The exciting life of a true documentarian.

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

An autobiographical epic: From Canary Bananas, his first movie in 1935, to a musical production in post-Soviet Siberia, the memoir follows history through the eyes of a man who was present at so many key moments of the 20th century, among them, the battle for Burma, the Japanese surrender at Nanking, John F. Kennedy’s primary campaign, the Kenyan leap towards independence, and the enrollment of the first African American students at the University of Alabama.

Richard Leacock

Richard Leacock writes to his woman Happy Burke in 1946: “He feels so sad that what he started in on 20 years ago has come to so little. Apparently he went to all the foundations and whatnot and got no place with them. He feels pretty discouraged when he sees only a couple of people interested in what he tried to start … Me? I’m getting more hopeful every day because I am learning a heck from Bob. He is breaking down all (or at least some) of photographic inhibitions, my being scared to try something because it ‘might not’ work … It’s terribly late darling, so good night and I hope to God I dream of you again. I am so very, very lonely and I want you so very much. I want to hug you and kiss you all over, and nestle my head between your breasts. I want to talk to you and live with you and wake up with you beside me. Why wasn’t I a plumber?” these words are from a letter dated April 1946 sent by Leacock to Happy Burke, with whom he had four children. It was written during the 14 months that he was working on Louisiana Story with Bob (Robert Flaherty) the father of documentary. It reflects perfectly the elements and tone of this magnificent book, and Leacock’s gratitude towards Flaherty, who “was the experience of my life” and “who defined my future”. The 25-yearold Leacock kept this appetite for learning until his death some months before the memoir The Feeling of Being There was to come out. The language of the book, the unpretentiousness – and the challenge of maintaining a normal married life faced by a filmmaker who was constantly away filming.

The book is outstanding. Leacock himself expresses “the hope that I am talking to a new generation”, and there is no doubt that youngfilmmakers will be able to take inspiration and energy from it. With its richness in content and with its excellent set-up the book will have a broad appeal to film makers, but also film historians, film students, film viewers, adventurers, hedonists. It is for all generations, and in addition it can be read by anyone with reasonably good English language skills. It is film history and it is the story of the exciting life of a true documentarian. It is well illustrated and even includes recipes by Leacock, who declares that he has always been the cook in his many relationships!

Leacock:

«don’t waste your time on running around to raise funding at television stations»

Grand words, but I never had so much pleasure reading a film book. It also actually gives you more than a film book, including a DVB (Digital Video Book) with the text and illustrations of the printed book, plus the possibility of watching more than 100 excerpts from films that Leacock was involved in or wanted to say something important about. In other words you can read the book on your computer and watch the clips as you read, or you can – as I did – sit in a good armchair with the beautiful book and a glass of wine and fall into the world of a generous, warm-hearted man. From the armchair to the computer, to double clicking on excerpts from films from 1929 up to the beginning of this century.

What a brilliant idea of Leacock’s, who said that he wanted this combination for his memoir because as with wine, you can read and talk about it, but it is so much better to taste – better to watch! leacock tried it all, in life and film. For the latter he is clearly sending a message to us: use the new technology, the little digital cameras, they are superb, go out and film and come back and edit. Don’t waste your time on running around to raise funding at television stations who will not give you anything anyway. He is advocating the free film because a “documentary on television is like dropping a feather into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo”, as his father-in-law once put it. The letters from Leacock are essential for what I find the most interesting and moving chapter of the book, “Back in the USA: Flaherty and Louisiana Story”. It describes in great detail how it was to make (the) film in 1948. It discloses the technical skills and interests of Leacock: “I wanted to know how everything worked, I still do even if I do not understand computers”, he writes. And you understand his anger and disappointment when a camera scratches the celluloid. He turns the shooting of Louisiana Story into a drama through the love letters home to Happy, who gets what went well and not so well every day. To give you an idea of the DVB format, the chapter about Flaherty includes clips from (of course) Nanook (1922), Moana (two scenes) (1926) and four scenes from Louisiana Story (1948), all with concrete explanations, which are inspiring to read. This chapter also has a clip from the 1945 film by John Huston, Let there be Light: “this film was the first of many examples of my dream of non-intervention”. The clip is quite sensational, a psychiatrist treating a soldier with post-war trauma. The non-intervention, as he calls it – much better than the phrase we normally use: “fly on the wall” – is dealt with (pointing to Robert Drew and Pennebaker) in the book. We also get insights into his teaching at MIT, his many small and bigger jobs, and his meeting “the woman of my life”, Valerie Lalonde, in 1988. He settles in France, the country that had always given him more recognition than the US. He was praised for Primary by Henri Langlois, he made films on his own and with Valerie, who stands behind this wonderful publication together with Perle Møhl and Sebastien Pesce.


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