Inside the Creative Process of Filmmaker Alan Berliner

January 21, 2016

The New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) has fiscally sponsored artist Benita Raphan (BFA 1984 Media Arts) to create a seven-part podcast series on filmmaker and MFA Social Documentary Film faculty member Alan Berliner. In the podcasts titled The Gift of Time: Alan Berliner and his Process, Berliner talks about the impulse behind creating his 35-year-old, and still growing, archive of newspaper images and how this has become the muse for his new project on photojournalism. Coincidentally, as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival‘s 25th anniversary celebrations, Berliner is being honored with screenings of his cinematic essays Intimate Stranger (1991) (watch trailer below) and Nobody’s Business (1996) on January 24. He will also conduct a master class on the same day.

Raphan, who has worked with Berliner closely since 2011, tells us about the podcast series, which is now in its third week, and shares some of the filmmakers insights.

alan735What made you want to create this podcast series on Alan Berliner?
I have been recording oral histories with people ever since I was a student at SVA and met Tony Schwartz. This fits with podcasting—a medium I find personally compelling and authentic, with a direct connection to audiences. Podcasting seemed like the perfect way to tap into and share some of filmmaker Alan Berliner’s brilliance, creative process and humanity. Alan is a very generous filmmaker. He is thoughtful about what happens in every moment of his films, and what those moments could elicit in audiences. He is personally responsible for every component that goes into sculpting his cinematic works.

Alan’s studio/archive where he works is an impressive testament to his work and his ethic. It manifests an endless energy and optimism toward life. Since 1996, his films have been focused on intimate themes of family, but are original, provocative and open-ended in a way that brings the audience along for a journey that is different for each viewer.

Why did you choose to focus on Berliner’s conception of time?
For those who have seen Wide Awake (2006) (watch trailer below), Alan’s own story about a life lived with insomnia, you will know that throughout his career this condition has actually been a catalyst for his prodigious output. Much of Alan’s most productive time occurs overnight, as the filmmaker elucidates, “…the man who comes on last,” his own self on the third shift, the one side of himself he would trust to do the most complex part of his projects. The curse of insomnia has actually been a gift to him, allowing Alan to make profitable use of the time when, in his own words, “a sentry on the bow of a ship, keeping watch and staying alert while everyone else is sleeping.”

Time—its duration and interrogation through different perspectives, practical and philosophical—is a continual concern for the filmmaker. Additionally, many of Alan’s projects have to do with the themes of memory and forgetting—complex and nuanced markers of time—that exist at the core of every person’s life. Every single image, every sound, every decision made in his films gives meaning to the larger project. There are many layers of his process and his life in every project he does. For this reason, people all over the world have recognized some part of their own lives in his films.

Could you tell us something about the style of the podcast?
The style is pure Alan Berliner. Anyone who has ever attended a Q&A with Alan, or a master class, is familiar with his generosity of spirit and his open and optimistic way of discussing his work. He often addresses a master class by saying, “You can ask me anything! Anything.” In introducing him at an event in 2012, Thom Powers, artistic director of DOC NYC praised Berliner, saying that watching his own films with new audiences is as much a part of the creative process as making the films.

Artistic process and the genesis of new ideas are of great interest to me personally as a visual artist and filmmaker, and I think they are instructive for anyone looking for inspiration and answers to problems they are negotiating in their own practice. Alan’s outlook and dedication to creating more films and taking a new and complex journey in each of them is generous, dense, complex and compelling. He is always working on a film, making notes or sharing his work with new audiences.

In the past two years, Alan has shown his films and given master classes in Australia, Ecuador, Israel, Mexico, Scotland, Taiwan, Turkey, SVA in New York, and Yale, among others. For NYFA’s first ever podcast/image series for the 30th anniversary of their Artist’s Fellowships on NYFA’s recently redesigned website, I felt that this would be a great thing to share with their audience. NYFA works to educate and inspire artists all over the world, so it seemed to me that an infusion of Alan’s energy and optimism would match up perfectly with what NYFA represents.

For more information about the podcast series with Berliner, click here. For more information about Berliner at the New York Jewish Film Festival, click here.

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