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Sandhills life gets big screen due thanks to filmmaker Georg Joutras and his “Ocean of Grass”


Oceans of grass

 

Sandhills life gets big screen due thanks to filmmaker Georg Joutras and his “Ocean of Grass”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the March-April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine

This decade has found Nebraska’s wide open spaces pictured on the big screen more than ever before. First came the melancholic, madcap road trip of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska in 2013. Then, in 2018, came the Coen Brothers’ Western anthology fable The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Earlier that same year Georg Joutras debuted his documentary Ocean of Grass about a year in the life of a Sandhills ranch family.

Where Payne and the Coens use Nebraska landscapes and skyscapes as metaphoric backdrops for archetypal but fictional portraits of Great Plains life, Joutras takes a deeply immersive, reality-based look at rural rhythms. Joutras celebrates the people who work the soil, tend the animals and endure the weather.

As Hollywood dream machine products by renowned filmmakers, Nebraska and Buster Scruggs enjoyed multi-million dollar budgets and national releases. Ocean of Grass, meanwhile. is a self-financed work by an obscure, first-time filmmaker whose small but visually stunning doc is finding audiences one theater at a time.

For his truly independent, DIY passion project, he spent countless hours at the McGinn ranch north of Broken Bow, Aside from an original music score by Tom Larson, Joutras served as a one-man band – handling everything from producing-directing to cinematography to editing. He’s releasing the feature-length doc via his own Reconciliation Hallucination Studio. In classic road-show fashion he delivers the film to each theater that books it and often does Q&As.

A decade earlier Joutras self-published a photo illustration book, A Way of Life, about the same ranch. The 56-year-old is a lifelong still photographer who feels “attuned to nature”. He operated his own gallery in Lincoln, where he resides. A chance encounter there with Laron McGinn, who makes art when not running the four-generation family ranch, led to Joutras visiting that expanse and becoming enamored with The Life.

Joutras, who grew up in Ogallala from age 11 on, had never stayed on a ranch or stopped in the Sandhills until the book. Those were places to drive past or through. That all changed once he spent time there.

Ogallala became his home when he moved there with his family after stints in his native New Jersey, then Florida and Texas, for his sales executive father’s jobs.

Joutras is not the first to create a film profile of a Nebraska ranch family, A few years before he moved to Ogallala, a caravan of Hollywood rebels arrived. In 1968, Francis Ford Coppola, along with a crew that included George Lucas and a cast headed by Robert Duvall, James Caan and Shirley Knight, shot the final few weeks of Coppola’s dramatic feature The Rain People. That experience introduced Duvall to an area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, who became the subjects of his 1977 documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which filmed in and around Ogallala.

The McGinns’ ranching ways may have never been lensed by Joutras if not for his meeting Laron McGinn. Joutras had left a successful tech career that saw him develop a Point of Sale system for Pearl Vision and an automated radio system (PSI) acquired by Clear Channel. Having made his fortune, he retired to focus on photography. He did fine selling prints of his work. Then he met McGinn and produced A Way of Life – one of several photo books he produced.

 A Way of Life: Ranching on the Plains of America,  a book written by Georg Joutras was the inspiration of his documentary film  Ocean of Grass  that will

A Way of Life: Ranching on the Plains of America, a book written by Georg Joutras was the inspiration of his documentary film Ocean of Grass that will be shown at the Hippodrome Arts Centre in Julesburg on Tuesday, January 8, and Thursday, January 10 with showings at 7 p.m. (Courtesy Photo)

Joutras only got around to doing the film after his family gifted him with a video camera. He began documenting things on the ranch. After investing in higher-end equipment he decided to ditch the year’s worth of filming he’d shot with his old gear to begin anew.

“It was evident immediately the picture quality was so much better than what I had shot the prior year that I was going to have to shoot it all again. So I put another year into shooting everything that goes on out there,” Joutras says. “I basically worked alongside the folks at the ranch. When something happened I thought I should capture, then I’d go into cinematographer mode.”

Upon premiering the film in Kansas City and Broken Bow, he discovered it resonates with folks, Sold-out screenings there have been followed by many more across Nebraska. The reviews are ecstatic.

“People are getting something out of this film,” he says, “They say it reflects the Nebraska ethos. I never did this film anticipating I’d make even one dollar on it. I just had this story I really wanted to tell. It’s certainly achieved much more than I thought it would. It’s done well enough that I’ve recouped pretty much what I put into it.”

Joutras believes his film connects with viewers because of how closely it captures a certain lifestyle. The rapport he developed and trust he earned over time with the McGinns paid dividends.

“I got the footage I did by being around enough and being embedded with them and being part of the crew that works out there. I wanted to earn my keep a little bit and they let me feed cows and run fence and check water. You have to be around enough to where you’re nothing special – you just kind of blend into the background.”

His depiction of a people and place without adornment or agenda is a cinema rarity.

“What I was really trying to capture was the feeling of this place – what it feels like to be out there among the people, the cows, the wind, the sun, the cold. Everything that makes it special. You’re seeing the real thing. Everything in the film is as it happened. Nothing was staged.

“These people are authentic. What they’re doing is authentic. Pretty much everyone you come in contact with in the ranching environment is their own boss. People don’t have to fake who they are. It’s really the American story of hard work trumps everything.”

The film makes clear these are no country bumpkins.

“They are some of the smartest people I know,” Joutras says. “They know how things work and are very articulate expressing their beliefs. By the end of the film I think you understand and admire them,”

He feels viewers fall under the same Sandhills spell that continues captivating him.

“The quality of life I think is exceptional. The pace of life slows down. You get to see real Americans doing real hands-on, get-in-the-mud work.”

He tried conveying in the film what he feels there.

“Out there I feel more in touch with nature and what’s important in life. I feel more grounded. I feel I can breath better. It’s really just a feeling of peace.”

The rough-hewn spirit and soul of it is perhaps best embodied by family patriarch Mike McGinn.

“Mike’s a great guy. He’s sneaky funny. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being in a pickup with him going out to feed cows, which can take half the day or more. He was always reluctant to talk on camera. His was the last interview we got, and it’s just gold. He has all the great lines in the film.

“We got him to watch the film and at the end he turned to me and said, ‘That’s my entire life right there.’ That was a great moment for me.”

Rather than hire a narrator to frame the story, the only voices heard are those of the ranchers.”because they said it better than anyone,” Joutras says.

Beyond the McGinns and their hands, the film’s major character is the Sandhills.

“From a visual standpoint there’s nothing that gets me more excited than attempting to capture really interesting and varied scenic shots that speak to people. The Sandhills are beautiful beyond belief in all their details – from the grass to the slope of the hills to the clouds coming across the prairie to the sound of the wind. It all works together.”

He acquired evocative overhead shots by mounting cameras to drones. The aerial images give the film an epic scope.

Ocean’s visuals have made him a cinematographer for hire. He’s contributing to three films, including a documentary about the women of Route 66.

Future Nebraska-based film projects he may pursue  range from rodeo to winemaking.

Meanwhile, he’s pitching Film Streams to screen Ocean.

“We’ll get it into Omaha one way or another.” More out-of-state screenings are in the worked.

Nebraska Educational Television has expressed interest. PBS is not out of the question.

Joutras is just glad his “little film that can” is getting seen, winning fans and giving the Sandhillls their due.

Visit the film’s website at http://www.oceanofgrassfilm.com.

Watch the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNV6E5ihjP0.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

sandhills grass

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In their own words – The Greatest Generation on World War II

May 2, 2017 2 comments

Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is the second of two stories I wrote for that issue that I’m posting on my social media. Omahans Shawn Schmidt and Jill Anderson are putting aside their divergent political beliefs to collaborate on a documentary, “48 Stars,” that tells personal stories of World War II through the words and eyes of veterans and others who lived through that epoch. 

 

In their own words

The Greatest Generation on World War II

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Members of the Greatest Generation tell their own stories in a locally produced documentary, 48 Stars. The in-progress film features personal testimonies from World War II veterans.

War buff Shawn Schmidt conceived the project. His co-director is Jill Anderson. The Omaha filmmakers are unlikely collaborators. He’s a holistic health care provider and former race car owner-driver. She’s a singer-actress. He’s unabashedly patriotic. She’s not. But they’re both committed to telling authentic stories of resilience.

They met while she was a patient under his care. After sharing CDs of her Celtic music, he was taken by her rendition of “Fare Thee Well.”

“It was not just the music, but Jill’s voice. That song fits everything this film has to say about that generation,” Schmidt says. “They’re disappearing, and the interviews we did are like their final swan song. It gave them a final chance to have their say about their country, their life, where America is today, where America is going.”

Originally hired as music director, Anderson’s role expanded. Filmmaker Aaron Zavitz joined the team as editor and creative consultant.

Forty-plus interviews were captured nationwide, mostly with veterans ranging across different military branches and racial-ethnic backgrounds. Some saw combat. Some didn’t. Civilians were also interviewed about their contributions and sacrifices, including women who lost spouses in the war. Even stories of conscientious objectors were cultivated. Subjects shared stories not only of the war, but of surviving the Great Depression that preceded World War II.

With principal photography completed, editing the many hours of footage is underway. The filmmakers are still seeking funding to finish the post-production process.

The film’s title refers to the number of stars—representing states—displayed on the American flag during World War II. Each interviewee is framed with or near a particular 48-starred flag that inspired the project. Schmidt rescued it from a junk store. On a visit to Pearl Harbor’s war memorials, he had the flag raised on the USS Arizona and USS Missouri.

He grew up respecting veterans like his late father, Richard W. Schmidt—a Navy Seabee in the Pacific theater. His father died without telling his story for posterity.

“It dawned on me I could interview other veterans and have them hold this flag, almost like a testimonial to what this piece of fabric is about,” Schmidt says.

He added that combat veterans’ accounts of warfare teem with emotion.

“There’s a distinct difference in energy, pain, and identification with their country and flag from the ones who did not have to kill. The ones who did kill are still hurting, and they’ll hurt till the day they die,” he says.

Whatever their job during the war, Anderson says, “There were discoveries with every new person we talked to. It’s humbling that people trust you with some of their most soulful experiences and memories.”

Schmidt says, “They opened up with stories sometimes they’d never shared with their family. I think, for a lot of them, it’s a catharsis.”

There are tales of love and loss, heroism and hate, improbable meetings, close calls, intersections with infamy, history, and fate.

Not all the attitudes expressed are sunny. Some folks became anti-war activists. Others returned home to endure Jim Crow bigotry.

Anderson says the film intentionally depoliticizes the flag: “It can’t be about God and country or honoring glory because that doesn’t match with the testimony.”

Schmidt feels an urgency to finish the project. “The generation that has the most to teach us is leaving,” he says.

He won’t rush it though.

“It’s a serious responsibility,” Schmidt says. “[The film] needs to honor these individuals who gave their time, and it’ll be done when it’s exactly right.”

Visit 48stars.org for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

 

The tail-gunner’s grandson: Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

May 2, 2017 3 comments

Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is one of two stories I wrote for that issue. It tells the story of the late Wendell Fetters through the eyes of his grandson, Omaha filmmaker Ben Drickey, who accompanied his grandfather on a trip to Europe visiting the sites of some intense and bittersweet wartime experiences. The emotional trip gave Drickey, who was there to document it all, a new path for this life’s work. His footage of that experience brought things full circle for his grandfather and gave his family the precious gift of an intimate look back into the past.

 

 

The tail-gunner’s grandson

Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.

Drickey’s video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.

Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters’ stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.

On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.

Fetters’ chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.

Ben Drickey of Torchwerks

Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane’s crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane’s manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.

“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.

“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend’s camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.

With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.

Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.

He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”

The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.

“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”

Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.

After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.

She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.

“My grandfather said, ‘No, no, no, let’s go,’” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn’t come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn’t know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”

As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he’d come too far not to go back, so he did.

“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.

He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.

The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.

“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.

His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”

Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.

His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.

Visit torchwerks.com for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

Hot Movie Takes Saturday – FIVE CAME BACK


Hot Movie Takes Saturday – FIVE CAME BACK

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Five Legendary Filmmakers went to war:

John Ford

William Wyler

Frank Capra

George Stevens

John Huston

Five Contemporary Filmmakers take their measure:

Paul Greengrass

Steven Spielberg

Guillermo del Toro

Lawrence Kasdan

Francis Ford Coppola

 

When the United States entered World War II these five great Hollywood filmmakers were asked by the government to apply their cinema tools to aid the war effort. They put their lucrative careers on hold to make very different documentaries covering various aspects and theaters of the war. They were all masters of the moving picture medium before their experiences in uniform capturing the war for home-front audiences, but arguably they all came out of this service even better, and certainly more mature, filmmakers than before. Their understanding of the world and of human nature grew as they encountered the best and worst angels of mankind on display.

The story of their individual odysseys making these U.S, government films is told in a new documentary series, “Five Came Back,” now showing on Netflix. The series is adapted from a book by the same title authored by Mark Harris. The documentary is structured so that five contemporary filmmakers tell the stories of the legendary filmmakers’ war work. The five contemporary filmmakers are all great admirers of their subjects. Paul Greengrass kneels at the altar of John Ford; Steven Spielberg expresses his awe of William Wyler; Guillermo del Toro rhapsodizes on Frank Capra; Lawrence Kasdan gushes about George Stevens; and Francis Ford Coppola shares his man crush on John Huston. More than admiration though, the filmmaker narrators educate us so that we can have more context for these late filmmakers and appreciate more fully where they came from, what informed their work and why they were such important artists and storytellers.

 

 

The Mission Begins

As World War II begins, five of Hollywood’s top directors leave success and homes behind to join the armed forces and make films for the war effort.

Watch The Mission Begins. Episode 1 of Season 1.
 

Combat Zones

Now in active service, each director learns his cinematic vision isn’t always attainable within government bureaucracy and the variables of war.

Watch Combat Zones. Episode 2 of Season 1.
 

The Price of Victory

At the war’s end, the five come back to Hollywood to re-establish their careers, but what they’ve seen will haunt and change them forever.

Watch The Price of Victory. Episode 3 of Season 1.

 

Ford was a patriot first and foremost  and his “The Battle of Midway” doc fit right into his work portraying the American experience. For Wyler, a European Jew, the Nazi menace was all too personal for his family and he was eager to do his part with propaganda. For Capra, an Italian emigre, the Axis threat was another example of powerful forces repressing the liberty of people. The “Why He Fight” series he produced and directed gave him a forum to sound the alarm. A searcher yearning to break free from the constraints of light entertainment, Stevens used the searing things he documented during the war, including the liberation of death camps, as his evolution into becoming a dramatist. Huston made perhaps the most artful of the documentaries. His “Let There Be Light” captured in stark terms the debilitating effects of PTSD or what was called shell shock then. His “Report from the Aleutians” portrays the harsh conditions and isolation of the troops stationed in Arctic. And his “The Battle of San Pietro” is a visceral, cinema verite masterpiece of ground war.

The most cantankerous of the bunch, John Ford, was a conservative who held dear his dark Irish moods and anti-authoritarian sentiments. Yet, he also loved anything to do with the military and rather fancied being an officer. He could be a real SOB on his sets and famously picked on certain cast and crew members to receive the brunt of his withering sarcasm and pure cussedness. His greatest star John Wayne was not immune from this mean-spiritedness and even got the brunt of it, in part because Wayne didn’t serve during the war when Ford and many of his screen peers did.

Decades before he was enlisted to make films during the Second World War, he made a film, “Four Sons,” about the First World War, in which he did not serve.

Following his WWII stint, Ford made several great films, one of which, “They Were Expendable,” stands as one of the best war films ever made. His deepest, richest Westerns also followed in this post-war era, including “Rio Grande,” “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Searchers,” “The Horse Soldiers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Another war film he made in this period, “The Wings of Eagles,” is another powerful work singular for its focus on a real-life character (played by Wayne) who endures great sacrifices and disappointments to serve his country in war.

Even before the war Ford injected dark stirrings of world events in “The Long Voyage Home.”

 

Five-Came-Back-Netflix-Capra-Spielberg-Coppola-Guillermo-del-Toro-Patheos-Netflix

 

William Wyler had already established himself as a great interpreter of literature and stage works prior to the war. His subjects were steeped in high drama. Before the U.S. went to war but was already aiding our ally Great Britain, he made an important film about the conflict, “Mrs. Miniver,” that brought the high stakes involved down to a very intimate level. The drama portrays the war’s effects on one British family in quite personal terms. After WWII, Wyler took this same closely observed human approach to his masterpiece, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which makes its focus the hard adjustment that returning servicemen faced in resuming civilian life after having seen combat. This same humanism informs Wyler’s subsequent films, including “The Heiress,” “Roman Holiday,” “Carrie,” “The Big Country” and “Ben-Hur.”

Wyler, famous for his many takes and inability to articulate what he wanted (he knew it when he saw it), was revered for extracting great performances. He didn’t much work with Method actors and I think some of his later films would have benefited from the likes of Brando and Dean and all the rest. One of the few times he did work with a Method player resulted in a great supporting performance in a great film – Montgomery Clift in “The Heiress.” Indeed, it’s Clift we remember more than the stars, Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson.

 

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Frank Capra was the great populist director of the Five Who Came Back and while he became most famous for making what are now called dramedies. he took a darker path entering and exiting WWII, first with “Meet John Doe” in 1941 and then with “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946 and “State of the Union” in 1948. While serious satire was a big part of his work before these, Capra’s bite was even sharper and his cautionary tales of personal and societal corruption even bleaker than before. Then he seemed to lose his touch with the times in his final handful of films. But for sheer entertainment and impact, his best works rank with anyone’s and for my tastes anyway those three feature films from ’41 through ’48 are unmatched for social-emotional import.

Before the war George Stevens made his name directing romantic and screwball comedies, even an Astaire-Rogers musical, and he came out of the war a socially conscious driven filmmaker. His great post-war films all tackle universal human desires and big ideas: “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane,” “Giant,” “The Diary of Anne Frank.” For my tastes anyway his films mostly lack the really nuanced writing and acting of his Five Came Back peers, and that’s why I don’t see him in the same category as the others. In my opinion Stevens was a very good but not great director. He reminds me a lot of Robert Wise in that way.

That brings us to John Huston. He was the youngest and most unheralded of the five directors who went off to war. After years of being a top screenwriter, he had only just started directing before the U.S. joined the conflict. His one big critical and commercial success before he made his war-effort documentaries was “The Maltese Falcon.” But in my opinion he ended up being the best of the Five Who Came Back directors. Let this list of films he made from the conclusion of WWII through his death sink in to get a grasp of just what a significant body of work he produced:

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Asphalt Jungle

Key Largo

The Red Badge of Courage

Heaven Knows Mr. Allison

Beat the Devil

Moby Dick

The Unforgiven

The Misfits

Freud

The List of Adrian Messenger

The Night of the Iguana

Reflections in a Golden Eye

Fat City

The Man Who Would Be King

Wiseblood

Under the Volcano

Prizzi’s Honor

The Dead

That list includes two war films, “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison,” that are intensely personal perspectives on the struggle to survive when danger and death are all around you. Many of his other films are dark, sarcastic ruminations on how human frailties and the fates sabotage our desires, schemes and quests.

I believe Huston made the most intelligent, literate and best-acted films of the five directors who went to war. At least in terms of their post-war films. The others may have made films with more feeling, but not with more insight. Huston also took more risks than they did both in terms of subject matter and techniques. Since the other directors’ careers started a full decade or more before his, they only had a couple decades left of work in them while Huston went on making really good films through the 1970s and ’80s.

Clearly, all five directors were changed by what they saw and did during the war and their work reflected it. We are the ultimate beneficiaries of what they put themselves on the line for because those experiences led them to inject their post-war work with greater truth and fidelity about the world we live in. And that’s really all we can ask for from any filmmaker.

 

Some thoughts on the HBO documentary “My Fight” about Terence Crawford

July 12, 2016 3 comments

Terence Crawford: My Fight – Trailer (HBO Boxing)

 

Play Video

This video is hosted from http://www.youtube.com
 
Some thoughts on the HBO documentary “My Fight” about Terence Crawford

©by Leo Adam Biga

There are sections of contemporary life in this city that most Omahans would rather forget and would certainly do everything to avoid because they represent uncomfortable truths and realities. Terence Crawford’s rise to professional prizefighting’s upper ranks cannot be divorced from where he grew up and from where he still has his heart and continues to have a strong presence. That place is northeast Omaha. The inner city. The Hood. Its tough people and conditions formed and forged him. Rarely if ever is there a screen portrait of that community that goes beyond stereotype or surface. Usually, those screen representations are TV news reports about the aftemath of violent crimes. Over and over again. An exception is the new HBO documentary “My Fight” that profiles Terence in advance of his July 23 title fight with Viktor Postol. It shows an authentic glimpse of the neighborhood and streets, the family and friends he comes from. Not all of northeast Omaha is like what is portrayed. It’s a more diverse landscape than this or any media report paints it to be. But his film gives us a well-rounded look at this man’s life. His routines, his hangouts, his grandmother’s home, his childhood block, his church, his gym, his fishing spot. It’s good for all Omahans to see this film because it does, as much as any one film can, virtually place you there in that community and lifestyle. The psychic-social-cultural-economic-political barriers that continue separating folks are not going away anytime soon but maybe a film like this can at least help put folks there who would never venture there other than maybe for a church mission project. It shows that we’re all just people doing the best that we can. In Terence Crawford, northeast Omaha has a local hero and champion in a way that’s it’s never quite had before. Along the way, as the film makes clear, he’s become Omaha’s hometown champion who is embraced by diverse fans. Perhaps there is more to Terence’s ascendance than we know. Perhaps he can be a unifying figure. He has stayed in Omaha. He remains true to his roots. But at the end of the day he is only one man and this is only one film. Unless and until we can openly, freely and without fear or judgement sit down and break bread together, work together and live together in every part of the city, then a film like this will remain a safe way for people to look with curiosity at how the other half lives and leave it at that. Sadly, that is still how it is in much of Omaha. Maybe just maybe though we can all rally behind Terence and what he wants for his community, which is opportunity and justice.

Northeast Omaha has only been portrayed on film a handful of times. There was “A Time for Burning” Then “Wigger” Now add to the list the new HBO documentary “My Fight” that profiles Terence Crawford in the inner city neighborhood and community that he sprang from and that he still has close ties to. Meet some of the key people in his life. You get a real sense for how things are there and for the people he is a part of. Those conditions and characters made him who he is. Click below to watch the full film, which is produced at a very high level. I have covered Terence for a few years now and my stories touch on just about everything the film does. I even went to Africa with Bud. I accompanied him on one of his two trips to Uganda and Rwanda with Pipeline Worldwide’s Jamie Nollette. I have charted his life story in and out of boxing and I look forward to doing more of this as his journey continues.

Link to my stories about The Champ at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=terence+crawford

Come to my July 21 Omaha Press Club Noon Forum presentation Seeing Africa with Terence Crawford and Pipeline–
https://www.facebook.com/events/1019250964856726/

Terence Crawford takes you to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, Terence Crawford faces Viktor Postol on Saturday, July 23 live on pay-per-view…

 

In Memoriam: Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

May 7, 2016 5 comments

In August it will be three years since the death of my friend and frequent subject, documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, an Omaha native who made a great success for herself in Boston and New York City. Her films won awards and critical kudos. They often played on PBS. She was fascinated by a lot of things but she was particularly attracted to fellow creatives and artists, and thus some of her best known and most seen work explored the inner workings and demons of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Cab Calloway, and Jeff Bridges. Perhaps the film that got her the most attention was Making the Misfits,  an examination of that strange, wonderful, and star-struck amalgam of talent on that great American film The Misfits, whose cast included Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter. John Huston directed a script written by Arthur Miller. The following piece is something I was commissioned to write about Gail upon her death by her brother and sister in law. They knew of my personal and professional association with her and I was much honored that they would think of me to attempt to do justice to her life and career. We sent this piece to select media, including The New York Times, and the obit writer from The Times did follow up with me to ask me several questions. Some of what I wrote also ended up in an Omaha World-Herald piece. When I think of Gail, I think of high energy and deep passion. She was another of the hundreds of Nebraskans who came out of here to do great things in film. Her brother David and I have become friends and we have tried, so far without success, to interest local organizations in supporting a tribute program to Gail and her work. She left behind an immense and important archival collection of correspondence, photographs, tapes, scripts, and notes related to completed and unfinished work. She interviewed and corresponded with dozens of great artists over a four decade period. We do hope the materials find a good home and that her work can be remembered via an exhibition and/or repertory series.

On my blog, http://www.leoadambiga.com, you can search for additional stories I wrote about Gail and her work.

 

Gail Levin

 

In Memoriam

Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

 

If you’re a devotee of public television then chances are you saw the work of the late nonfiction filmmaker Gail Levin. The Omaha native and longtime New York City resident died July 31 in a NYC hospice care facility at age 67 after a long fight with breast cancer.

Outside Ken Burns and Errol Morris, documentary filmmakers are rarely household names. Levin herself was little known to the general public but her award-winning films were seen by millions on such PBS-carried series as American Masters and Great Performances.

Possessing an animated personality, intense curiosity and keen visual sense, Levin left an impression wherever she went and she leaves behind a body of work that will endure.

“Gail was an enormous creative force as a filmmaker and a creative thinker. I worked on many projects with her and she became a very good friend as well, and I’m very sad,” said American Masters creator and executive producer Susan Lacy. “Her films sort of had a poetic quality to them that is missing in many documentaries and she had a depth in the way she told stories. You could always tell a Gail film because she was so visual. She really understood the power of an image.

“Most documentary filmmakers work within a limited vocabulary, She did not want her vocabulary limited, and I really admired her.”

Levin made films about many subjects but came to be best known for her documentaries about cinema greats Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Marilyn Monroe: Still Life (2006) explored the complicity of the sex goddess and the photographers who most worked with her in creating images that remain potent pop culture symbols today. Her struggles with fame and her eventual premature death forever fixed her as an alluring, beguiling figure in the collective consciousness.

James Dean: Sense Memories (2005) examined the many layers of the brilliant actor who blazed a hot trail in New York and Hollywood with his quirky Method style and unconventional lifestyle. His tragic death in a car crash at age 24 forever cemented his status as a rebel symbol.

Both the Monroe and Dean films earned CINE Golden Eagle Awards and were featured in Montreal’s International festival of Films on Art.

Another of her well known works, Making the Misfits (2002), delved into the personal machinations that went on behind the scenes of the 1961 John Huston-directed feature film The Misfits and its cast of doomed icons Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

Two of her most recently telecast films were profiles of actor-musicians separated by distinct cultures and generations. In Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides she revealed the man behind the cool enigma of signature roles in such acclaimed post-modern films as The Big Lebowski. In Cab Calloway; Sketches she celebrated the multi-talented black entertainer’s impact on jazz and dance and his role in the Harlem Renaissance.

For the Calloway piece she incorporated animation by noted editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner. She previously collaborated with Brodner on the multi-platform political satire series The Naked Campaign during the 2008 presidential election.

She served as a series producer on Picturing America on Screen, an online, on-air National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS collaborative focus on how American art treasures illuminate American history and lore. She was also a producer/director of host introductions and other program content for the PBS ARTS Fall Festival.

Some of her favorite work came producing segments for the A&E cable network’s Revue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles of artists. She particularly enjoyed the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions.

“I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin,” she said in an interview. “I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.”

Other notables she profiled included Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Levin had two major film projects in-progress at the time of her death: a portrait of Hollywood photographer Sam Shaw; and the recreation of conversations between cinema giants Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, whose critical analysis helped turn Hitch from popular suspense director into serious auteur.

The 1965 Omaha Central High School graduate left her hometown nearly a half century ago but often got back to visit family and friends.

She’s survived by her brother David Levin, sister-in-law Karen Levin and cousin Jerrold Neugarten. She earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did graduate work at Wheelock College in Boston. Her first foray into filmmaking came when she enlisted children in a Boston Head Start program to participate in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement.

She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational and filmmaking doctorate.

Her path was similar to the one taken more than a decade earlier by fellow Omaha native and Central grad Joan Micklin Silver, who went East to work in theater and television before breaking into independent feature filmmaking. NYC-based-Micklin Silver still makes films today.

In interviews Levin traced her penchant for arts subjects to her growing up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family that owned a string of retail clothing stores and indulged a taste for cultural pursuits. She also spoke of having become a die-hard film buff as a teen upon seeing Italian director Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 at her neighborhood Dundee Theater in Omaha.

An internship on a Boston WBZ-TV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. She then evolved into being an intrepid independent filmmaker who went wherever the stories that inspired her took her. She captured a trans-Atlantic rite-of-passage in the Emmy Award-winning The Tall Ship Lindo.  She revisited the scorching Nevada desert locations of The Misfits for Making the Misfits. She also documented candid, intimate dialogues with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

By the early 1980s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, whose name she later changed to Inscape. Her deep ties to Boston led her back there for some of her most prized projects.

Levin often pursued film projects that coalesced with her passions. For example, the lifelong sports fan jumped at the opportunity to do a film profile of Boston Celtics coaching legend Red Auerbach. Her love of arts and letters found perfect expression in her Harvard: A Video Portrait, which she made to commemorate the historic Ivy League school’s 350th anniversary.

Her admiration of photography and film saw her repeatedly make artists working in those mediums her subjects.

Whatever the story, Levin steeped herself in it.

“I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things,” she told an interviewer.

Finding a subject that engaged her and running with it was her joy.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me,” she once said. “I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up exactly the right way and when that happens that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

“Gail Levin was one of the most exciting, caring, ALIVE people I’ve ever met,” posted National Public Radio host Robin Young on the in memoriam web page of WNET, the producer of American Masters. “Oh to be once more in her energy field when she was seized by a creative vision.”

It’s some consolation to those who knew Levin that she was doing exactly what she wanted to do.

“I’ve been so blessed,” Levin said in an interview. “I have had a career that I love…As hard as it is sometimes I don’t even care. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects and I’ve been able to see them from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

Her colleagues mourn her death and the stark reality there won’t be a new Levin film to look forward to.

“The documentary community is kind of in a state of shock and we’re all devastated by her loss,” said Lacy.

Levin’s passion work lives on though through revival screenings and viewing platforms like Netflix.

A 1 p.m. Sunday graveside service will be held at Fisher Farm Cemetery, 8600 South 42nd St, in Bellevue, Neb.. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center (c/o the University of Nebraska Foundation) or to Temple Israel synagogue or to a charity of choice.

Down and out but not done in Omaha: Documentary surveys the poverty landscape

November 3, 2015 4 comments

Omaha famously ranks high in best places to live, do business and raise a family lists and it infamously ranks just as high in per capita poverty, STD and gun violence rates, particularly among African-Americans.  The economic dichotomy is an especially glaring scar on the Pleasantville face Omaha likes to project.  When it comes to poverty, Omaha goes out of its way to remove traces of struggle amiid the city’s high concentration of millionaires, white collar professionals, and high employment figures.  But if you look close and hard enough, the cracks in the picture emerge and the reality of poverty and homelessness, though often unseen, becomes quite real. More and more folks live paycheck to paycheck and are just one emergency or crisis or even bump in the road away from needing a food pantry or a shelter.  A new documentary commissioned by the helping organization Together and directed by filmmaker Jason Fischer, Out of Frame: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland, tries to paint a picture of the poverty landscape in Omaha.  It has a premiere screening November 12 at Aksarben Cinema. This is my story about the project and its subject in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

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Down and out but not done in Omaha: Documentary surveys the poverty landscape

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Muddying Omaha’s high quality of life rankings are pockets of chronic poverty and growing new poor populations.

Identifiable impoverished sections, homeless communities and shelters exist, but most poverty here is insidious and invisible. It’s even in the suburbs. Thus, the title of a new documentary, Out of Frame: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland. It premieres November 12 at 6:30 p.m. at Aksarben Cinema. A panel discussion follows.

Surreal Media Lab owner Jason Fischer made the film for Together, a nonprofit that assists people out of poverty, hunger and homelessness into self-sufficiency and sustainable living. The project resonates with Fischer, who grew up in a poor, single-parent household.

“My mom never made a big deal about it,” he says. “I didn’t know how poor we were until I started thinking back, Oh, that’s why we ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches or pancakes for dinner. We shopped at Goodwilll, That’s what you did. You learn those survival skills. It was a mindset my mom had that she never let it be known we’re doing so bad. That was her superpower.”

Interviewing clients and caseworkers for the film, Fischer’s learned the local poverty landscape.

“It doesn’t feel like there’s a huge homeless sector here but the line between poverty and homelessness is fairly thin. That’s what you hear – that having a roof over your head and not having a roof over your head might just be a matter of days. It’s the working poor who are most vulnerable – the folks barely cutting it and living paycheck to paycheck.”

It’s someone like Rodgers, whose lack of living wage job skills puts him in precarious straits with advancing age and no nest egg or safety net.

Or someone like Air Force veteran Vernon Louis Muhammad, who suffered a severe work-related injury that prevented him from holding a job. His health issues and lost income, combined with a divorce, began a cascade that resulted in him losing his home and nearly everything else. As he recovers a semblance of his old life he helps other disabled and homeless vets find their footing, too.

Takina Humphrey lost her children to foster care when she went into treatment for meth addiction but since getting sober she’s reunited with them and working hard to make ends meet.

Fischer says he’s struck by “the variations and gradations of all the situations,” adding, “I want to give a face and add humanity to the complexities of poverty and homelessness, It’s not what you imagine. It’s not about the person who just gave up. It’s not just black and white. It’s not just the people down by the river and the railroad tracks. It may be a neighbor or a person at your church or someone at the grocery store. That’s the unseen part of it, even though it might be in plain view. And when we do see it, we avert our eyes.”

Together executive director Mike Hornacek says the problem in Omaha “is definitely not unemployment – we have one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates – it’s underemployment.” He adds, “We have a huge socio-economic divide in our community. We have tons of white collar professionals doing extremely well and then another huge blue collar, service-oriented population making $8 or $9 an hour. We’re missing that large segment of $16 to $18 an hour skilled trade sector jobs. So we’re seeing a trickle down effect of all kinds of people asking for help and services that never had to ask before.”

For example, he says nearly half of Millard public schools students are on free and reduced lunch – an indicator that struggles are not confined to the inner city. In this era of excessive cost of living and flat wages and salaries, he says one unforeseen disruptive event or major expense finds many families “suddenly teetering on the edge of working poor and needing to use a food pantry.”

 

 

Together Omaha

Mike Hornacek

 

 

 

Clients exhibit a gamut of causes and needs.

“Walking through our door on a daily basis is really a sliding scale of severity. On the minor side it’s somebody who needs to use a pantry for the first time. It may just be once. Maybe hings got tight at the end of the month with a high heating bill and the family couldn’t afford groceries. Not a lot of support services need to be involved.

“In the middle range is a single mom working two jobs, making minimum wage or more, doing the best she can, living paycheck to paycheck. Then her car needs repairing so she can continue going to work to support her family. She uses the rent money for the car and it turns into a snowball that sees her evicted. She comes to Together and we pay the back rent, supply one month to move forward and discuss budget. We cover basic skills to make sure she and her family are sustainable after we provide the help.

“On the extreme end, in a very severe crisis, you have somebody literally homeless or really close to homeless. maybe with PTSD syndrome and needing serious intervention just to be able to regain housing and sustain that on their own. They might need six to 12 months of intense case management to stabilize that living situation and ensure they are mentally stable and getting the right supports.

“The more near you get to homeless and the more years you live in poverty for generations a lot of times the root cause has to do with mental illness and behavioral health.”

Fischer’s discovered that just as many things trigger poverty “different variables go into creating stability.” “Stability comes through support groups, caring and community. No one organization does everything by itself. Several working interdependently, each doing its part, is really the key. That’s how Together came to be and true to its name it works collaboratively. That’s the strength of it.”

Hornacek says,”In a lot of those more medium to severe situations we can provide resources until we’re blue in the face but we’re not going to create any significant or lasting change unless we address those underlying issues and that comes through case management and connecting people to support services that help with mental health, medical needs, substance abuse and things like that.

“It is very complex. It is not one silver bullet that fixes the problem. And the person or family you’re trying to help has to want the help.”

But it’s first things first.

“It’s really unrealistic for us to expect individuals to just make those radical changes unless their basic needs are taken care of. Once past that threshold money doesn’t fix the problem…Then it’s all about education, guidance, mentoring and helping somebody work a plan to get where they want to go.”

Fischer is grateful to those who shared their struggles on film.

“They’re very courageous people for sharing their stories. I was surprised they were as open as they were. When you can see someone that hasn’t given up and is still pushing and still believes, and the hope they have, that’s inspiring. If that person’s still trying, then I have no excuses .”

Hornacek says he commissioned the film as an “advocacy tool.” He adds, “I hope people walk away with a better understanding that we do have some significant, pervasive issues in the greater Omaha area. We need to address families living in poverty and the economic divide. These things have repercussions,” including educational deficits, health problems, criminal activities,

“If we don’t get a handle on it, its going to get dramatically worse.”

Then the problem won’t remain hidden anymore.

The November 12 screening is part of Together’s gala fundraiser. Tickets are $35 per person or $60 for two. Visit http://www.AksarbenCinema.com or http://togetheromaha.org/.

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