When Life Becomes Art
April 04, 2008
Five Lewis & Clark graduates make their mark as documentary filmmakers.
by Lisa Albers
The documentary film genre has come a long way from Nanook of the North and Wild Kingdom. When Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, a new era for the documentary was born. An avalanche of films followed Moore’s commercial and critical success, from muckrakers such as An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed the Electric Car? to traditional documentations such as the story of the Apollo space program, In the Shadow of the Moon, and the portrayal of musician Neil Young, Heart of Gold.
While the surge in interest has catapulted some documentary filmmakers into rock-star status, others remain lesser known but equally devoted to the craft. The five Lewis & Clark graduates interviewed for this article, as artists, must combine progressive idealism and pragmatic realism. They have to be both producers and poets. They must balance their own viewpoints against those of their subjects. They are well-rounded, articulate communicators who can approach a subject with a broad-based understanding of its inherent complexity. All have found their liberal arts educations from Lewis & Clark to be ideal preparation for the work of documentary filmmaking.
Real Native American Stories
Sandra Sunrising Osawa B.A ‘64 has been making films for 30 years. Both poetic and political, her filmmaking approach can be traced back to her study at Lewis & Clark in political science and English.
Jack Crampton, now professor emeritus of political science, was her advisor and encouraged her to take courses in many different subjects–economics, art, philosophy. He felt it was more important to broaden one’s knowledge than to specialize.
“That broad-based approach is still with me,” says Osawa. “It’s what separates me from other filmmakers. I tend to have layers, not just one single narrative.”
Another of those layers is a passion for poetry. Osawa studied with two legends at Lewis & Clark: Vern Rutsala, award-winning poet and professor emeritus of English, and the late William Stafford, professor emeritus of English and former Oregon poet laureate.
“I love poetry,” she says. “It teaches you the discipline of finding the quickest, clearest, best way to say something.” While for her, poetry has taken a necessary back seat to filmmaking, she still sees its connection to her chosen craft. “In film, you work with the written word and sounds–as well as with concrete images. It’s an all-encompassing art form.”
A member of Washington state’s Makah tribe, Osawa is committed to changing the way Native Americans are represented in film. Of most contemporary film treatments of Native Americans, she says, “There is still a need to see us as creatures of the past and as problems or victims.”
Osawa has encountered some of these unenlightened attitudes in her own life. She remembers, for example, listening to Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird in college and having a friend say it was strange to see an Indian studying classical music.
It’s these types of stereotypes that Osawa seeks to dispel. Her films are firmly rooted in the present and feature thought-provoking interviews with fellow Native Americans, such as dancer Maria Tallchief and comedian Charlie Hill.
Maria Tallchief, a member of the Osage tribe, became the United States’ first prima ballerina; in fact, her legendary Orpheus performance in 1948 was a catalyst for the formation of the New York City Ballet. Charlie Hill, a member of the Oneida tribe, has been a comedian since the 1970s. He has worked alongside many big-name comedians, including Jay Leno and Richard Pryor, and has appeared on the Tonight Show and other national TV programs.
Of Maria Tallchief, her most recent film, Osawa says, “It’s amazing that this story had to go untold for so long, all these decades. It’s quite an omission that cannot be accidental or coincidental. It’s why Yasu and I haven’t felt our mission is accomplished.”
Yasu Osawa, a Japanese American, is her husband and filmmaking partner. The two met in UCLA’s film school. “We were both interested in doing work for our respective communities,” she says. “And Yasu luckily agreed to help with my interest in getting some contemporary Indian stories out there.”
Osawa has a theory to explain why Tallchief’s story isn’t as well known as those of her collaborators, Balanchine and Stravinsky: “We’re all creatures of habit. Once the American Indian image has been molded and shaped so strongly by dime novels, Western movies, early paintings, and even current films, it’s difficult to recast that image; it’s quite powerful.”
Recast is exactly what the Osawas do with their films. Pepper’s Pow Wow tells the story of Portland resident Jim Pepper, a jazz saxophonist who melds modern jazz with traditional harmonies from his Creek and Kaw heritage, creating a new musical form.
Precisely because their work cuts against expectations, the Osawas have often had trouble getting funding or distribution for their films. “An American Indian jazz musician? People tell me, ‘That’s not an Indian story.’ It doesn’t fit into their idea of the typical story,” she says.
It would be easier for Upstream Productions, Osawa admits, if they caved in to stereotypes. However, like prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, who early on was asked to don a stereotypical Indian costume and perform according to the misconceptions of the time, Osawa refuses to succumb to commercial forces.
“We still feel a sense of urgency,” she says. “There’s a lot of untouched territory. Even if we worked for the next 50 to 100 years, we wouldn’t be able to get to it all.”
A Complex Portrait of the Land
What’s most striking about Arid Lands, the debut film from Grant Aaker B.A. ‘02 and Josh Wallaert B.A. ‘02, is what it doesn’t do. The filmmaking duo steers clear of polemic in this complex portrait of eastern Washington. While the two don’t pull any punches, neither do they accost unsuspecting interview subjects or ridicule any segment of government or society. There’s no controlling narrative leading to a singular, damning conclusion. Instead, they let their 27 subjects speak for themselves without voice-over or directorial intrusion.
Objectivity and balance are admirable goals considering the controversial nature of the issues facing eastern Washington in the 21st century: The U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford plutonium processing site is now the target of a $50-billion cleanup effort; unchecked development is forever changing the landscape; citizens routinely fight over water rights; and salmon have to be shipped around man-made dams to follow their migratory paths.
Two years before Wallaert and Aaker decided to document issues facing eastern Washington, they traveled through the region on a road trip while headed to points farther east. Wallaert, who majored in English, was struck by the landscape, by the story of Hanford, and by development in the Tri-Cities area. “I realized there’s no better way than film to tell a story about geography or place,” he says. While enrolled in a graduate program in creative writing, he decided to return to eastern Washington to film a documentary, with Aaker’s help.
After completing coursework for his major in philosophy, Aaker spent a year in TV production in New York as part of Lewis & Clark’s off-campus study program. He was placed with a start-up company that gave him the opportunity to help make a film from genesis to final airing. One film, a documentary of Hollywood paparazzi called Hollywood Hunt Club, was picked up by AMC. After that experience, he felt ready to collaborate with Wallaert on the project that became Arid Lands.
To make their film, the two lived in eastern Washington for three months. They worked at first to gain people’s trust and learn their stories. “Josh and I came from Lewis & Clark with radical ideas,” says Aaker. “With the blind idealism of college students, we went to this place that is conservative and steeped in World War II history.” As the two got to know the Tri-Cities community, they found it open, its inhabitants likeable. “We didn’t want to knock any of them down,” says Aaker. “We wanted to portray them as people worth understanding and acknowledge where they come from. Watching Arid Lands, you can line up where you are in your thinking but not write off those with differing views.”
Wallaert concurs. “Hanford is so politically charged,” he says. “But our political perspective is pro-place. The only political edge we wanted the film to have is that place is important. We didn’t want to impose our own ideology on the story.”
Geography and how it affects communities are especially compelling to Wallaert, owing in no small part to a course he took with Kurt Fosso, associate professor of English. “That class trained me to look at the intersections between language and environment, at how environments are represented in literature,” he says.
While Wallaert and Aaker are both interested in returning to documentary work in the future, for now, they’ve decided to follow more pragmatic paths, especially since they funded Arid Lands entirely out of pocket and have yet to realize a return on their investment. Wallaert works as a freelance writer in Vancouver, B.C., and Aaker is enrolled in medical school at Cornell University.
Arnold Creek Productions
Capturing the Sustainability Movement
David Decker B.S. ‘81 and Douglas Freeman B.S. ‘79 have made their livings in film for more than 20 years by providing their services to corporations, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations. Decker has produced training films for Hewlett-Packard and a variety of other clients, from high-tech to manufacturing. Freeman has written scripts for industrial marketing and training programs.
Though their time at Lewis & Clark overlapped, they didn’t meet until just a few years ago, when Freeman’s wife, Katherine MacKenzie Freeman B.A. ‘80, realizing that the two shared similar goals and interests, introduced them. (Coincidentally, Decker’s wife is also an alum: Emily Nelson Decker B.A. ‘85, senior associate dean of admissions.)
Shortly after their first meeting, Decker and Freeman formed Arnold Creek Productions.
The joint venture signals a shift in focus for both men away from providing a service to clients to producing films as proprietary products. With titles such as Good Food, Good Business and Moving Forward …With Diabetes, Decker and Freeman expressly intend to promote the causes they both care about, sustainability and health.
Decker and Freeman credit Lewis & Clark with fostering their strong concern for the environment–a concern that guides many of their decisions as film producers. His Lewis & Clark education made Decker, who majored in communication, see the bigger picture, that every decision has an effect on the natural world. “I saw how we live and how we could live,” he says.
Freeman, a psychology major, remembers a clean water project that opened his eyes to how environmental issues extend into government and the law, education, the economy, and human health. “I was immersed in all areas of science, and my professors talked about the environment on a global scale,” he says.
One of the strengths of their latest film, Architecture to Zucchini, is that the people interviewed often speak in these same broad terms when discussing sustainability. A comprehensive portrait of sustainability efforts in and around Portland, the film features the individuals, corporations, and organizations at the forefront of a movement that has recently moved from the fringes to the mainstream.
These two filmmakers also practice what their documentaries preach. Their DVDs are housed in recycled plastic cases, which were no small feat to procure. When they asked for recycled paper inserts printed with soy inks, they at first encountered resistance, especially due to cost because, as Freeman puts it, “environmentally damaging products don’t always reflect their true costs.” He looks forward to delivering via download instead of DVDs.
Arnold Creek Productions survives because Decker and Freeman partner with people and organizations sharing their commitment to sustainability and health education. One partnership, with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, helped them promote sustainability on college campuses across the United States.
Freeman, the marketing-savvy counterpoint to Decker, who prefers film production, yearns to do even more with their films. With a larger production budget, Freeman thinks they can have an even greater impact. “The world has a lot of problems that are not easily solved,” he says. “The pace of change can be slow, and I’m an impatient person.”
But for now, the partners are grateful to find meaningful work in a tough industry. “We’ve been able to produce programs that are close to our heart,” says Decker. “These are things we feel strongly about. I don’t have a dream project–the types of projects we’re doing now are my dream. If I can continue to produce programs that make a difference, that’s what I want to do.”