Recent Austin resident Anne Lewis tells me she gets her documentary ideas from "living in a place and talking with the people." The two films she'll screen at the Alamo on Wednesday, August 18, as this month's installment of the Texas Documentary Tour, Fast Food Women (1991) and To Save the Land and People (1999), come from her 25 years living in legendarily poor Appalachia. During those years, the Washington, D.C., native says her films tended to be "mainly [about] the working class, [the] rural, and probably mostly [about] women."
Fast Food Women, for example, arose from Lewis' observation of the middle-aged eastern Kentucky women who, as fungible, unskilled workers, stoke the fires of corporate profitability by toiling in fast-food chain kitchens for little pay and no benefits. Then, after witnessing the essentially futile, decades-long struggle of the disenfranchised mountain people against the indifference of the companies who strip-mined their land -- and heritage -- for coal, Lewis made her most recent film, To Save the Land and People, which will premiere at the Alamo screening. During her Appalachian tenure, she also married one of the striking coal miners and had two sons.
A year ago, the 51-year-old Lewis moved to Austin with her second husband, Jim Branson, a labor organizer with the Texas State Employees Union. We can only wonder what films Lewis will be inspired to make after living among us for a while.
(Not that I haven't enjoyed being mistaken for Anne Lewis, the documentary maker -- the quizzical phone calls, when Anne Lewis was scheduled to give a film talk, from my own friends anxious to hear how I'd finessed the unlikely and unheralded leap from writing about documentaries to actually making them. But, as luck would have it, when it came time to finally set the record straight -- to do "Anne Lewis on Anne Lewis" -- our vacation schedules were hopelessly tangled, and we were unable to arrange an interview. I e-mailed Lewis some questions about her films and filmmaking background, still hoping for some kind of Q&A, but, upon receiving her response, it was clear that the best presentation of it was simply to extract it, more or less verbatim.)
On her background as a filmmaker: I feel like someone who's been asked to tell everything about themselves. So, one piece at a time: As a much younger person, I was supposed to be a scientist and was politically involved in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the counterculture. Dropped out of Berkeley in 1966 right after I got there. Learned some about film by working with a group on the Bowery in NYC. We shot black-and-white eight millimeter reversal, developed it ourselves, edited the original with hot splicers, and showed it in Central Park. Then I worked my way through the School of Visual Arts (at that time an art school, now associated with NYU). When I was about to graduate, Nixon invaded Cambodia, so we all went on strike. Never got my degree.
After some odd jobs, I went to work as Marian Kraft's assistant editor. Marian was one of the first women to break into film. She was a refugee from Nazi Germany. As her assistant, I did everything from sweep the floor to making every physical cut. She'd mark them with grease pencil, and I'd make the cut with a squawk box and rewinds.
I also was Paul Faulkenburg's production assistant and assistant editor. Paul was the editor of Fritz Lang's M. He came from the time when mylar tape hadn't been invented. He saved his old splices. He had an old moviola and was able to go through an entire complex film without making a mistake -- I saw him do it.
Then I worked as assistant editor for Marcel Ophüls [The Sorrow and the Pity]. That was with Marian Kraft as editor, Ana Caragan as assistant director. We were holed up in an editing room for more than a year working on a feature about Northern Ireland,A Sense of Loss. I'd wind up the trims at night so that I could watch the editing.
On the side, I worked as sound woman for Claudia Weill's Joyce at 34, rotoscoped a couple making love for a political feature, recut a New York public library film for the Iranian Student Association, and worked with Barbara Kopple [Wild Man Blues, Harlan County, U.S.A.] on a Bruce Davison film about a junk-picker in New Jersey.
In 1972, I began working on what was going to be Harlan County, U.S.A. The film started as a piece about the rank-and-file rebellion in the United Mineworkers. The union leadership had been going against its rank and file on important issues like black lung, democracy in the union, and mine safety. Tony Boyle, the president at the time, had murdered his opponent, Yablonski. So we followed the Boyle-Miller election. Miller was a rank-and-file miner from southern West Virginia who had been in the leadership of the black lung movement. He won.
So then we had this interesting footage for union people but not much of a movie. In 1973, Barbara got a call from the Mineworkers asking her to go to Harlan County to "save lives." So four of us flew out. There was cameraman Kevin Keating, and then a fellow named Richard Warner. Richard was to be our local guide. He had run a sock store in Knoxville for a while named "Toe Jam and (something else)." We got into the Knoxville airport at about 11pm, rented a station wagon, loaded a ton of 16 millimeter gear, and began driving. It was late, there were only two-lane roads, we got lost in the mountains, we were taking stuff to stay awake, getting more and more paranoid. Then it was four in the morning, and Barbara said we'd better go straight to the picket line. We drove up through the mist, crossed a bridge, and there on one side of the road were about 50 state troopers -- really tough-looking guys. On the other side, there were about 50 women -- really tough-looking women, with clubs. Richard said, "I'm not getting out of this car." So we turned around and found a pay phone and called the organizer. He came down and took us across the bridge and about 15 minutes later we were filming arrests.
I think I realized that -- as a filmmaker, not only as a person -- I needed to be on one side or the other. For one thing, it was a matter of survival. For another, it was the right thing to do.
I ended up staying in Appalachia for the next 25 years, until about a year ago when I moved to Austin. I think I went to save myself. I'm not much of a missionary -- and the mountains have plenty enough of them. The short of it was I married one of the striking coal miners, we had two boys, I worked in a sewing factory, a furniture plant, went back to the land, began to do video with cable access TV.
Then in 1982 I went to work with Appalshop (see below). I was partners with Marty Newell (who later came to Austin to direct ACTV), and we were producing 26 half-hour television programs a year. They were broadcast on the NBC affiliate in Hazard with no commercial breaks at prime time. The series, Headwaters, was real popular. It was almost all local. Marty and I did everything except when we used other Appalshop and independent films. You can imagine the quality -- everything from the Hazard community choir accompanied by the London (Kentucky) symphony doing Handel's Messiah toa few shows I still like. Marty left, I slowed the pace down to a maximum of about seven half-hours a year about mountain issues and culture, and moved it to Kentucky Educational Television.
On Appalshop: Appalshop was at that time a collective of filmmakers, musicians, playwrights and actors, and others. It was a worker-managed group that agreed on very little except the right of mountain people to self-determination. Most of the artists were from the Appalachian region or had lived there for many years and were fiercely defensive of mountain culture and people.
Appalshop is located in a town of about 1,500 in the middle of one of the poorest parts of Appalachia, which is still one of the poorest parts of the country. It continues to this day as a major force in its community and the region as a whole. Appalshop is much more organized now, has about 35 people working full time, includes film, television, radio, theatre, the American Festival Project of performing arts, a record label, an education program for local high school students, community outreach, and distribution. I'm still working there as a part-time employee.
When I moved to Austin about a year ago, I brought four unfinished projects with me and was on a Rockefeller Fellowship at the time, so I've continued to work on Appalshop projects.
On the documentaries she's made: There are maybe 15 that I feel good about. These include cultural pieces like Morgan Sexton; pieces about coal miners like Justice in the Coalfields; education, Hands On and So Was Einstein; history, Roving Pickets; women's lives, Evelyn Williams; community organizing, Rough Side of the Mountain; and environment, On Our Own Land, Chemical Valley, and Ready for Harvest.
On the kinds of films she makes: I don't think I make "advocacy" films. I am primarily a political/movement filmmaker, although I've done a fair number of cultural and history pieces as well. I think my work is more straight documentary with a point of view. My aim is to tell the truth. Of course, I want the work to be useful, but I sure don't plan it in advance.
For example, Belinda, about an eastern Kentucky AIDS activist, was supposed to be about a young mother living with HIV. Well, first of all, Belinda refused to have her children or husband anywhere near the documentary. Instead she turned it around to be about the rest of us and our attitudes.
I think I have a modern documentary style. My work is unscripted, unnarrated, and has elements of cinéma vérité. The interviewing style is nonconfrontational and spontaneous. I look for authenticity; I hate pretentiousness. I make documentaries for the people in them -- who are mainly working-class, rural, and probably majority female. One programmer in West Virginia paired my documentaries (which I was thinking of as kind of alternative) with a country music series and called it her Blue Collar Hour. I like that.
On editing her films: I always edit my own films. I love the process of editing -- it's intuitiveness, surprises -- and it's really where I learn the most about my subject. I'm interested in just about everything -- but most of that seems to be the stuff that no one else is interested in. The experiences of people who are not particularly exotic or eccentric or famous -- in places that are a bit out of the way but not particularly glamorous -- frequently young or old or female or working-class or minority -- trying to make sense of it all and having some creativity and energy and intelligence and dignity. In other words, my subjects come out of living and being in a place and talking with people.
I have a somewhat different relationship with my subjects and their communities than the usual. I used to call Headwaters an experiment in community-directed television. I always ask advice and generally get it and follow it from my subjects about where to go and who to talk with. I have no problem showing them material back or giving them copies. I ask them to show me around their community. If a community person says they don't want something they said left in the program, I always honor their request -- no matter how great the footage might be. I operate from a position of trust.
It sometimes takes me a real long time to finish a documentary -- like five or 10 years. Of course, I make others in between. Others take a year. Sometimes I want to follow an issue over that kind of time stretch. For example, in Rough Side of the Mountain, we started with the auction of a town and the successful purchase of the town by its citizens. We followed what happened there for 10 years after. Sometimes I just can't think real quickly about stuff and it sits while I figure it out. Then sometimes I can't seem to find the funding to finish a piece.
On her funding sources: I generally find grants from state arts and humanities councils, foundations that are involved in the issues, community foundations in the local area where the piece takes place. I've gotten one ITVS grant, a few fellowships, and some general support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Also Kentucky Educational Television has created a fund for independent production. I remember in the early days of Headwaters bartering for 20 rolls of raw stock, but now they fund regional independentfilmmakers up to about $20,000. Appalshop has commonly held equipment and I work in video, not film. I don't pay myself particularly well by industry standards, but enough to, at times, support myself and my children. So I don't need a tremendous quantity of money. And then I like to do a lot of different productions at different stages at the same time. It's a way to survive.
On Fast Food Women:Fast Food Women started with the observation that middle-aged women were working at fast-food restaurants around me. Access to the restaurants was not particularly difficult. It comes with working where you live. Of course one-seventh of the current work force has worked at McDonald's so it's not particularly hard to know people who work in fast food. I just asked around. Management was more concernedabout violations of hygiene than with the way they were treating workers, so when I told them I was interested in watching the speed of their work force and talking with them, there was usually no problem. There were no hidden cameras.
One repercussion from the film was that when Hillary Clinton was pushing for health insurance, I got a call from the White House. A staffer had seen Fast Food Women and wanted to see if several of the women in it would be willing to testify before the Senate (along with the CEO of Pizza Hut) about the need for health insurance for workers. Two women went -- Nellie Kincer, the cook at KFC, and one of the waitresses at Pizza Hut. Their testimony was eloquent -- especially after the CEO of Pizza Hut talked about how he would have to pass the cost of health insurance on to the consumers. The waitress asked, "Which is more important -- my health or a quarter more on a pizza?"
On To Save the Land and People:To Save the Land and People was much more difficult. The Alamo will be its first showing. It will open the first Summit Against Mountaintop Removal, later this month. It's got characters like Dan Gibson, Alice Slone, and Otis King, who reached the quality of myth in the mountains. I had made an earlier piece, On Our Own Land, about the fight against the broad form deed which won the Columbia-DuPont award for independent broadcast journalism in spite of attempts to censor it. So I had learned quite a bit of the history of the anti-strip mining movement. I was shocked to find that even activists did not know much about the early heros of the movement. Certainly the more mainstream environmentalists knew nothing -- thought they had invented it all.
Also I was working with a great guy -- Buck Maggard -- who is in the piece. And so we began documenting people and just barely got a few before they died -- Bessie Smith, Alice Slone, and then Buck Maggard are all gone now. I think without Buck this documentary would not exist. That's hard, and it's hard editing material of dead people because it becomes too important. And then funding of such a radical history (more akin to Earth First! than to the Sierra Club) was very hard indeed.
As for resolution of the issue, I've heard it said that they won't leave the mountains alone until the last block of coal is gone. There are lots of people fighting hard against strip mining now and it's in the national news for the first time in a generation. I think it can be stopped at least in local areas. As for the damage that has already been done to both land and culture ... those things can never be put back.
I was questioning whether I should be showing such a mountain piece in Austin -- whether it demanded too much prior knowledge, attention, and interest. Then I opened the paper and there was strip mining as an issue about 30 miles outside of Austin. Now, I know the mountains aren't tumbling down in Texas, and they're probably not rooting the dead out of their graves here -- but it's still got a lot in common in terms of destruction of both the land and the people. So it's up to all of us to resolve it.
On what's next: I have two new documentaries in the works. One is on a model women's shelter program in rural West Virginia and the grassroots women's movement that brought the battering of women into the national consciousness if not into national institutions. I've been following four women for about five years now into courthouses, police stations, welfare departments, and churches as they rebuild their lives. I'm nearly finished shooting, but it's been almost impossible to fund.
The other is based on an area in east Tennessee. In the Eighties and Nineties, the factories began moving to Mexico. At about the same time the migrant stream from Mexico came into the area. So this is a look at globalization through the eyes of workers in East Tennessee -- Anglo, African-American, and Mexican -- and in Mexico. I'm beginning with a series of video letters from workers on both sides of the border. A set should be ready for popular education and organizing by early fall.
And there's another piece that I just finished -- His Eye Is on the Sparrow about Ethel Caffie-Austin, a gospel musician from West Virginia. Then I have a few Texas projects in mind.
Fast Food Women and To Save the Land and the People will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, August 18, at the Alamo Drafthouse, at 7pm; tickets for the show go on sale at 6pm. Admission is $5 for the general public; $3.50 for Austin Film Society members, KLRU members, and students. Anne Lewis will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session after the screening. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.