::Literate Blather::
Thursday, May 24, 2007
5 Questions About: Documentary Films

An Interview With Filmmaker John Michalczyk

(After seeing the recent documentary "Murderball" (2006)
, DaRK PaRTY became intrigued by the use of film to convey the truth – while at the same time giving viewers a powerful story line. We sought out documentary filmmaker John Michalczyk, whose films are often shown on PBS. John has an impressive resume of creating films that focus on social justice. Two of his recent movies include “Killing Silence: Taking on the Mafia in Sicily” (2004) and “South Africa: Beyond a Miracle” (2002). Michaelczyk, a former Jesuit priest, is chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Boston College and teaches film at the university).

DaRK PaRTY: What makes a good documentary?

John: As with real estate’s essence of location, location, and location, I believe the three most integral parts of a documentary are story, story, story. It is at the heart and soul of a documentary. The range of documentaries is vast, from the direct cinema of a horrifying tale of abuse in Fred Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), to the shattering experiences of the disabled in Murderball(2006), yet they each must have a story that can hold an audience that is often jaded by the popularity of the moving image. The documentary must share a unique experience with this audience that is over-exposed to the visual image, now in high definition.

DP: The most popular documentary filmmaker today is Michael Moore -- yet many of his peers are critical of his work. What is your view of Moore and his films?

John: The two most successful (popular and financially sound) documentary filmmakers are Michael Moore and Ken Burns. Both have shed light on a fractured America that needs healing. While Burns takes the high road of romanticizing the story with mesmerizing images, Moore gets to the heart and soul of an America that is truly hurting, whether it is the physical, psychological, and financial bankruptcy of the auto industry in “Roger and Me,” to the complete availability of weapons in our society that still may live by the code of the Wild West at times, and now to “Fahrenheit 9/11” as he exposes our government and president in all of its weakness concerning the current war in Iraq.

His new film on the health care industry, “Sicko,” will surely raise some of the same controversies of old. While Burns is the official film historian of America — taking the place of the former analyst of American institutions, Fred Wiseman — Moore is the guerrilla filmmaker who lives as a Socratic gadfly, provoking us, forcing us to re-examine the tenets of a fragile society. I appreciate Moore for the cleverness, tongue-in-cheek approach to the craft (at times, art) and delight is the freshness of his personal style. It is certainly not mine, but there is an important place in our society for this type of filmmaker.

DP: What three documentaries would you recommend and why?

John: Historically, I would seeNight and Fog” filmed in 1955 about the Holocaust a decade after World War II, as one of the more important documentaries to watch about man’s inhumanity to man. The unnerving conclusion of the film is that this genocide could happen again…. and it has, multiple times!

“Born into Brothels” (2003) offers an insight into a slice of Indian life in a section of a city that caters to prostitutes. Since its focus is on the next generation, the children, it is especially interesting to view as a window into the future. The cleverness of the story as it unfolds, and its freshness with the behavior of the children, renders it a very educational and entertaining work of art.

“Murderball dealing with an American wheelchair rugby team with disabilities is exciting to watch as the team prepares for its major athletic competitions. The viewer gets an insight into the psychology of those who are disabled, especially Mark Zupan, who some may think borders on psychotic at times, as does his former American coach.

DP: Your films, such as "Killing Silence: Taking on the Mafia in Sicily" and "Different Drummers: Daring to Make Peace in the Middle East" often focus on social justice. W
hat motivates you as a filmmaker?

John: Since 1991, our film crew has made approximately 15 films, mostly around an hour long for PBS. My passion is social justice. These films are very, very serious documentaries that oblige the viewer to rethink society, especially in the areas on racism and bigotry, conflict resolution, and disabilities.

I use films as an art form and as a vehicle to spread my own gospel of social justice without hitting the viewer over the head. If anything, I approach my work as trying to understand both sides in the conflict resolution series noted above. Through PBS television, I am able to get this “message” across to countless viewers, but it is in the intimate forum of a classroom or conference that I see the films making the most impact.

DP: Your films often focus on war and strife -- such as the conflict in northern Ireland and the violence in the Middle East -- what draws you to the subject of warfare?

John: I was born during World War II, grew up during the Korean War, and strongly protested the Vietnam War. My courses in film history and in interdisciplinary studies often focus on the literature, art, and film of war. I see war as the arena where the human psyche is pushed to its breaking point, showing courage or cowardice, wisdom or folly. I am especially sensitive to the post-traumatic stress that occurs in the wake of these wars and have published with my wife on trauma and warfare in veterans returning from war. Seeing the veterans from the current war returning critically damaged in body and soul, I feel great pain. My mind and camera go beyond the battlefield to the home and the heart.

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