it. You know, that was a long time ago when he started doing that. And I know think of that 'familiar' as our 'familiar,' the 'American familiar.' There are perfect storms of incompetence and frightening weather and bad engineering that allowed for something like the levees breaking in New Orleans. And then there's this other thing that I also think was a perfect storm, but storms the wrong word, because it's so positive and I think what better week to be talking to Spike Lee...what better year to be talking to Spike, than a time where an African-American man is running for president. (Big applause from the audience.) At the same time, there are levees that are starting to give way and have been giving way. Spike connects us to our moment. He connects us to bodies. I think he does that in this documentary. And one of the things I think is amazing about this body of work...his legacy as a filmmaker is that you look at his narrative films, they're so vibrant. They have style, they have vigor, they have music, they have so much texture and they're bold. And the acting in them is extraordinary. He works so beautifully with performance. That's his narrative work. His documentaries are just as challenging, and it's amazing. I think this is a man who makes documentaries that allow other people to tell stories...to tell their stories...to tell our stories. And it has to be in part because he has competence that he's told his stories the way he wants to and he has the peace and the wherewithal to hear someone else's story and I think that comes across in the clip reel we're going to see where he talks to the parents of the little girls that died from that bomb in 1963. This will be the 45th anniversary of that bombing a the 16th Street Church in Birmingham. Not only does he talk to them, he builds a kind of trust. I think there's a trust he also built with audiences that as I said, can think for ourselves. I think that's extraordinary. I always want to go out of a documentary having more questions. Not more questions as in, 'why didn't they do it this way?' but more questions because I think that it's a challenge. I don't want someone to answer the truth of the world for me. I think Spike Lee's done an extraordinary job with his films. When the Levees Broke is an amazing documentary. The funny thing is, whenever we told Spike this...it took me a long time to look at it because that's my family. My great aunt left there and went to Houston and she died. She was very old, but she lost something. She was the storyteller in my family about the power of New Orleans as a place to live. So I don't think I've ever said to Spike, thank you for a movie that broke my heart and challenged me. What we're going to see in this clip real is...I do think there is hope and distillation of what he does so well.
(Clip reel presented)
Kennedy: When you decided to make Four Little Girls, did you want to make a documentary? When did you start that process?
Lee: In film school, I wrote I wanted to do a narrative film about this. That was 1981. I never forgot about that story. For me, it was better to do it as a documentary. I was in Birmingham, my family's from Alabama. I spent the night (at the family's) house. They trusted me. Ellen Kuras, a great cinematographer, she shot it. She also shot Bamboozled and Summer of Sam. The hardest thing about this was I had to really pray on including those post-mortem shots. I thought about that long and hard. They were in the cut, they were out of the cut. But finally I decided that the audience should see what those sticks of dynamite did to these four girls who were never allowed to grow up. The whole thing about the documentary, how I approached I wanted to talk with the people, who knew in their own words, tell us what they thought they might have become if they had been allowed to live.
Kennedy: I saw (Ellen Kuras) talking about the interview with Maxine McNair and how moving and difficult that was as a DP. Normally, you're behind the camera and you have a little distance, and I was sort of curious...did you find moments like that as well? Where do you position yourself? Do you protect yourself?
Lee: You know what, it's not about protection, but you have to ask questions. And you know you're asking questions and people break down. You can never say the wounds heal. You're still digging up a lot of emotions. I guess being a parent, too, that on top of that, these great people talk about their loss.
Kennedy: How does a filmmaker build trust?
Lee: They see my films. If you're a documentary filmmaker and your subjects don't trust you, you're not going to have a film. They don't know me, but they know me through my work.
Kennedy: What other film films or narrative features helped you prepare for Four Little Girls?
Lee: Narratives tell the story, whether it's a documentary or feature films. For me, it's still telling the story, so I don't they there's a distinction.
Kennedy: When I saw When the Levees Broke, one of the things I loved is when you decide to let your voice enter the picture. What triggers that? When do you decide to do that? Is there a moment when you think it works? I think it's very powerful because you don't use it very much?
Lee: You need to hear my questions again to hear my answer. People who have seen my documentaries, we don't use narrators. There's no narration in any of these. Sam Pollack I'd like to thank, who's the editor.
Kennedy: How did We Was Robbed Come about?
Lee: I got approached by these people that were putting together a bunch of films by directors from all over the world. They could be about anything, but could only be 10 minutes. There was no limit on the subject matter. I read the story about how Al Gore was 10 minutes away from making his concessional speech, so I tracked all these people down and turned my camera on.
Kennedy: You're working on the Kobe Bryant film. Can you talk about the structure of that?
Lee: There was a film in Cannes three years ago about Tze Chung, the great soccer player. In that film, they have 20 cameras on him. I liked it. I said, this would work better with basketball. This past April 13, there was a game at the Staples Center, the Lakers versus the then world champions San Antonio Spurs. We had 30 cameras on Kobe. It's going to air on ESPN and ABC when they kick off the next basketball season.
Kennedy: How did Jim Brown, All American come about?
Lee: Jim's one of the most fascinating people I ever met. He's an activist. He's the greatest football player. At one point, the biggest movie star in Hollywood. He's always been relevant. It was just natural. He said, 'Spike, I don't care what you show.' He is so secure in who he is. He gave me complete freedom.
Kennedy: Let's talk a little bit about that guy who's running for president. Do you think if Obama becomes president...?
Lee: There's no if! (Rousing applause from audience.) It changes the way the world looks at the United States. It changes everything. It's going to be Before Obama (BB) and After Obama (AO). And some folks need to get used to this. It's gonna be a new day. And it's not just going to be a new day, but a better day. I'm going to be at that inauguration, too.
Kennedy: What does that mean for artists? What does that mean for you?
Lee: As artists, you reflect what you see in the world. I think you'll see a lot of art reflect the good this country is going to embark on.
Kennedy: Are there documentaries you'd like to see you don't want to make?
Lee: There are narrative films. I'd love to see a great film on Martin Luther King. I don't think I can do it. Marcus Garvey. I can't do everything. Gotta leave room for Tyler Perry. (Great big LOL from audience.)
Kennedy: I know you have the Kobe Bryant coming up.
Lee: One on Michael Jordan, too.
Kennedy: Tell me about that.
Lee: We're going to be doing it. This one about Michael is going to be about his last year in Chicago. The bulk of the filming is done. We had a camera every single day. We hope to have a world premiere in Cannes next May.
Kennedy: What are some of the things you learned from James McBride's research on Miracle at St. Anna?
Lee: Before James wrote the book, he interviewed a lot of the black men from the 92nd Division. In fact, he compiled a lot of those people into characters. Again, Judy (Lee's researcher) sent me everything she could on the war effort, the participation on land, African Americans in World War II and then the specifics on where it takes place in Italy. It takes place in Tuscany and the whole thing was happening while the country was in a civil war. The fascists run by Mussolini were in cahoots with Hitler and the Nazis. For me as a filmmaker, I can't have enough research. Judy sends me everything.
Kennedy: Don't you think there's still opportunities for documentaries about that part of the greatest generation that we haven't really heard of?
Lee: There's plenty of stuff. It's wide open. Myself and Ken Burns do not have a monopoly on the great stories that need to be told.
Labels: Charles Guggenheim Symposium, Silverdocs, Spike Lee