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Documentary Productions, Rare footage, The Right Footage

“BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND”: Interview with Chuck Smith on his new film


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We were thrilled to meet brilliant director Chuck Smith last November at Doc NYC 2018 to talk about his new documentary film, BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND. More than simply a retrospective into the work and legacy of Barbara Rubin, a pioneer of underground cinema, the film recounts the wild-child life of Rubin as she experiments with drugs and sexuality before becoming a Hassidic Jew. Featuring Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and many more influential artists and musicians of the time all inspired by Rubin, this documentary explores the budding underground movement of 1960s New York City. BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is also a beautiful tribute to Jonas Mekas, the Godfather of avant-garde cinema and the gatekeeper of Rubin’s archives, who passed recently. 

Could you tell me a bit about you? About your work? Your career as a filmmaker?

I wasn’t one of those kids who was fascinated with films and started using a camera at an early age.  Yes, I liked watching films, but I never saw myself making films until I met some friends who had a Super 8 camera.  Then I played around with the camera, but only for fun, still never thinking I’d do it as a career.  Instead – I thought I would “change the world” by working for Greenpeace and saving the planet from environmental destruction.  But, when I started working in NYC for the Department of Environmental Protection, I discovered that change can ONLY come from people who are inspired and the best way to INSPIRE people is with stories.  So, I began working on documentaries that dealt with nuclear disarmament and other causes.  Then, I slowly moved into telling all kinds of stories and being fascinated with telling them visually mostly for TV.  I worked in TV doing all kinds of shows based on reality for National Geographic, Discovery, etc. Only later did I start to make my own documentaries so I could spend time with stories that I love.

Chuck Smith

What made you want to tell this Barbara Rubin’s story?  

I’ve always been fascinated with “larger than life” characters who seem to have been forgotten by conventional history. Sometimes the most interesting and inspiring people in a historical moment are dropped from the historical narrative and replaced by others who carried their inspiration forward. These people are often a little too “crazy” for mass consumption, so their art/music/filmmaking or whatever needs to be adapted by slightly more conventional or stable artists.  Barbara Rubin was clearly one of those inspirational characters who was too unconventional to “succeed” in a traditional sense, but her ideas and energy were crucial to the development of other artists’ works and to the culture of the 1960’s underground in New York City.  And, of course, it’s always the “underground” that ends up influencing the larger cultural scene eventually.  Another interesting aspect of Barbara’s story was the fact that she was a creative woman at a time when women as a whole were not seen or treated as equal as men.  The 1960’s were a time of great change and freedom, but it was still a very male-dominated world that didn’t begin to change until the 1970’s – and some would argue that it STILL hasn’t changed enough. Barbara was trying to succeed in a world that was stacked against her, but, the important thing is that she never felt like her sex kept her back.  She never let the fact that she was a woman hold her back, and I think that’s why the powerful, creative men she was friends with (like Dylan, Ginsberg, and Warhol) were drawn to her.

For how long did you work on this project? Were there any major challenges financing the project?

From my first idea to the finished film took over 5 years. I didn’t work exclusively on BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND for that whole time, but it was a “labor of love” that I kept coming back to.  When it came time to edit the film, that’s when I spent a solid year working on it. I don’t believe in waiting around to get financing before starting a film. I always just start by self-financing the project and spending as little as possible. Then, when others see what I’m doing, they become interested in contributing either with their time, talent, or money. For this film, I received one major grant about half-way through the process that helped a lot, but basically it was a low-budget, self-financed film.

What was more important for you: telling the personal trajectory of this strong woman, showing her contradictions (from a free spirit feminist to a hassidic wife) or painting the portrait of a visionnaire, an artist, the motor of this New York creative scene?

Barbara Rubin’s life had a lot of fascinating aspects that intrigued me, but the most important part of her story from a filmmaking perspective was the fact that she had a personal transformation. All the best stories have a twist, or a moment when the “hero” goes through a life-changing event.  Without this drama, it’s very hard to sustain interest in the narrative.  For Barbara, the fact that she became a Hasidic Jew at age 23 is crucial. It gives her life a trajectory that is both inspirational and tragic in some sense. I wanted to understand – and help the viewers understand – how someone can make such a change in their life.  I’m not sure we can ever fully know why Barbara had to evolve that way, but I think my film helps explain it a bit.

Barbara Rubin

You had access to the archives of Jonas Mekas, who is preserving part of the Barbara Rubin’s Heritage and who’s is also working very hard to preserve avant-garde cinema through Anthology Film Archives. Could you tell us a bit more about your collaboration?

Jonas Mekas was crucial to the making of my film.  Without Jonas’ support and love I couldn’t have done the film. Not only did he give me complete access to his archives, but he opened his heart to discuss and remember a woman (Barbara Rubin) who meant a great deal to him. 

The role of the researcher is essential in archive driven documentaries. How did you work with Rosemary Rotondi? What was your process?

Yes, archival research was critical to my film and Rosemary was very helpful.  Since, I started the film with access to all of Jonas Mekas’ footage, and the Warhol films and archive, I had a good head start on period archival footage that either featured Barbara Rubin and her friends or was shot by Barbara.  But, once I had the basic story of her life down, I had to fill in all the gaps with more basic archival footage such as Queens, NY in the late 1950’s, or Vietnam War protest footage.  For that, I used Rosemary who was very familiar with what was available from the ’50’s and ’60’s.

Bob Dylan

While Immersing yourself in personal footage and archives of Barbara’s work, what did immediately catch your attention?

What caught my attention about the footage that Barbara shot in the early 1960’s was that it was so ALIVE with energy. She was using a 16mm camera like an iPhone! At the time, it was probably seen as erratic or shaky camera work, but now it seems very prescient of how fast our eyes work these days. I also was impressed with her use of super-imposing images.

How did you conduct the interviews? Did it take a lot of preparation or it was more a natural, intuitive process?

For my interviews, I had a few basic questions and an outline written down, but more often then not, I forgot all about the “planned” interview and followed the subject where they led.  Intuitive interviews are always better then sticking to a script. Certainly, with Jonas Mekas, I had absolutely NO control over where he would go or what he would talk about.  He heard my questions and then always said whatever he felt like.  Although he did read certain letters and pieces of his writing for my camera when I asked him to.

How did you combine visual creativity and storytelling?  Could you elaborate on your artistic choices?

Since BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is based on history and a particular period in experimental filmmaking, I tried to take all of my visual storytelling cues from the footage and films of that period.  Since Barbara often used multiple screens and double projections, I wasn’t afraid to use these techniques as well.  I also tried to give my documentary a very tangible “film feeling” – showing sprockets, actual film, and projectors when appropriate.  Maintaining the same “film feeling” while working with various film/video sources helped me give the documentary a more unified look.  I even layered film “headers” which had nothing on them over some of the still photographs in the film to give the stills an active look.

Barbara Rubin thought that the act of filming could change the world. What would be a good example for that today?

I still think that filmmaking can change the world. For Barbara Rubin, it was the boundary-pushing aspect of film to change the culture and then the world. If she could make people see radical images, then their understanding of what’s appropriate would change and so would their attitudes.  Today, I’m not sure that filmmakers can still find aesthetic and content barriers to break like Barbara did, but there’s no doubt that powerful images can still affect people.  If you film a lonely polar bear on an iceberg that is floating and shrinking, a viewer will be forced to confront the reality of climate change and will hopefully act on that. Film and moving images, in general, are still a very powerful force in the world.  Barbara would be happy about that.

Documentary Productions, Rare footage

Interview with Rich Remsberg, on his work for the latest Netflix docuseries ‘Bobby Kennedy for President’


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‘Bobby Kennedy for President’ is shaping up to be one of Netflix’s biggest documentary releases of 2018. The four-part series is not only a fascinating study of American politics during that period but also an intimate portrait of the complex Robert Kennedy. We had the chance to catch up with the series’ Archival Producer, Rich Remsberg, who is also a member of our international community of professional archive researchers. We spoke about the monumental archive research and production that made this series a true achievement in historical documentary.

How did you get involved in the project? There are plenty of films dedicated to the Kennedy’s, what made this one unique for you?

From the initial phone call with the producers, it was clear that this project would go deeper than the usual treatment of Robert Kennedy. For starters, the four-hour format allowed for the archival to breathe in a way that is not possible in shorter docs. The intelligence that the director and producers conveyed in talking about the story suggested that they understood RFK’s complexities and contradictions and that this story would be told with a good deal of dimension.

USA. New York City. 1966. Portrait of Robert KENNEDY in his apartment.

Considering the enormous volume of archives coming from multiple sources, how did you manage to organize the workflow?

Largely by relying on colleagues! During the research phase of the project, I was focused on finding material; our archival co-producer, Brian Becker, sorted and tracked it all. We used color coding and a couple of pretty straightforward spreadsheets on Google Docs, and Brian had a lot in his head. Our assistant editors ran a very tight ship, and our story producer, Elizabeth Wolff, had total recall for every aspect of RFK’s history.

For managing costs and licensing, I had a more complicated set of linked Excel spreadsheets to accommodate the four individual episodes and project totals. I came to see spreadsheets as something like crossword puzzles, where the game is to fill in every square.

What was the most challenging part of the process?

Without question, the most difficult part of the project was the effort to get footage from archives that would not grant access or made it difficult. There were several, with varying reasons and importance to the project, and they resolved in different ways. For political and politeness sake, I won’t go into details, but it was extremely stressful and we lost a lot of sleep over it. My hair was actually falling out in clumps.

Negotiating terms to meet our budget and ironing our contract language for so many different sources was also a challenge. Because we started ordering for the first hour before we knew what we were using in the fourth, it was especially awkward. I’m grateful to the archives who were willing to work with us on this.

Headshot_Remsberg.jpg
Rich Remsberg in his home studio.

What was your ‘eureka’ moment?

Hard to say, the production schedule didn’t leave much time for savoring in such things. Certainly, finding the footage of Marian Wright Edleman testifying before the Senate committee was an important moment. She speaks so unbelievably beautifully, and she laid out most of what we needed for the exposition of RFK’s southern poverty tours. It also alerted the team to her as a contemporary interview, and she added a lot to the film in that respect.

Another important moment was finding Howard K. Smith’s critical commentary on the Kennedys. There wasn’t much in the way of television news commentary in those early years – Smith and one other commentator were about it. I went through a lot of old TV listings to find references to the original aired programs, but the films were not in the ABC archives. There was a moment of panic, but then I managed to find surviving reels of enough of the programs at the University of Wisconsin. We were able to access from UW and clear with ABC.

Is there a specific piece of footage that you are the most proud of?

There are probably bigger moments to point to, but I liked a lot of the small details, mostly from local news archives, that helped paint a very human picture of Bobby – both the ways people connected with him and their deep dislike of him: Paul Newman’s terse comments from WTMJ, the woman with the excellent bouffant hairdo from Southern Methodist, a dozen different pieces from University of Georgia.

Bobby Kennedy for President

Did you use any international sources to bring fresh new perspectives to the story?

Only a British Pathé newsreel and a British interview that is now in an American archive. This was mostly a US-focused story. For the beats on RFK’s travel to Europe and South Africa, we mostly relied on coverage from the National Archives and the networks.

Could you tell us a bit more about your relationship with the director? How did the script evolve over time with the footage you found?

I worked with Dawn Porter, the director, and Laura Michalchyshyn, the Executive Producer, mostly on big-picture aspects of the project: tone, overall story, the nature of Bobby’s character, key elements, and so forth. Also on budget and legal concerns. For the more specific development, I worked closely with Elizabeth and Brian, considering how to fill story beats, figuring how best to use different pieces of archival, how the archival could build the story structure. As Elizabeth developed the script, there was a lot of her hitting me with requests and my finding the footage quickly to get it into the edit.

Everyone on the project favored using the best footage we could and figuring out how to clear and pay for it later. That made for some long days toward the end, but I think it paid off on the screen.

DawnPorter
Dawn Porter, the director of the series

Netflix is putting a strong focus on heavy archive-driven projects, proving that there is a real demand for the genre. What was the key to creating an immersive experience for a broad audience? How do you think the film appeals to a younger generation?

I think we’ve recently entered a golden age for archival documentaries. One of the best things about that is the platform allows for greater integrity of archival material. Rather than dropping bits of illustrative archival into one- to six-second slots during interviews, there is time for the archival to breathe, to create a more cohesive immersive environment, to convey subtlety, to suggest mood, to express more complex thoughts, to live with contradiction, to get a visceral feel for the atmosphere of the time. OJ was great about this, so was Wild Wild Country. We’re seeing it more and more. I’ve been saying that four hours is the new hour.

Another is that by virtue of being archival-driven it can be less mediated. Interviews can still offer some perspective and keep the story on track, but allowing the archival to carry the historical information leaves more space for the viewer to bring his or her own understanding to the story. I think the best films leave the audience with a complex understanding of the subject and room for different viewers to have different understanding.

I don’t know how many meetings I’ve been in where an executive producer says that young people just aren’t interested in history. I’ve never believed that to be true, and what I’ve found from talking to actual young people is that they expect the visuals to look good, and they don’t want the film to tell them what to think.

How do you think the movie resonates with the audience considering the current political and social developments in USA?

Hoo boy, this really merits a much longer rant, but in the interest of space, I’ll say that 1968 was a node in history where we might have taken a better path. It can be dangerous to play with counterfactual what-ifs, but it’s hard not to entertain at least a thought of that road not taken. I don’t harbor a simple belief that Bobby would have taken us into a beautiful sunlight-bathed world of compassion and justice, but he was an extremely powerful voice – arguably the best voice – for growing in a more mature way as a country, in understanding what it means to be an American citizen.

But here we are, a half century later, with the path taken, a selfish decline to the end of empire. At the same time, there are also other forces at work, and it’s right to ask where in that Bobby’s spirit dwells. It can certainly be found in much of the political resistence, of course, and I think it can be found in our individual sense of decency – not only in committed activists or people who even identify as especially political, just regular people whose conscience says, No that’s not okay; I recognize a different responsibility, and I feel something kinder.

We were never able to fit it into the film, but we tried working with the Dion song, “Abraham, Martin, and John.” It’s a romantic piece that misconceives the killing of Lincoln, JFK, King, and RFK. The part that still gives me chills, though, is the bridge where he asks the simple questions, “Didn’t you love the things they stood for? Didn’t they try to find some good in you and me?”


Rich Remsberg is part of Archive Valley’s community which boasts 500+ talented archive researchers in over 60 countries. If your production needs an archival researcher/producer, you can sign up and find the right person for the job in just a couple of easy steps.

 

Archive Researchers, Documentary Festivals, Rare footage

MIPDoc2018: Key takeaways from Archive Valley’s panel​ talk with James Hunt and Thorsten Pollfuss


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Archive Valley was thrilled to attend MIPDoc 2018. The event, dedicated to non-fiction programming, hosts 700 participants from over 50 countries—making it a perfect stage for Archive Valley to showcase our passion for archival footage and research. Our CEO Melanie Rozencwajg worked with an amazing team behind the event to organize and lead a panel discussion about the enormous potential of rare archives, and how they empower storytelling through unique global perspectives. The title of the panel was “Archives & Storytelling: Unearthing Unique Footage at a Global Scale.” 
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Archive Researchers, Rare footage

Thinking the Future of Archive Research with Fabrice Héron


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French Archive Researcher Fabrice Héron

For French iconographer and archive researcher Fabrice Héron, the job of archive researchers is “at the crossroads between [that of] historian and journalist.”

Getting his start in archival work during his studies at France’s Institut National Audiovisuel (INA) and while working at the media library at France Televisions, Héron has since built a career spanning over twenty years researching hundreds of subjects for television, feature documentary and feature fiction films from Attentats: Le visage de la terreur for France 3 to Nabil Ayouch’s Razzia, as well as consulting with publishers, museums and galleries. One of his recent projects had him researching and clearing amateur and professional footage from the 2011 protests that sparked the ongoing Syrian civil war. My Favorite Fabric directed by Gaya Jiji and produced by Gloria Films, will be presented in the Official Selection for ‘Un Certain Regard’ at the 2018 Festival de Cannes.

We caught up with Fabrice to learn about his latest work and hear his thoughts on the future of archival research in the television and film industries in France and beyond. (more…)

Documentary Festivals, Rare footage

SPOTLIGHT: 4 Archive-Driven Documentaries @ HotDocs2018


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We have prepared for you a short selection of films from this year’s edition of HotDocs that we expect to showcase some of the best work in the field of archive research in 2018. With the full line-up published, it was easy to spot the productions that rely on the meticulous research of both personal and external archive sources. Some of the productions will have their World/North American premieres making the festival a truly special moment for the filmmakers and researchers behind them. The selected films come from very different places, periods, each with a unique personal narrative making a great complete watching experience if you want to see all of them (something that we definitely will).

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