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6 Filmmaking Tips from Pioneer Documentarian William Greaves

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One
Janus Films
By  · Published on September 24th, 2014

If there are two words that describe public appreciation of William Greaves, they would be “belated” and “lacking.” The film Greaves is best known for, 1971’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, didn’t see an official theatrical release until thirty years after its completion (thanks in part to the support of Steve Buscemi and Steven Soderbergh). When Greaves passed away last month at the age of 87, he left behind an amazing body of work, having produced and directed dozens of documentaries. Yet even amongst this country’s underrepresented class of African American filmmakers, Greaves’ contributions remain overlooked.

It is no exaggeration to say that media gatekeepers have been wary of Greaves’ work. Greaves decided at an early age not to be relegated by Hollywood’s single-minded understanding of blackness and the lack of creative opportunities it permits for persons of color. Greaves used these limitations as the lifeblood of his work, challenging political, institutional, and aesthetic boundaries. One look at Symbiopsychotaxiplasm explains, but does not justify, its delayed release: this is the work of his filmmaker ahead of his time, and one with no patience for conventional approaches to filmmaking.

So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from an essential American filmmaker.

“What Else Can We Do?”

In Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, the process of making a film (and Greaves’ deliberate obfuscation of clear direction) becomes the film itself, eventually unraveling into a mobius strip in which the cast is unable to determine exactly which side of the camera they’re on, or what constitutes an off-screen or on-screen performance. It’s a mind-bendingly funny and chaotically inventive blend of fact and fiction, but it also reveals an essential truth about filmmaking ‐ the notion of shared authorship.

Greaves’ onscreen question arises from the frustration shared by the crew of filming the same conversation ad nauseum, but within it also resides the joy of filmmaking. With Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Greaves essentially took one isolated scene and made an entire movie about how the seemingly solitary filmic “event” is really a slippery and interminable concept. What can we do with the utilities of filmmaking? Pretty much anything, even a seemingly amateur production that ends up challenging the very form of documentary.

“Don’t Take Me Seriously”

Greaves began his career as an actor, but eventually shifted his focus on documentary filmmaking after he grew frustrated with the stereotypical, subordinate roles African-Americans were expected to play. That is to say, Greaves took filmic representation quite seriously, as it arguably motivated the arc of his career. So when Greaves tells the camera not to take him seriously in Symbiospsychotaxiplasm (as he does at the end of the film’s 2001 release trailer, above), it is part of an incredible performance he enacts in the film, a masterful role that almost goes unnoticed as such by his beleaguered crew.

But this also reveals the importance of play essential to Greaves’ work in this film ‐ it’s something of a summation of the film, a call not to take boundaries and categories and conventions seriously. By not taking cinematic tradition seriously, incredible new possibilities can be produced. Not treating certain things seriously can result in important filmmaking.

Soderbergh, meanwhile, sees that mania as creating true spontaneous cinematic gold that could not be made by any other means:

“[Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is] the ultimate ‘reality’ piece. The difference being, in this case, that nobody was in on the joke. And that’s what makes it so brilliant. When you do a reality show on TV today, you know you’re part of a show and that they’re going to start creating obstacles for you or trying to complicate the situation purposefully and consciously. Here, you’re just watching a situation where people are absolutely convinced that Bill is out of control, doesn’t know what he’s doing, and you’re a fly on the wall. And then the ultimate mutiny takes place. It’s really incredible. I think when he was presented with that material, he must have felt like the cinema gods were smiling on him.”

Also, a lack of seriousness can create some really cinematic conflict…

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Inscrutable

“One of the elements of my characterization [in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm] was my inscrutability. Try and try as much as they could, they couldn’t decode my motives. That was calculated to elicit a degree of tension and angry and anxiety in the crew. They couldn’t decode my motives, and I didn’t want them to decode my motives, because I wanted to see if it would be possible to generate as much conflict in front of the camera as possible. Conflict being the hallmark of a really good drama.”

Bring the Shrouded Histories Forward

From 1969 to 1970, Greaves ran the National Educational Television (a precursor to PBS) program Black Journal, a news show produced by African Americans, made for an African American audience, and covering subjects related to African American life in the United States. In the years following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, NET saw the use of television for civic discourse as a pertinent need of the national interest, and Greaves’ work with the program (after having produced several documentaries about African American and African diasporic life for the UN) earned him an Emmy award and, more importantly, American television with a rare venue for broadcasting the heterogeneous politics, tribulations, and concerns of African Americans.

Moving image media can be a powerful vessel for mobilizing citizenry and sharing subjectivity, and Greaves saw it as his duty to use the utilities of media to bring histories to light that mainstream America would rather ignore.

Understand How Deep the “Marketing Problem” Goes

“You have to decide when you make a movie‚ and it’s a tough decision-how authentic, how pure, how faithful you must be to reality while at the same time making this product so that people will go to see it. This is an extremely tricky, difficult challenge for a filmmaker. And in the climate of an extremely racist society, this was a marketing problem.”

Filmmaking is a cumbersome enterprise. It’s a collective, expensive, arduous effort that requires significant media capital in order to accomplish anything at all. The United States has enjoyed a robust film industry, but one that is defined commercially and, therefore, subject to a logic of valuation that measures projects based on market-based concerns. For a person of color to make non-commercial films that challenge common wisdom ‐ whether that be in regard to politics or what a documentary “looks like” ‐ this problem is compounded exponentially. The balance between authenticity and marketability is not only a practical concern, it is one that can define a person’s identity as a filmmaker, especially if they want to say anything of import.

Be a Hurricane

“I thought I was going to be a hurricane, but I ended up a becoming merely a single raindrop. Hopefully there are other raindrops of similar mind.”

According to The New York Times, this was one of Greaves’ assessments of his own career. It is in part a sadly accurate statement of Greaves’ obscured place in the history of American filmmaking, one shadowed by the limited opportunity for exposure that Greaves’ work incurred as a result of the challenging, unconventional, non-commercial subject matter he often lent his lens to.

But this summation is also a potentially profound understatement. Greaves left behind reportedly hundreds of credits between his television, film, and institutional work. He created media across boundaries and, in the process, challenged those boundaries and fought for a voice where none was made available to him. Just as Symbiopsychotaxiplasm took thirty years to be “discovered,” Greaves has left behind a lifetime of work awaiting appreciation. More to Greaves’ point, such a stamp might not have made the immediate impact Greaves hoped for, but it planted the seeds to influence a generation to come. Enough raindrops and noise can produce a hurricane, indeed.

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