Monthly Archives: April 2017

She Calls Her Movies ‘Afro Bubble Gum Art’


Wanuri Kahiu speaks at this past week’s TED gathering in Vancouver, Canada.



Ryan Lash //TED

When Wanuri Kahiu took to the TED Fellows stage this week in Vancouver, the 36-year-old had on green shoes and a beaded necklace worn like a crown — a hint to her offbeat worldview.

“My mother’s a pediatrician, and when I was young, she’d tell the craziest stories,” Kahiu began. “One of the stories she told was that if you eat a lot of salt, all the blood rushes up to your legs through your body … to the top of your head, killing you instantly! She called it high blood pressure.

“This was my first experience with science fiction.”

She’s gone on to make sci-fi movies. And that’s what brought her to TED. “The hook that caught our attention was science fiction filmmaking in Africa,” says Tom Rielly, director of the Fellows program. “We hadn’t heard about that before.”

And Rielly liked her point of view. Kahiu’s voice is unique on a continent where many of the stories told in film tend to reflect familiar themes of war, poverty and AIDS and that are often funded by aid, grants and foundations, becoming part of an organization’s agenda.

Her response is to make films that emphasize fun. She’s made films about “Nairobi pop bands that want to go to space or seven-foot robots that fall in love.” Her films have been seen in more than a hundred film festivals around the world and they live online as well.

She has her serious side, too, as chair of the SAFE Foundation based in Kenya, which produces films and plays that try and change risky behavior and that connect to issues like HIV, radicalization and female genital mutilation.

But at TED, she focused on the idea that these types of stories limit the view of what Africa is and who Africans are: “We have to tell more stories that are vibrant.” And she has given her style of filmmaking a name: Afro bubble gum art.

What is Afro bubble gum art?

It’s fun, fierce and frivolous African art. First, it’s for Africans so that we can see ourselves in a different way because I’m genuinely concerned about how we see ourselves and that we don’t think we’re worthy of happiness and we postpone joy as if it’s a destination. But I feel like we can be happy now.

Have you ever sat in a theater and watched an audience watching one of your films? What was that like?

Awful. It’s always awful. I’m always anxious. You never know if it’s being read right, if they’re going to laugh in the right places, if I offend them or if they understand what I’m trying to say.

You got your MFA in film from UCLA, a school that has a reputation for producing independent filmmakers, as opposed to working within a studio system. What’s the film industry like in Kenya and how did the emphasis on being indie shape your work?

The film industry is growing. It’s still very young but vibrant. I think it needs more access to funding and distribution, but there’s definitely a growth of filmmakers in Kenya that is exciting to watch.

I don’t know yet of an African filmmaker who is not an independent filmmaker because we’re still fighting to create in a way that people will accept and for it to be commercially viable. There are very few people who have broken out in African cinema – Neill Blomkamp, [director of] District 9 is one.

You’ve put together a list of questions — your own sort of Bechdel Test, to assess African cinema and literature. What’s your test?

The test asks three questions. The first question: Are two or more Africans in this piece healthy? The second question is: Are those Africans, the same healthy Africans, are they financially stable and not in need of saving? And the third question: Are they having fun?

We need to show images of Africans who are not dying, not in need of saving and living a joyous, thriving African life.

For those unfamiliar with African cinema, do you have some recommendations of movies we should see?

Stories of our Lives by Jim Chuchu — important because it’s about the LGBT community in Kenya and it’s based on real stories. And it’s banned in Kenya.

Kati Kati by Mbithi Masya. It’s a different look on Africa that’s not expected. It’s about the afterlife!

And what about one of yours?

Pumzi.

‘Obit’ Follows The ‘Times’ Team Charged With Turning Lives Into History


“Literally I show up in the morning and I say, ‘Who’s dead?'” obit writer Bruce Weber explains in the film. “And somebody puts a folder on my desk and that’s … what I do that day.” Weber took a buyout from The New York Times in 2016.

Courtesy of Kino Lorber


hide caption

toggle caption

Courtesy of Kino Lorber

“Literally I show up in the morning and I say, ‘Who’s dead?'” obit writer Bruce Weber explains in the film. “And somebody puts a folder on my desk and that’s … what I do that day.” Weber took a buyout from The New York Times in 2016.

Courtesy of Kino Lorber

If you’re the kind of person who opens the paper in the morning and goes straight to the obituaries, we’ve got good news for you: There’s a new documentary out this week that follows the staff writers of the New York Times obituary desk. It’s called Obit.

To be clear, this is something I know a bit about. Reporting obits are a big part of my job on the arts desk at NPR. Unlike the Times, NPR lacks a dedicated obits desk, and my colleagues and I were frankly envious when we watched the documentary and learned that the Times has five full-time obit writers, including, at the time, Bruce Weber (who stepped down from the obits desk in 2016) and Margalit Fox, who spoke to the pressure of writing obits on deadline.

“Starting the day getting a name you’ve never heard of, knowing that you are going to have to have command of this person’s life, work and historical significance in under seven hours — it is equal parts exhilaration and terror,” Fox says in the film.

Documentarian Vanessa Gould spent six days filming the obit writers as they did their jobs. “I was surprised at how grueling the work is,” Gould says. “I think the reporting process was just continually fascinating to me, given how many facets it has.”

The person who polishes those facets is editor Bill McDonald. He came to the obits desk in 2006 after editing the Arts & Leisure pages and national news. He tells NPR that obits are “more sedentary, more scholarly, you might say. It’s deep research.”

The Times obits desk was once known as a dead-end, so to speak. It was a pasture — or a punishment. But McDonald says obits have recently gained more respect, perhaps in part because of number of aging baby boomers. But obits have also become a place where writers can compose something that feels like a tiny novel. Take Margalit Fox’s swashbuckling obit for John Fairfax, who crossed the Atlantic and Pacific in a rowboat. It begins:

In 1969, after six months alone on the Atlantic battling storms, sharks and encroaching madness, John Fairfax, who died this month at 74, became the first lone oarsman in recorded history to traverse any ocean. …

Footloose and handsome, he was a flesh-and-blood character out of Graham Greene, with more than a dash of Hemingway and Ian Fleming shaken in.

At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle.

At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar. Afterward he was apprenticed to a pirate. To please his mother, who did not take kindly to his being a pirate, he briefly managed a mink farm, one of the few truly dull entries on his otherwise crackling résumé, which lately included a career as a professional gambler.

Obituaries serve a function even bigger than the larger-than-life people who tend to inhabit them, says Bill McDonald. In a culture that struggles with talking — and thinking — about death, McDonald says obituaries are a secular ritual. “A lot of people almost don’t feel that the death has been fully celebrated, acknowledged, unless there’s an obituary to go with it, as if to give that person a certain amount of immortality.”

So maybe that explains why many of us like reading obits. Margalit Fox enjoys writing them. People often assume her job is morbid, but in the documentary she nailed why it’s not. “It’s counterintuitive, ironic even, but obits have next to nothing to do with death, and in fact absolutely to do with the life,” she said.

Newspapers are dedicated to the day’s events, but obits are about history. “If you think about one of the slang ways if saying that somebody’s died, we say, ‘He’s history,’ ” Fox explained. “And what an obit actually does, which I find very compelling and very moving, is it captures that person at the precise point that he or she becomes history.”

She Calls Her Movies ‘Afro Bubble Gum Art’


Wanuri Kahiu speaks at this past week’s TED gathering in Vancouver, Canada.



Ryan Lash //TED

When Wanuri Kahiu took to the TED Fellows stage this week in Vancouver, the 36-year-old had on green shoes and a beaded necklace worn like a crown — a hint to her offbeat worldview.

“My mother’s a pediatrician, and when I was young, she’d tell the craziest stories,” Kahiu began. “One of the stories she told was that if you eat a lot of salt, all the blood rushes up to your legs through your body … to the top of your head, killing you instantly! She called it high blood pressure.

“This was my first experience with science fiction.”

She’s gone on to make sci-fi movies. And that’s what brought her to TED. “The hook that caught our attention was science fiction filmmaking in Africa,” says Tom Rielly, director of the Fellows program. “We hadn’t heard about that before.”

And Rielly liked her point of view. Kahiu’s voice is unique on a continent where many of the stories told in film tend to reflect familiar themes of war, poverty and AIDS and that are often funded by aid, grants and foundations, becoming part of an organization’s agenda.

Her response is to make films that emphasize fun. She’s made films about “Nairobi pop bands that want to go to space or seven-foot robots that fall in love.” Her films have been seen in more than a hundred film festivals around the world and they live online as well.

She has her serious side, too, as chair of the SAFE Foundation based in Kenya, which produces films and plays that try and change risky behavior and that connect to issues like HIV, radicalization and female genital mutilation.

But at TED, she focused on the idea that these types of stories limit the view of what Africa is and who Africans are: “We have to tell more stories that are vibrant.” And she has given her style of filmmaking a name: Afro bubble gum art.

What is Afro bubble gum art?

It’s fun, fierce and frivolous African art. First, it’s for Africans so that we can see ourselves in a different way because I’m genuinely concerned about how we see ourselves and that we don’t think we’re worthy of happiness and we postpone joy as if it’s a destination. But I feel like we can be happy now.

Have you ever sat in a theater and watched an audience watching one of your films? What was that like?

Awful. It’s always awful. I’m always anxious. You never know if it’s being read right, if they’re going to laugh in the right places, if I offend them or if they understand what I’m trying to say.

You got your MFA in film from UCLA, a school that has a reputation for producing independent filmmakers, as opposed to working within a studio system. What’s the film industry like in Kenya and how did the emphasis on being indie shape your work?

The film industry is growing. It’s still very young but vibrant. I think it needs more access to funding and distribution, but there’s definitely a growth of filmmakers in Kenya that is exciting to watch.

I don’t know yet of an African filmmaker who is not an independent filmmaker because we’re still fighting to create in a way that people will accept and for it to be commercially viable. There are very few people who have broken out in African cinema – Neill Blomkamp, [director of] District 9 is one.

You’ve put together a list of questions — your own sort of Bechdel Test, to assess African cinema and literature. What’s your test?

The test asks three questions. The first question: Are two or more Africans in this piece healthy? The second question is: Are those Africans, the same healthy Africans, are they financially stable and not in need of saving? And the third question: Are they having fun?

We need to show images of Africans who are not dying, not in need of saving and living a joyous, thriving African life.

For those unfamiliar with African cinema, do you have some recommendations of movies we should see?

Stories of our Lives by Jim Chuchu — important because it’s about the LGBT community in Kenya and it’s based on real stories. And it’s banned in Kenya.

Kati Kati by Mbithi Masya. It’s a different look on Africa that’s not expected. It’s about the afterlife!

And what about one of yours?

Pumzi.

Art Is A Matter Of Life And Death In ‘The Electric Sublime’


In a time when most types of government spending are under attack, a few brave souls have stepped up to defend those perpetually endangered hillocks of federally funded refinement, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. The defenders haven’t always managed so well. In a recent New York Times piece, Nicholas Kristof went so far as to argue that the august tradition of human cultural achievement should indeed be sustained because it has helped, somehow, to limit the practice of keeping hens in small cages. “The humanities have even reshaped our diet,” he marveled.

Kristof is just the latest in a long line of commentators who’ve felt the best way to justify culture is to scrounge up concrete examples — however strained — of its impact on day-to-day existence. W. Maxwell Prince feels the same compulsion, but he’s markedly more successful. Instead of constructing tortuous rationalizations involving chickens, he’s created The Electric Sublime: a bloody, silly and deeply likable celebration of the life-or-death power of art in our lives.

Prince has been thinking a lot about that power lately. In last year’s One Week In the Library, “the books [were] written in the very blood of the living stories held within.” One of the library’s titles featured a man who’d gouged out his own eyes, driven to despair by the staggering number of stories demanding to be read, the infinite possible truths to be grasped.

In The Electric Sublime, Prince imagines that art has the same power to annihilate. The title refers collectively to the worlds inside works of art: “countless very real, and very important, places, all made by geniuses and madmen.” When something’s wrong in the Electric Sublime, it leads to hundreds of deaths that must be investigated by the Bureau of Artistic Integrity. In one case, two homeless men beat each other to death over a picture of a can of tomato soup. In another, students in an amateur art class follow Matisse’s dictum that a painter ought to have his tongue cut out. Time to call Art Brut! That’s Arthur Brut, detective, a man with the power to inject himself into paintings. Soon, he’s on the trail of a mysterious boy who can alter reality by drawing. Brut chases the lad through Seurat’s pointillist parkland, Hopper’s diner and the fragmented terrain of Guernica.

Unfortunately, the artworks in The Electric Sublime don’t get much more recent than that; Prince and his illustrators seem to think art stopped evolving sometime around the 1920s. True, cover artist Brendan McCarthy gives us a Jeff Koons bunny, but even that’s a bit of a chestnut — and they just get nuttier. Munch’s The Scream? Escher’s steps? “Ceci n’est pas une pipe?” Come on, guys. How about injecting Art Brut into an Anish Kapoor or a Takashi Murakami?

Still, this problem doesn’t sink the book. For one thing, you have to suspect Prince is deliberately choosing works his audience will remember from college art history classes or field trips to museums. It’s understandable that he would reach out to readers through their favorite pieces. And in the end you have to like someone who loves art this much — however cobwebby his taste. Martin Morazzo’s nimble lines and Mat Lopes’ perky palette help too. Their adaptations of celebrated works, broken apart by the wars being fought within, are deft pastiches.

Of course, it’s ultimately both sad and ironic that Prince feels the need to concoct a world where art can literally kill people. Can’t we acknowledge that culture is awesomely powerful, a matter of life and death, without resorting to theatrics or gore — or, for that matter, the specious use of chickens? If you’re a contemporary politician or New York Times columnist, apparently not. Whatever its flaws, at least The Electric Sublime is free of fowl — caged or no.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

A Haunting ’60s Film About Mental Illness And Incarceration Becomes A Ballet


In 1967, Frederick Wiseman’s controversial documentary Titicut Follies exposed conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. Fifty years later, the filmmaker, now 87, has adapted the work into dance.

Hecco


hide caption

toggle caption

Hecco

In 1967, Frederick Wiseman’s controversial documentary Titicut Follies exposed conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. Fifty years later, the filmmaker, now 87, has adapted the work into dance.

Hecco

In 1966 Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane gave filmmaker Frederick Wiseman unprecedented access. Wiseman documented staff at the Massachusetts hospital herding patients, often heavily drugged and naked, through bare rooms and corridors.

The resulting documentary, Titicut Follies, shook up the medium and launched Wiseman’s innovative, Oscar-winning career. A ballet adaptation of the film premieres in New York Friday night.

The ballet and the film it’s based on are both deeply unsettling. “The inmates at Bridgewater were treated very badly, by and large,” Wiseman says. “But many of them had committed the most outrageous crimes imaginable.”

Some patients had abused children; others committed murder, and even cannibalism.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently called Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies documentary “a principled and gravely disturbing look into the void.”

©1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved./Courtesy of Zipporah Film, Inc.


hide caption

toggle caption

©1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved./Courtesy of Zipporah Film, Inc.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently called Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies documentary “a principled and gravely disturbing look into the void.”

©1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved./Courtesy of Zipporah Film, Inc.

The state of Massachusetts sued to have Titicut Follies banned, arguing the film invaded inmates’ privacy. Wiseman countered that he had permission from the hospital and from the patients’ families. Eventually a judge ruled Titicut Follies could only be shown for educational purposes, and that restriction remained in effect for more than 20 years.

So how did this grim story become a ballet? Wiseman saw something in particular when he was filming more than 50 years ago.

“One can’t help but notice some of the gestures and physical movements of people who are psychotic,” he says.

The filmmaker is also a ballet fan; he’s made two movies about the form. But he says it worried him that all of the productions he’s seen on stage were basically about relationships.

“Men-women. Men-men. Woman-woman. And I realized that I wasn’t seeing ballets that dealt with all the other things that were going on in the world,” he says.

Wiseman says the challenge of adapting the film into a ballet was to “present something ugly within the framework of a form that’s inherently beautiful.”

Hecco


hide caption

toggle caption

Hecco

Wiseman says the challenge of adapting the film into a ballet was to “present something ugly within the framework of a form that’s inherently beautiful.”

Hecco

So when the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University asked him to create a dance based on one of his films, he immediately chose Titicut Follies.

The challenge, he says, was to “present something ugly within the framework of a form that’s inherently beautiful.”

For help, he turned to choreographer James Sewell. For the past three years Wiseman, now 87, has made regular trips to Minneapolis to work with Sewell. The two have grappled with how to turn the tics and gestures of these people experiencing psychosis — as well as their brutal treatment at the hands of the guards — into the movements of classical ballet.

“It has to tread to some place that gets us to the place where we are cringing a little bit,” Sewell says. “But I have to find a way to do that also with the beauty of movement. That’s kind of the sugar that helps the medicine go down.”

So he drew on such classical ballets such as Giselle and La Bayadère and he had his dancers watch the documentary.

In one unforgettable scene a naked inmate called Jim is taunted by guards. The dancer who portrays the patient is Myron Johnson. He founded Ballet of the Dolls, a Minneapolis company that created edgy, classical productions for 18 years. But three years ago, Johnson suffered a mental breakdown and spent months in a psychiatric hospital, he says.

“So I know what a taboo subject mental health can be,” Johnson says. “So I was like: Awesome, make a ballet about it and get people talking!”

Raising questions about how society deals with mental illnesses is important for Sewell, the choreographer, but Wiseman sees it differently.

“The impetus for the ballet is not to affect social change,” Wiseman says. “But to make as good a ballet as one can with the material — as I try to make as good a movie as I can with the material. Then, the use or the consequences of the work is out of your hands.”

Intentional or not, Wiseman has affected social change through his films. Now, the ballet version of Titicut Follies will give audiences a different way of seeing the people Wiseman depicted in his documentary 50 years ago.

‘Obit’ Documentary Follows Journalists Who Tell Lively Stories Of Death




AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The joke used to be that the obits desk at a newspaper was where old journalists went to die. Writing obituaries was seen in the news business as a punishment, not something people wanted to do. But critic Bob Mondello says a movie called “Obit” about The New York Times’ obituaries department is downright lively.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The letters come up on screen as they’re being typed – the opening of a Times obituary that ran in 2013. For eight decades, Manson Whitlock kept the 20th century’s ambient music going – reads the first line.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

MARGALIT FOX: The music is so wonderful.

MONDELLO: The fft (ph) of the roller, the decisive zhoop-bang (ph) of the carriage return – this, it turns out, is from the obit for a man who repaired typewriters. Margalit Fox, who composed those lines about him on a computer keyboard, reconstructs her thought process.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

FOX: I started to think, what sounds do a typewriter make because it’s this music that this man was helping to keep alive. Now that he’s gone, what’s going happen to that music?

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER DING)

FOX: The finality of that…

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER CARRIAGE RETURN)

FOX: …Or this.

MONDELLO: That’s how you write an obit – now a lesson in constructing documentaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just a minute, George (ph).

MONDELLO: In front of a full orchestra, Liberace sits down not at a piano but at a typewriter. Filmmaker Vanessa Gould is having fun with archival film – not ghoulish fun. We are talking deaths here. But as the Times staffers point out, only one brief paragraph of an obit is usually about death. The rest is about the arc of a life lived, something that can be made colorful and lively, illustrated with details researched in what a newspaper calls the morgue.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

JEFF ROTH: We got geographical clippings. This is the card catalogue.

MONDELLO: Jeff Roth is the thoroughly engaging overseer of a forest of file cabinets crammed with articles and photos from past issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

ROTH: God, I can’t believe these are our clips here now. Man, what a drag. These are all the clips on – man. (Unintelligible). Someone was asking for this recently. What happens is that…

MONDELLO: He looks around at thousands of file drawers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

ROTH: As the years and generations of people working in this facility go on, the person who knew the reason for that is gone. See; it’s out of order.

MONDELLO: Roth is this film’s secret weapon. As engaging and thoughtful as the obit writers are, their machinations are about what you’d expect them to be. But Roth is quirky, a real character. And those files – like something out of “Indiana Jones.” He later goes to a cabinet filled with not-yet-published but pre-written obits. One, he marvels, was typed up in 1931 at the dawn of commercial aviation. It’s about a teenager, a woman pilot for whom the editors just assumed they’d soon need a death notice. They socked away some great photos. And when she died a few years ago in her 90s, the Times was ready. I’m Bob Mondello.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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A Haunting ’60s Film About Mental Illness And Incarceration Becomes A Ballet


In 1967, Frederick Wiseman’s controversial documentary Titicut Follies exposed conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. Fifty years later, the filmmaker, now 87, has adapted the work into dance.

Hecco


hide caption

toggle caption

Hecco

In 1967, Frederick Wiseman’s controversial documentary Titicut Follies exposed conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. Fifty years later, the filmmaker, now 87, has adapted the work into dance.

Hecco

In 1966 Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane gave filmmaker Frederick Wiseman unprecedented access. Wiseman documented staff at the Massachusetts hospital herding patients, often heavily drugged and naked, through bare rooms and corridors.

The resulting documentary, Titicut Follies, shook up the medium and launched Wiseman’s innovative, Oscar-winning career. A ballet adaptation of the film premieres in New York Friday night.

The ballet and the film it’s based on are both deeply unsettling. “The inmates at Bridgewater were treated very badly, by and large,” Wiseman says. “But many of them had committed the most outrageous crimes imaginable.”

Some patients had abused children; others committed murder, and even cannibalism.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently called Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies documentary “a principled and gravely disturbing look into the void.”

©1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved./Courtesy of Zipporah Film, Inc.


hide caption

toggle caption

©1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved./Courtesy of Zipporah Film, Inc.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently called Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies documentary “a principled and gravely disturbing look into the void.”

©1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved./Courtesy of Zipporah Film, Inc.

The state of Massachusetts sued to have Titicut Follies banned, arguing the film invaded inmates’ privacy. Wiseman countered that he had permission from the hospital and from the patients’ families. Eventually a judge ruled Titicut Follies could only be shown for educational purposes, and that restriction remained in effect for more than 20 years.

So how did this grim story become a ballet? Wiseman saw something in particular when he was filming more than 50 years ago.

“One can’t help but notice some of the gestures and physical movements of people who are psychotic,” he says.

The filmmaker is also a ballet fan; he’s made two movies about the form. But he says it worried him that all of the productions he’s seen on stage were basically about relationships.

“Men-women. Men-men. Woman-woman. And I realized that I wasn’t seeing ballets that dealt with all the other things that were going on in the world,” he says.

Wiseman says the challenge of adapting the film into a ballet was to “present something ugly within the framework of a form that’s inherently beautiful.”

Hecco


hide caption

toggle caption

Hecco

Wiseman says the challenge of adapting the film into a ballet was to “present something ugly within the framework of a form that’s inherently beautiful.”

Hecco

So when the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University asked him to create a dance based on one of his films, he immediately chose Titicut Follies.

The challenge, he says, was to “present something ugly within the framework of a form that’s inherently beautiful.”

For help, he turned to choreographer James Sewell. For the past three years Wiseman, now 87, has made regular trips to Minneapolis to work with Sewell. The two have grappled with how to turn the tics and gestures of these people experiencing psychosis — as well as their brutal treatment at the hands of the guards — into the movements of classical ballet.

“It has to tread to some place that gets us to the place where we are cringing a little bit,” Sewell says. “But I have to find a way to do that also with the beauty of movement. That’s kind of the sugar that helps the medicine go down.”

So he drew on such classical ballets such as Giselle and La Bayadère and he had his dancers watch the documentary.

In one unforgettable scene a naked inmate called Jim is taunted by guards. The dancer who portrays the patient is Myron Johnson. He founded Ballet of the Dolls, a Minneapolis company that created edgy, classical productions for 18 years. But three years ago, Johnson suffered a mental breakdown and spent months in a psychiatric hospital, he says.

“So I know what a taboo subject mental health can be,” Johnson says. “So I was like: Awesome, make a ballet about it and get people talking!”

Raising questions about how society deals with mental illnesses is important for Sewell, the choreographer, but Wiseman sees it differently.

“The impetus for the ballet is not to affect social change,” Wiseman says. “But to make as good a ballet as one can with the material — as I try to make as good a movie as I can with the material. Then, the use or the consequences of the work is out of your hands.”

Intentional or not, Wiseman has affected social change through his films. Now, the ballet version of Titicut Follies will give audiences a different way of seeing the people Wiseman depicted in his documentary 50 years ago.

‘Obit’ Documentary Follows Journalists Who Tell Lively Stories Of Death




AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The joke used to be that the obits desk at a newspaper was where old journalists went to die. Writing obituaries was seen in the news business as a punishment, not something people wanted to do. But critic Bob Mondello says a movie called “Obit” about The New York Times’ obituaries department is downright lively.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The letters come up on screen as they’re being typed – the opening of a Times obituary that ran in 2013. For eight decades, Manson Whitlock kept the 20th century’s ambient music going – reads the first line.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

MARGALIT FOX: The music is so wonderful.

MONDELLO: The fft (ph) of the roller, the decisive zhoop-bang (ph) of the carriage return – this, it turns out, is from the obit for a man who repaired typewriters. Margalit Fox, who composed those lines about him on a computer keyboard, reconstructs her thought process.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

FOX: I started to think, what sounds do a typewriter make because it’s this music that this man was helping to keep alive. Now that he’s gone, what’s going happen to that music?

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER DING)

FOX: The finality of that…

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER CARRIAGE RETURN)

FOX: …Or this.

MONDELLO: That’s how you write an obit – now a lesson in constructing documentaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just a minute, George (ph).

MONDELLO: In front of a full orchestra, Liberace sits down not at a piano but at a typewriter. Filmmaker Vanessa Gould is having fun with archival film – not ghoulish fun. We are talking deaths here. But as the Times staffers point out, only one brief paragraph of an obit is usually about death. The rest is about the arc of a life lived, something that can be made colorful and lively, illustrated with details researched in what a newspaper calls the morgue.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

JEFF ROTH: We got geographical clippings. This is the card catalogue.

MONDELLO: Jeff Roth is the thoroughly engaging overseer of a forest of file cabinets crammed with articles and photos from past issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

ROTH: God, I can’t believe these are our clips here now. Man, what a drag. These are all the clips on – man. (Unintelligible). Someone was asking for this recently. What happens is that…

MONDELLO: He looks around at thousands of file drawers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

ROTH: As the years and generations of people working in this facility go on, the person who knew the reason for that is gone. See; it’s out of order.

MONDELLO: Roth is this film’s secret weapon. As engaging and thoughtful as the obit writers are, their machinations are about what you’d expect them to be. But Roth is quirky, a real character. And those files – like something out of “Indiana Jones.” He later goes to a cabinet filled with not-yet-published but pre-written obits. One, he marvels, was typed up in 1931 at the dawn of commercial aviation. It’s about a teenager, a woman pilot for whom the editors just assumed they’d soon need a death notice. They socked away some great photos. And when she died a few years ago in her 90s, the Times was ready. I’m Bob Mondello.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Haunting ’60s Film About Mental Illness And Incarceration Becomes A Ballet


In 1967, Frederick Wiseman’s controversial documentary Titicut Follies exposed conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. Fifty years later, the filmmaker, now 87, has adapted the work into dance.

Hecco


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Hecco

In 1967, Frederick Wiseman’s controversial documentary Titicut Follies exposed conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. Fifty years later, the filmmaker, now 87, has adapted the work into dance.

Hecco

In 1966 Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane gave filmmaker Frederick Wiseman unprecedented access. Wiseman documented staff at the Massachusetts hospital herding patients, often heavily drugged and naked, through bare rooms and corridors.

The resulting documentary, Titicut Follies, shook up the medium and launched Wiseman’s innovative, Oscar-winning career. A ballet adaptation of the film premieres in New York Friday night.

The ballet and the film it’s based on are both deeply unsettling. “The inmates at Bridgewater were treated very badly, by and large,” Wiseman says. “But many of them had committed the most outrageous crimes imaginable.”

Some patients had abused children; others committed murder, and even cannibalism.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently called Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies documentary “a principled and gravely disturbing look into the void.”

©1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved./Courtesy of Zipporah Film, Inc.


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©1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved./Courtesy of Zipporah Film, Inc.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently called Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies documentary “a principled and gravely disturbing look into the void.”

©1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved./Courtesy of Zipporah Film, Inc.

The state of Massachusetts sued to have Titicut Follies banned, arguing the film invaded inmates’ privacy. Wiseman countered that he had permission from the hospital and from the patients’ families. Eventually a judge ruled Titicut Follies could only be shown for educational purposes, and that restriction remained in effect for more than 20 years.

So how did this grim story become a ballet? Wiseman saw something in particular when he was filming more than 50 years ago.

“One can’t help but notice some of the gestures and physical movements of people who are psychotic,” he says.

The filmmaker is also a ballet fan; he’s made two movies about the form. But he says it worried him that all of the productions he’s seen on stage were basically about relationships.

“Men-women. Men-men. Woman-woman. And I realized that I wasn’t seeing ballets that dealt with all the other things that were going on in the world,” he says.

Wiseman says the challenge of adapting the film into a ballet was to “present something ugly within the framework of a form that’s inherently beautiful.”

Hecco


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Hecco

Wiseman says the challenge of adapting the film into a ballet was to “present something ugly within the framework of a form that’s inherently beautiful.”

Hecco

So when the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University asked him to create a dance based on one of his films, he immediately chose Titicut Follies.

The challenge, he says, was to “present something ugly within the framework of a form that’s inherently beautiful.”

For help, he turned to choreographer James Sewell. For the past three years Wiseman, now 87, has made regular trips to Minneapolis to work with Sewell. The two have grappled with how to turn the tics and gestures of these people experiencing psychosis — as well as their brutal treatment at the hands of the guards — into the movements of classical ballet.

“It has to tread to some place that gets us to the place where we are cringing a little bit,” Sewell says. “But I have to find a way to do that also with the beauty of movement. That’s kind of the sugar that helps the medicine go down.”

So he drew on such classical ballets such as Giselle and La Bayadère and he had his dancers watch the documentary.

In one unforgettable scene a naked inmate called Jim is taunted by guards. The dancer who portrays the patient is Myron Johnson. He founded Ballet of the Dolls, a Minneapolis company that created edgy, classical productions for 18 years. But three years ago, Johnson suffered a mental breakdown and spent months in a psychiatric hospital, he says.

“So I know what a taboo subject mental health can be,” Johnson says. “So I was like: Awesome, make a ballet about it and get people talking!”

Raising questions about how society deals with mental illnesses is important for Sewell, the choreographer, but Wiseman sees it differently.

“The impetus for the ballet is not to affect social change,” Wiseman says. “But to make as good a ballet as one can with the material — as I try to make as good a movie as I can with the material. Then, the use or the consequences of the work is out of your hands.”

Intentional or not, Wiseman has affected social change through his films. Now, the ballet version of Titicut Follies will give audiences a different way of seeing the people Wiseman depicted in his documentary 50 years ago.

‘Obit’ Documentary Follows Journalists Who Tell Lively Stories Of Death




AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The joke used to be that the obits desk at a newspaper was where old journalists went to die. Writing obituaries was seen in the news business as a punishment, not something people wanted to do. But critic Bob Mondello says a movie called “Obit” about The New York Times’ obituaries department is downright lively.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The letters come up on screen as they’re being typed – the opening of a Times obituary that ran in 2013. For eight decades, Manson Whitlock kept the 20th century’s ambient music going – reads the first line.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

MARGALIT FOX: The music is so wonderful.

MONDELLO: The fft (ph) of the roller, the decisive zhoop-bang (ph) of the carriage return – this, it turns out, is from the obit for a man who repaired typewriters. Margalit Fox, who composed those lines about him on a computer keyboard, reconstructs her thought process.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

FOX: I started to think, what sounds do a typewriter make because it’s this music that this man was helping to keep alive. Now that he’s gone, what’s going happen to that music?

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER DING)

FOX: The finality of that…

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER CARRIAGE RETURN)

FOX: …Or this.

MONDELLO: That’s how you write an obit – now a lesson in constructing documentaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just a minute, George (ph).

MONDELLO: In front of a full orchestra, Liberace sits down not at a piano but at a typewriter. Filmmaker Vanessa Gould is having fun with archival film – not ghoulish fun. We are talking deaths here. But as the Times staffers point out, only one brief paragraph of an obit is usually about death. The rest is about the arc of a life lived, something that can be made colorful and lively, illustrated with details researched in what a newspaper calls the morgue.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

JEFF ROTH: We got geographical clippings. This is the card catalogue.

MONDELLO: Jeff Roth is the thoroughly engaging overseer of a forest of file cabinets crammed with articles and photos from past issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

ROTH: God, I can’t believe these are our clips here now. Man, what a drag. These are all the clips on – man. (Unintelligible). Someone was asking for this recently. What happens is that…

MONDELLO: He looks around at thousands of file drawers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OBIT”)

ROTH: As the years and generations of people working in this facility go on, the person who knew the reason for that is gone. See; it’s out of order.

MONDELLO: Roth is this film’s secret weapon. As engaging and thoughtful as the obit writers are, their machinations are about what you’d expect them to be. But Roth is quirky, a real character. And those files – like something out of “Indiana Jones.” He later goes to a cabinet filled with not-yet-published but pre-written obits. One, he marvels, was typed up in 1931 at the dawn of commercial aviation. It’s about a teenager, a woman pilot for whom the editors just assumed they’d soon need a death notice. They socked away some great photos. And when she died a few years ago in her 90s, the Times was ready. I’m Bob Mondello.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.