Eugene Jarecki has directed two documentary films, “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” (2002, co-directed with Alex Gibney) and “Why We Fight” (which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005).
DOX: “You have directed both fiction and non-fiction films. Do you have a preference?”
EJ: They’re very different experiences and they reflect a different role for the artist in the society at large. We’re living in a time where truth – or at least the pursuit of truth that a documentary represents – is not only at times stranger and more interesting than fiction, but arguably more necessary. The world has a lot of fiction right now. We are deeply suffering from many of the prevailing fictions. So I’m less driven right now to increase the world’s supply of fiction and more driven to increase the world’s supply of non-fiction. That’s a very strong motivation. My choice is based on a sense that we are facing a number of significant emergencies that need people who have the ability, the means and the wherewithal to take the time to shine light on subjects of desperate concern. If those people can do that, they need to do it.
DOX: “So you believe that’s your responsibility as a filmmaker?”
EJ: Yes, and my responsibility came to me very specifically. I have a friend in New York who runs a restaurant. He talks politics while he prepares you very exotic soups. Early on when we were making “Why We Fight” he said, “I heard about that movie you’re making about the military industrial complex.” I said, “What do you think?” He said, “There’s a right way and a wrong way to make that movie. You seem to think that you’re part of some movement. I’m not going to argue with you about whether you are or you’re not but let’s say you are. In that movement, there are probably other people and everybody has a function. Your job is to be the guy with the flashlight and to shine it in dark corners. And the trouble is that because you’re a human being, you’re going to find things that are going to make you mad. And then you might get the big idea to use your flashlight like a stick to try and hit the forces that are making you mad. But those forces have always been built far out of your reach. That’s just the nature of it. And so you will flail your flashlight and the beam will never settle in any one spot long enough for anyone to perceive anything. So they will get nothing and you will fail.”
That advice haunted me in the editing of the film because it meant that I know the difference in a film, particularly a documentary that’s meant to be an ambush or a strike on something and something that is truly more reflective and more respectful of the nuance in any given situation. The absence of visible villains in “Why We Fight” is seen as one of the qualities of the film that most invite people to want to watch it. In many ways, that resistance to provide a simple villain derived from that advice to avoid using the flashlight to take a cheap shot.
DOX: “How were you able to gain access to such a wide range of people like Alexander Haig in The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle in Why We Fight?”
EJ: Because the approach we take strikes the people as a departure from the usual simplified rant to which they’re accustomed to being subjected. And I make it very clear to them the kind of texture and complexity I’m trying to pursue. More often than not, just to get me off the phone, they agree to do an interview. It has to do with goodwill as a person. When I speak to people, they can say a lot of things but they will have a lot of trouble ignoring that I represent a longstanding tradition in America of tough love, deep-looking reflection, and a willingness to look at the country critically out of love. If they’re not ready for that approach, what are they working for? What are they fighting for? In a certain sense there’s almost a moral pressure in the approach I take that makes people drop their usual guard, which has been put there as an adaptation to the shrillness of contemporary discourse in Washington and on television.
“Why We Fight” was given full Pentagon approval to interview people up and down the chain of command. [We got that access] by working very hard to communicate that we were doing something in the journalistic tradition of the BBC that was not an ambush piece. It was a far-reaching and considered look at the changing face of the American military establishment at a time of war in the shadow of Eisenhower’s warning. Who wants to go tell a thoughtful person that they feel threatened by them?
DOX: “Do you think that doing “Why We Fight” for the BBC gave you more credibility? “
EJ: I’m sure it does.
DOX: “And being a white male?”
EJ: Being a white male would not have helped me film the sequences in the movie about Iraq. The woman who did that work is May Ying Welsh. She filmed all the material in Iraq for “Why We Fight”. That’s original footage. She put herself in harm’s way to talk to everyday people in Iraq about why America fights in a time of war. Had it been me, a white American male or even had it been an Iraqi stringer, we would never have gotten the kind of heartfelt candour from Iraqis that we did. May Ying is an Asian American who speaks fluent Arabic. So she’s a confusing figure to talk to and a disarming figure in the real use of the word disarming. She gets them to drop their arms because it’s not the danger of talking to an American and being seen as a sympathizer or talking to an Iraqi and being in jeopardy of being bombed like Al Jazeera. So she occupied an extraordinary piece that accounts for why the footage in the film and what will be on the DVD is so extremely deep. She’s the real thing. The rest of us sit on our couches talking about war. May Ying is there.
DOX: “When you’re in the editing room, how closely do you work with your editor?”
EJ: For an insecure editor, I would be a nightmare. For a confident editor, I’m a very involved director. I run my own editing system as well and usually I’m trying to get too much done in too short a period of time, so my willingness to be an Avid operator is welcome in the end. But it takes a confident editor like Nancy Kennedy (“Why We Figh”) to tolerate that involved of a director. Simon Barker (“The Trials of Henry Kissinger”), another editor I work with, is also so confident as to welcome that kind of involvement. In fact, Simon considers it a brief holiday every time I go to the Avid. He can sit back and take a more executive approach and give himself the time to have an overview of the event and not have to exercise those operator muscles that don’t necessarily leave the editor much brain space to consider the bigger picture. So I tend to work in a real tag-team relationship with the editor and it has proven very effective. Editing is very time-consuming, very labour-intensive because I’m a person who experiments a great deal on the way to get to the kind of narrative I arrive at. It doesn’t follow a script.
DOX: “What filmmakers have influenced your work?”
EJ: It all starts with Melvin Van Peebles who is my godfather and took me under his wing at a young age, along with my brother Andrew, and was very much a mentor figure for us in our coming of age as independent thinkers and as people who thought that our independent thought could find a home in creative art of one kind or another. Melvin never dogmatized that that should be film art. He created a culture of openness for us where we could evolve as we sought to. He was an example of real audacity and real unblinking courage and an indefatigable work ethic. That’s what we got from him. Then there are people who have affected me in creative ways. I always hate naming the filmmakers that have mattered to you because it excludes the others. Fred Wiseman’s films, individual films like [Leon Gast’s] “When We Were Kings”, which I think is a colossal achievement and a film that shows almost more than any other documentary ever made, the capacity to be earnest, political, and extremely exciting all at the same time. Substance and sex appeal all wrapped into one. In dramatic filmmaking there are people who inspire me a lot and their inspiration even carries over into my documentary work. In the tradition of Warren Beatty, you now see George Clooney carrying on the mantle of using his formidable power in Hollywood to put issues at the centre of dramas and that’s a courageous and invaluable contribution.