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Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part Two

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The following is the second half of a two-part interview with Godfrey Cheshire [below] by House Next Door contributor Jeremiah Kipp. Part one focused on Cheshire’s influential two-part New York Press article “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema”, and explored how Cheshire’s predictions had or had not come true. This installment focuses on nonfiction film, the hazards of independent distribution, and Cheshire’s own filmmaking debut, a documentary titled Moving Midway.

Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part Two

Do you think that the Death of Film, and the major changes in the world, have been an impetus for documentaries to gain the level of attention and prominence that they have? The death of film leads to the emergence of video, and the proliferation of video has allowed a lot more documentaries to be made.

The technology of low-budget filmmaking through video has allowed more people to make documentaries. It has made the whole food chain of documentary production, exhibition and distribution much more cost effective and easier for people in terms of making the films and getting viewer access to them. That has definitely stimulated things. Also, documentaries allow people to engage with what’s happening with the world, as I said before. Documentaries in many cases aren’t being produced by TV networks, which are doing the same sort of thing but very much under the corporate mandate. People understand that. You’re able to presume that what’s represented will be an independent viewpoint. In most cases, it’s a liberal or progressive viewpoint, but the key thing is that it is individual. A lot of that is in reaction to how corporate the media has become, especially television media, because whether or not Edward R. Murrow was the great hero that George Clooney would like us to believe, there was a greater chance for a strong individual point-of-view in the [news and nonfiction programs] of decades past. The corporate mandate has soured people on recent TV, and they distrust the coverage of such things as the War in Iraq [seen in such theatrical documentaries as Occupation Dreamland]. TV has tried to make up some lost ground with its Hurricane Katrina coverage, which has been the answer to Iraq. Michael Moore or Barbara Kopple or any individual documentary maker and can go out with relatively little money, make something, and get it in front of people that is heretical to any corporate party line. This is why movies are going to retain a certain cultural importance for a long time to come—specifically because of this.

But the rise of documentaries is related to the decline of European auteurs, and the failure of significant American auteurs to arise from and remain in the independent world in very significant numbers. If you look at the whole Sundance phenomenon, there was such promise there, but while you’ve got a few interesting directors coming up, most of them just go on to the majors or whatever. In the past, people would go to the independent theaters and art theaters for foreign films, and specifically the great tradition of European films. That has dried up.

Two Americans we might consider as auteurs are Michael Almereyda and Hal Hartley. However, these guys can’t satisfy the bottom line for distributors, so they have switched to video. Almereyda did two documentaries on video while his feature film Happy Here and Now couldn’t find a distributor, and after Hal Hartley got critically and financially slammed for No Such Thing he made a digital movie for practically nothing. Video allows them to take to the streets as it were and make something when they aren’t receiving any financing. Is video keeping a certain kind of auteur alive?

Video is allowing beginning artists as well as established artists who have been marginalized commercially to keep going. There is usefulness to it there. But it’s not like it’s going to make a higher grade of artistic product within the whole Sundance phenomenon or the independent phenomenon. It’s probably going to end up diluting it. But the question for critics and consumers becomes, “How do you filter out all the junk and find something that has meaning for you?” We’re seeing this whole system of gatekeepers changing very rapidly, with a Wellspring getting swallowed up by a Weinstein Company—which doesn’t have the artistic impetus it may have had in the early 1990s. We’re seeing individual critics undermined in terms of the number of outlets to write in, what their outlets will allow them to cover, how much [space] they get, and that’s in some ways being altered by the blogosphere and things like that. We’re still in a stage where we have art film distributors, for example, that go to the foreign festivals and still put out some foreign films, but I’m afraid that’s on its last legs. It’s been in such decline since I wrote that article in 1999 that it wouldn’t be surprising if a few years from now you could only see foreign films on DVD. Maybe some would open in New York or Los Angeles just to get the advertising, but we really aren’t far away from that.

You still write film reviews for The Independent Weekly but have started branching off into other areas.

I have three film projects that I am involved with right now, so I am in the process of jumping the fence between film criticism and filmmaking. This is something I did not know I would do a few years ago. I was happily occupied with being a film critic in the 1990s, but when I parted company with New York Press at the end of 2000, I thought about where I’d like to go from here. I imagined the best scenario, saying what if I got the best job in the world, writing for a magazine that paid me tons of money and I could write whatever I wanted to—is that where I would like to be in 10 years? I realized no, that’s not, because it’s not a new horizon or a new opportunity. When I thought it all through, I realized the area of challenge and opportunity that I would like to try at this point in my life, if I was ever going to do it, was filmmaking. But it’s funny to verbalize it like that, because I didn’t make the decision to make films. It was going on in my subconscious. These film projects came along and said, “You need to do me now.” It wasn’t like I went out looking for them. Those projects were there. It was something I hadn’t done, very different and very demanding, and if I accomplished it I would feel like I have done something.

Can you describe the film projects?

Two of the films involve me as a screenwriter, and are based on historical subjects. One has to do with the Middle East, and the other has to do with American political history. But the project that is furthest along is a documentary I am making about my family’s plantation in North Carolina. This plantation, where I spent a lot of time growing up as a kid, had a very strong hold on my imagination. My cousin, who is a little older than me, inherited it a few years ago and announced that he was going to take all the buildings from where they stood since they were built in the 1840s and move them to a new location. The reason was that the city of Raleigh was encroaching on the buildings so drastically that it was not pleasant to live there, like the bucolic country we had when we were kids. That decision on his part sparked a lot of controversy within my family, and those conflicted feelings are present in the film.

But it’s not just about moving the plantation. It also considers what plantations really were in history versus the mythology that was created through popular culture—especially the movies. The Birth of a Nation was supposedly based in part on our family. I also delved into our family’s relationships to the descendents of our slaves. I have met a professor of African-American studies at NYU whose name is Robert Hinton, who said he said his grandfather was born a slave on our plantation. He’s a great guy, we’ve had a really good time, and we’re looking at the plantation through the lens of race and the effects that it has on American culture down to right now.

What is your role in the documentary?

I’m writer, director and producer, along with two other producers. It’s a big project. I discovered that ultimately this would all depend on my abilities as a writer. As you can imagine, it’s very different than my life, routine and work practice as a journalist.

Does your documentary take an objective or subjective approach?

It’s very first person. I have sort of half-joked that it is my Ross McElwee film. But in fact, North Carolina is interesting because it has this whole tradition of first person documentaries, including filmmakers like McElwee, Macky Alston and Tim Kirkman. I feel like I am fitting in with that tradition in my own way.

Are you in the film?

That’s a tricky question. I went into the film without thinking about that at all. But I had to be on camera while having conversations with my cousins, for example, since it wouldn’t make sense to be off camera all the time. When I put together a trailer I told people, “I don’t want to be on camera,” but they said I was a good character and should include myself more. That was strange, looking at my family and myself as characters in a movie. It’s difficult to be objective. But leaving me aside, I’ve had to turn a lot of the material over to my editor because he can see it through the third person very naturally. I have to get into that same mode of thinking to see these people on the screen no matter if they are my family or my life. I have to look at the film as a construct, as almost a fiction, even though it is implicitly trying to deal with history versus fiction.

I assume this is shot on video.

Yes, it is. There is a fine irony for you. Me, the great defender of film and celluloid—but there was no other way, practically, to do it. When they moved the plantation last summer, we shot over several days with seven camera crews. The footage looks spectacular, and to do that amount of shooting on film would have been impossible.

Would you be interested in directing narrative films next?

People have often asked me if I want to direct dramatic movies. It’s not really a goal, or something I feel drawn towards. I feel much more natural in the role of writer, first of all, and secondly a producer putting all the pieces together. I would be perfectly happy doing just those two things. But if a project comes along where I think I would be better at directing than someone else, that’s how that would happen.

While you were making this film about your family and where you’re from, did you have any epiphanies? Have you learned more about where you are right now by looking back at where you’ve come from?

Maybe it’s a little like psychotherapy or something, but it is more cultural psychotherapy than individual psychotherapy. It has made me think about race, for one thing. You’re constantly thinking about that if you’re an American, especially a southerner who comes from this past of plantation owners, and at the same time you see how much race is so much a part of American political life in the smallest and most intimate ways.

This doesn’t mean I’m converting to anyone’s orthodoxy. No northern academic who writes a p.c. book about the South’s political sins is going to tell me how I should relate to my past. But as I said it does open my eyes to the reality of history versus the convenient myths about history that people live by, and all children live by.

It has me thinking about imagination, and how we all operate according to imaginary constructs, and how those things are very necessary and enriching while at the same time being negative. I suppose rather than one or two epiphanies, I’ve had a gradual feeling of unfolding and realization, and some of it has been very emotional. I have no idea where I’m going to come out, since I’m still on the voyage.

We’ve shot about 85% of the film now, and I’m going to be doing intensive editing here in the next three months. I hope to have a rough cut by the summer, then we’ll examine what we’ve got and decide where to go from there.