Haskell Wexler – Cinematographer, Director and Documentary Filmmaker Honored

Tuesday, March 29 at 7:00PM, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts continues its Centenary Celebration of the life and work of legendary filmmaker Haskell Wexler. With the first Los Angeles showing of two wonderfully moving documentaries (Rebel Citizen and Shoot From the Heart), beautifully juxtaposed to reveal much about the man, the artist, and the citizen – the evening promises to be both a challenging and energizing contribution to the monthlong event. In addition to the film showings there will also be a panel discussion about the films and about Haskell Wexler, the man, and the filmmaker.

Judged by his peers and professional progeny as one of the ten most influential cinematographers in the history of film, with a resume that includes two Best Picture Oscar winners (In the Heat of the Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and five other nominees including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (for which Wexler won the Oscar for Best Cinematography), Coming Home, The Conversation, Bound for Glory (his second Academy Award for Best Cinematography) and America America, Wexler’s brilliance illuminated decades of work, in both color and black & white. But it will be his achievements as one of the preeminent documentary filmmakers in the history of that form that will be most in focus on this night. 

Pamela Yates’ REBEL CITIZEN – A Life of Art and Activism (2015, 76m) is a deeply engaging examination of an artist who is in turn engaging his world without affectation or apology. What comes through even more than Wexler’s passion as a polemicist is his sincerity as an artist and a citizen. Whether documenting a bus trip from San Francisco to Washington DC for the famous March of 1963, being allowed to enter and film the world of the Weather Underground (which Wexler believed was the reason for his being fired from Cuckoo’s Nest) or his 2006 examination of the toll long hours of sleep deprived work required of film crews and the damage caused – the common denominator weaving them all together is an exquisitely balanced blending of outrage, love and the desire to make a difference. And of course, what we recognize time and time again as incredible talent.

Remember when we were all young and wanted to live lives of meaning and authenticity? Haskell Wexler did that, while also developing himself into a master craftsman. This is a film full of instruction about life and work. That the work on display is profound filmmaking about humanity’s struggle, and that its purpose in our age is no less relevant than in his own, only adds to its pull on the viewers desire to know more, see more, dive deeper into his catalogue. See it, and it will lead you on a journey of your own, that travels inward and outward.

Another fascinating aspect of his life is how committed Wexler was to encouraging, developing, nurturing the spirit of aspiring filmmakers. He may have a had a strong sense of what he liked, what he wanted, even what he demanded – as Francis Ford Coppola found out during the filming of The Conversation – but he clearly understood that students or citizens have their own visions and voices and preferences about the tools and technologies they will employ; the stories they need to have heard, to tell. And it seems like his recurring message, possibly even his fundamental motivation for cooperating with the camera’s intrusion into his own life, was to free others up to listen to their own ‘citizens voice’ and get busy and do it.

Rebel Citizen is a loving look into Wexler’s instinctive belief in justice and human dignity and the social actions that he documented and helped drive into our collective consciousness. It has been shown at the New York Film Festival, The Santa Barbara Film Festival, and the Cinema du Reel in Paris.

Photo from The New York Times

Director Pamela Yates is a Co-founder and Creative Director of Skylight, a non-profit company dedicated to creating feature length documentary films that advance the awareness of human rights and the quest for justice. Skylight’s work has focused on amplifying the voice of constituencies battling for social justice and their rights since their founding in 1981.  They combine the storytelling arts with human rights media strategies, in the service of social movements.

Pamela is the Director of the Sundance Special Jury award winning When the Mountains Tremble. Her film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, for which she awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, was used as forensic evidence in the genocide trial against Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala. Her film 500 Years about the resistance movement of indigenous Mayans in Guatemala was awarded the 2017 Traverse City Film Festival prize as Best US Documentary. Rebel Citizen was nominated for the Santa Barbara Film Festival Social Justice Award. Her catalog exemplifies a life spent in art as action. Ms. Yates is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


Right up front, Shoot From the Heart (2021, 26m) directed by Joan Churchill, ASC, and Alan Barker, is cinematic joy. Having had earlier showings at the Woodstock Film Festival, IDFA/Amsterdam and Camerimage in Torun, Poland, Tuesday’s event will be its Los Angeles premier.

With a list of credits that extend from 1953’s The Living City documentary about the effects of urban sprawl and gentrification (in 1953!), through 2015’s Teatro Session capturing Neil Young’s analog recording session at Teatro de las Americas in Oxnard – there are a seemingly limitless number of points at which to drop into Wexler’s cinematic life.

Drawn from 10 years of aiming a camera at a man who much preferred to be doing the aiming, this piece serves as a thought (and even more so, feeling) provoking introduction to what filmmakers Churchill and Barker feel will best be shared as a series of episodic chapters. Their vision is to see the entire collection organized and made available for film students and historians, explorers of art and artists, and generations of seekers wanting to know more about what it was to be human in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And in each of the wonderful scenes comprising this installment that is exactly what the filmmakers deliver.

Interviewed by phone for this piece Churchill and Barker shared that Wexler wasn’t the least bit interested in a film about himself.  And they felt that if that was how they had approached it (even though their friendship went back to 1970, when Wexler reached out unprompted and offered to help Churchill with a camera brace and lighting issues as she was working on Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park), it never would have happened. But what Wexler would agree, even if reluctantly, to participate in would be a running conversation about the nature of art and the uses and limitations (even the artistically employed limitations) of technique, gear, truth, and intention in its making.

In this installment – 26 profound and moving minutes that make you want to write, play, paint, draw or create something from the heart, once you catch  breath – we get to see: Wexler’s utter brilliance as he walks in as the guest cinematographer on a music video of Lisbeth Scott playing Hope is a Thing, and in a few short words lets everyone know just how the f-ck you shoot an artist in performance; his inspirational affirmations of the essential selves of the young members of Inner City Filmmakers; accompanying Jane Fonda to the Vienna International Film Festival in 2007 as they honored Coming Home; filming occupy LA; lecturing co-director Churchill on how to shoot him (‘Joan! No, no!’, which was comical and terrifying all in the same 10 seconds).

Oh, and there is also that dinner conversation Barker and Churchill captured so wonderfully with filmmakers Chris Hegedus, Nick Doob, Wexler and DA Pennebaker. If you have a creative gland anywhere in your corporeal or spiritual being those scenes alone will get it pumping.

I am pretty certain I have never experienced anything so relatively static (it is simply people in conversation, after all) move so imperceptibly fast and achieve such depth. Installment 1 of Shoot From the Heart is an immediate and stunning reminder of the importance of filmmaking as one of the most revealing ways we have of looking at who we are as a society. And, kudos to Barker and Churchill, it is also a little bit about a guy named Haskell Wexler.

A graduate of UCLA Film School, Joan Churchill began her career doing camera work on a series of music films – including such classics as “Gimme Shelter,” with the Maysles brothers, “No Nukes,” directed by Haskell Wexler and Barbara Kopple and “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll,” directed by Taylor Hackford.  Churchill also directed and photographed “Jimi Plays Berkeley”. She has more recently established a powerful catalog of her own films for which she has been awarded the BAFTA, Prix Italia, IDA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography, Sundance, Tribeca and Chicago Festivals’ Prizes and The Hague Peace Prize. She is the first documentary filmmaker to be accepted into the American Society of Cinematographers.

Alan Barker studied at Los Angeles City College and UCLA and graduated with a degree in motion picture production. He was a co-founder of Ramsgate Films. Barker studied acting and directing at The Actors & Directors Lab in Los Angeles. He founded and directed the improvisational theater group Raw Material. For most of the 80s he worked freelance as a documentary camera and sound person for British, Dutch, Japanese and other foreign broadcasters. His career has seen him work extensively in Africa, Asia, and South America. Beginning in the late 80s, he partnered with Joan Churchill specializing in cinema verité production. He continues to work in documentary films, having worked on over 350 documentary-style productions. Alan was adjunct professor at ArtCenter College and currently lectures on documentary-related topics. He and Joan Churchill lead workshops on Verité theory and technique. Alan and Joan have been married since 2004.

For a full schedule of remaining events in USC’s celebration of Haskell Wexler visit the University’s Department of Cinematic Arts:   https://cinema.usc.edu/events/index.cfm

If you plan on attending any of these events please do verify admission protocols.

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