Q&A with Master Documentary Filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer

October 21, 2014

Longtime BFA Film and Video faculty member Manfred Kirchheimer has been making documentaries for over 50 years, but this year has proven to be one of his busiest yet. After a summer booked with appearances and screenings, Stations of the Elevated, his recently-restored 1981 meditation on graffiti art, is having a weeklong run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month along with Claw, his 1968 study of urban destruction and renewal. On October 30, he’ll screen and discuss his latest film, Discovery in a Painting, about Cezanne’s painting Still Life with Apples, at the 3rd-floor amphitheater, 209 East 23 Street, 7:00 pm. SVA Close Up sat down with Kirchheimer to talk about his work in and out of the classroom.

manny425How did you come to make Stations of the Elevated?
I belonged to a food co-op, and I had a car, and once a month we would go very early in the morning to Hunt’s Point, where the wholesale food markets were. We’d go on the Bronx Expressway, which has four overhead subway lines. So I’m driving and I see this stream of color go by, and the only way people saw these things generally was when they came into the station. So I would put myself in the front car of the subway train, which still had windows back then in the front, and ride all the elevated portions of the train—all the way to the end of the Bronx, and I went all the way to the end of Brooklyn and Queens. Rockaway, Coney Island and so on. Then along the way, I realized, this is not just pretty pictures. This is an expression, this is coming out of people’s lives, this is a scream from the ghetto.

Over the summer you traveled to Sweden for a screening of Canners. What is the film and why did you make it?
The film is about the people in New York City who collect bottles and cans for a deposit, to make a living. I saw them in front of my house, and I saw them wherever I walked, and I never paid attention. But when you see somebody walking along Broadway or Central Park West or whatever with carts full of plastic bags filled with cans and bottles, somehow as a visual person I paid attention. I started talking to those people and they were remarkable and varied as could be—canners, as they call themselves. And when I told people what I was doing, the first question was always, “Well, how much do they make?” So of course I left the answer to that for last in the film. Because you have to structure a documentary as you do a fiction film or fiction in general. You have to create needs in the audience that are unanswered. You have to create obstacles. It’s like boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. The same formula works in documentary.

Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan (2006) was your last film shot on film, but Spraymasters (2008), Art… is the Permanent Revolution (2012) and Canners (2014) were all shot on digital. Was the transition consequential?
When you shoot on digital, especially if you have talking heads, then you don’t have to go crazy every 11 minutes and change the film magazine. You don’t have to prepare for it the night before technically, with loading magazines and all that stuff. In that sense, it was consequential, and it has been for me because I’ve never made so many films in a row. I’m able to make one film after another. And I don’t look for funding anymore. I don’t waste my time looking for funding because I have a crew of SVA alumni, former SVA students from 20 years ago whom I adore and they’re devoted and they’re awfully good. And then I have wonderful digital editing system at home, which I also love. And then from the aesthetic point of view, I adore digital. My students don’t understand. They come with stars in their eyes. They want to film. And I’m telling them it’s the content and the lighting that counts.

artis425What do you make of the concept of filmmaking as painting with light?
It seems to me that regardless of the kind of film you’re making, it has to be lovely. And that means that you have to light carefully. And compose. And if you’re going to handhold, you have to be nice and rigid. Now, in Stations of the Elevated, shot in 1977, there wasn’t any handholding, and it was dealing with grubby things, like graffiti, which was called vandalism at the time. When the film came out, it was criticized for being too beautiful. But Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans—these paragons of shooting poverty, dust bowl and so on—their pictures were of quality.

How did you become a filmmaker?
When I went to college, there was an émigré, Dadaist professor, Hans Richter, who was the head of the first documentary film school in the U.S. That primed me to ask him, Are there any opportunities in film, Prof. Richter? He says, “Ja! Opportunities, there are plenty. But no jobs.” Well, he turned out to be wrong. There were plenty of jobs, but very few opportunities. (Laughs) I got a job the first week I left school, at a very good documentary house. I started teaching at City College. And I gained confidence as an editor. I was in demand after a few years and I went freelance.

What do you want your students to understand about filmmaking?
I tell them that they don’t want to die and look back and say, “I didn’t do anything for myself.” When I was in the industry, I edited over 300 films and I directed maybe 10 and I wrote a couple, and I wasn’t happy. But when I look back, I’m so happy that I’ve created a certain body of work. It’s not as big as some people’s, it’s not as well known, but it makes me happy to think back. Maybe only 2,000 people get to see one of my films. But I get to meet to meet every one of them. (Laughs).

What’s your working routine, outside of teaching?
I get up in the morning. When I’m not specifically working on a film, I’m working on a film. This summer, I completed three little films, two memorials of friends. They’re very lovely and moving. I have a little point-and-shoot camera with HD capability. I shoot and edit. I went to two concerts at Riverside Park, which I filmed, and the first one I edited into a 20-minute film. These are films never to be seen by anybody. But I just love doing it.

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