Getting Their Messages Out:
2 Filmmakers Use Art to Make a Difference
By Joan Crowder
News Press Correspondent
Haskell Wexler and Kevin McKiernan are filmmakers who use their cynicism about “the system” to fuel their belief that they can use their art to make a difference ó or if they can’t they will darn well try.
Wexler, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer for both feature films and documentaries, and McKiernan, an intrepid photojournalist, both have documentaries screening in the 15th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Wexler’s “Bus Riders Union” chronicles the grass roots struggle of Los Angeles bus riders as they organized to press L.A.’s Metropolitan Transit Authority to allocate money from the mass transit budget for more and better buses. It is a social movement that proves that activism lives, and can still get results. It will screen at 6 p.m. Friday at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Wexler has made more than 30 documentaries and has been director of photography for 60 feature films, winning Oscars for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” and “Coming Home.”
McKiernan is an attorney-turned filmmaker who received awards for his documentaries and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
McKiernan’s film, “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends but the Mountains,” exposes the plight of the Kurdish people in Turkey, victims of a long and bloody battle of ethnic cleansing that has gone virtually unreported in the U.S. The documentary features a Santa Barbara family of Kurdish immigrants whose lives resonate with the events in Turkey. It also tells of McKiernan’s frustration at not being able to get the mainstream media to let him tell the story. The title refers to the difference between the Kurds living in Iraq, who receive moral and military support from the U.S., and the Kurds in Turkey, who are being oppressed by the Turkish government, a strategic U.S. ally aided by U.S. weapons. The winner of the film festival’s Humanitarian Award, “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds” will have two screenings, at noon Sunday at the Fiesta 5 and at 7 p.m. March 11 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Wexler shot much of the American footage in McKiernan’s film and they are not only colleagues cut from the same cloth, but friends. Wexler first met McKiernan in 1973. “I heard him on a radio program, broadcasting from inside the siege at Wounded Knee and I wanted to meet him,” Wexler said during a lengthy and far-ranging interview with the two men.
They had also run into each other while each was filming his own controversial film in Nicaragua in the early ë80s. Their descriptions of each other put the two filmmakers firmly on the same wave length.
“Kevin is in the tradition of the old idea of a foreign correspondent ó a guy out there looking for the truth. His life functions on principle,” Wexler said.
McKiernan describes Wexler as a mentor to many. “It’s amazing that with all of his awards and his star on the sidewalk, he still works with people like me.” It’s all about getting the information out, he added. “He finds something on page 37 of The New York Times and yells about it because he thinks it’s important.”
Ferreting out a story of social injustice or political struggle was the purpose of broadcast journalism in past decades, he pointed out. “Journalists used to be the leaders and the educators. Now they are the reflectors. The don’t tell you what you should know, but ask you, “What do you want to hear?’”
“The marriage to the millionaire was on every TV channel,” Wexler noted, and the prevailing superficiality can be seen inthe current political races. “The cultural attitude (of the viewers) is, “I’m going to judge whether they did a good job. It’s about how they look and sound ó did they make a faux pas? They’re evaluating the presentation and ignoring or minimizing the content.”
Both filmmakers complained that when someone sees a film, even a documentary, the comments are often about the length of it, or that there was too much music, not about what it was about. A friend saw an article he wrote about a brutal murder in Guatemala, McKiernan said, and reacted to how the photos were printed.
“Are we in some celestial art club, with no connection to earth? Art is an abstraction and that’s the paradox of documentary filmmaking. We want the audiences to be moved by real content.
People are so bombarded with visual stimuli that they think they know everything, McKiernan added. “But they have less real experience. Art imitates art instead of art imitating life.”
Wexler is equally frustrated about the use of the media. “How do you create the ideal consumer?” he asked. “Isolate them. Dumb them down on genuine knowledge of worldly and philosophical things. Convince them ó ëif I buy this, my life will be better.’ Lock them in the house and scare them to death so they are expecting what they saw on TV. Instead of opening the door with a smile for a neighbor, they will open it with one hand on a handgun.”
Real experience comes from interacting with real people, touching them, he added. “With the internet and TV, you can turn it off when you want to.”
Their own apparent cynicism doesn’t discourage these two, however. It just makes them more driven to get their messages out. “You do something you think is important and hope someone picks up on it,” McKiernan said.
After nine years and a dozen trips to Turkey he met a stone wall with both U.S. government officials and the media when he tried to market his story. “I kept hearing the reply, “It’s not on our radar screen,’” he said. “It’s a story about human rights, but the U.S. has a sliding scale of human rights.” When he met the Santa Barbara family that was fleeing the situation in Turkey, McKiernan realized that he had an angle that would make American viewers more interested in his subject. Kani, one of the members of the family who had been a local Maytag appliance salesman, went to Washington, D.C., and set up an office to lobby for the cause of the Turkish Kurds, a David and “Goliath effort that gives the film human interest in this country. He drew attention to himself aby making waves in Washington that threatened to embarrass the Turkish government. He was threatened with deportment because he had entered the U.S. illegally. As the film ends, in conflict with the INS, he is seeking asylum and waiting to see whether he will be deported. If he is, he will surely be persecuted in Turkey. As in most documentaries, the story is ongoing.
“The dramatic structure of a feature film demands a resolution,” Wexler noted. “That’s the tough thing about a documentary.”
His “Bus Riders Union” story is not over either. If focuses on the type of community activism that is rare in the ë90s. As the L.A. Metropolitan Transit Authority made big plans for expensive rapid transit that would mostly serve the business community, the daily bus riders, mostly black and poor, were finding services cut back to the point where they were unable to keep their jobs. They banded together to demand consideration. It was more of a class struggle than a racial one, Wexler said. “There’s a law against racism, but there’s no law against discriminating against poor people.”
In past films, he has often focused on the civil rights movement and so this situation intrigued him, a similar action in a much different time. “I was impressed by honest, marvelous young people doing things because they believe in democracy, the way it was taught to us in school.” It ends on a positive note, with the bus riders feeling empowered, but, as in McKiernan’s film, the story has no ending.
“A democracy is just a slice of life, not the whole pie,” McKiernan noted.
The filmmakers see their art as a way to counteract people’s complacency. “People have given up the idea that they can do something. They feel that big industry owns democracy,” McKiernan said. But information is hope ó it is democracy. The way I see it, somewhere that bread on the water will be picked up.’
(For more information call the festival office at 963-0023 or go to www.sbfilmfestival.org on the Web.)