Over the next couple of weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 18-24. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is David Raccuglia, director, with Shaun Conrad, of Purvis of Overtown.
Synopsis: After a stint in Raiford State Prison for a breaking and entering charge, Purvis Young seemed destined to fail. Yet while in prison, Purvis taught himself to paint, and he became a highly acclaimed contemporary artist, now recognized nationally as an icon of African-American culture and history. Purvis paints simply because that's what he needs to do.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
David Raccuglia: I think getting into documentaries was just part of a natural progression of things. First of all, I am a photographer who happens to be a huge fan of documentaries. Photography and filmmaking have many things common to each other. I like the specific story a documentary can convey. It's like a series of great photographs.
IDA: What inspired you to make Purvis of Overtown?
DR: Purvis of Overtown was inspired by a photographic shoot of blues artists of the South. At some point on the trip, I began to take notice of all the great folk artists of the area. I met and photographed a few, but none intrigued me more than the artist I heard about and was introduced to several years ago. The artist was Purvis Young and his story was incredible. I knew photographs would only show part of the story, so I decided that I would tell this man's story in a documentary. Although the film is as much the story of where he lived as it was about who he is, the story of Overtown [a neighborhood in Miami, Fla.] and the people who lived there was worth the telling on its own, so I had a lot of things that inspired me
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
DR: There were a great many challenges in the making of this documentary, not the least of which was Purvis himself. This film was shot over several years and in all that time, Purvis was not a well man. On more than one occasion we thought that he would die. He suffered from very acute diabetes and was on dialysis. Sometimes he was well enough to film, often times he was not. We had to shoot around his illness.
Logistics were a problem. We used a local Miami crew, but the rest of us came from all over the country: Los Angeles; Boulder, Colo.; Chicago. We could only make the trips to film so many times a year, and that too usually depended on his health. The place itself is not all that conducive to one's well being. Shooting on the streets of Overtown at night is a big risk--not that you will not get the "shot," but that you will get shot. It is, after all, one of the worst ghettos in America. Fire protection and police are loath to venture into Overtown after dark. I must make mention, however, that the people of Overtown were very cooperative with us in the making of this film. We got to know and like a great many of the residents. I never really felt threatened, but I always felt uneasy.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
DR: The film was always supposed to be about the artist, but it was soon apparent that you couldn't tell his story without getting into the story of the town and the circumstances of how it came to be what it was. It was not my intention to do anything but a film about Purvis Young, but I soon learned that Purvis was the artist he was because of where he lived. Overtown, for better or worse, is his muse; he is what he is because of it. The history of Overtown can be found in his paintings. The suffering of the people can be found in his work, as well as the hope he has for the city and the people. I never expected this to be such a large part of the film in pre-production. I came to the conclusion about a third of the way through the film that you can't tell the story of the man without telling the story of the people and the place.
IDA: As you've screened Purvis of Overtown--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
DR: I mentioned that this film was shot over many years, and any filmmaker can tell you that there is always the dread that you missed the point or you could have done more or should have done this or that differently. That is just part and parcel of what filmmakers or artists in general have to live with. After years of living with a story, it is easy to think back to when it started and how this could have been done better, or that could have been different. Second-guessing is something you learn to live with. It gets to the point when you have lived with a film for so long that you don't really know what you've got on your hands. Basically you just want to get it over with and move on, taking what you learned into your next project.
Hearing the audience stand and applaud the film we made was surprising to me. I was already of a mind that the film was what it was and in my mind I was detached from it. I had cut it loose. I almost had no feelings about it. People seeing the film for the first time felt the emotion of the story I had in mind to tell three years earlier. I had been so wrapped up in the film from pre to post that I lost sight of the fact that we had told an incredible story of a man and a town. The enthusiastic audiences, no matter where the film played, brought that back to me, and I started to take stock of what we were able to accomplish. I shall not forget that lesson in the future.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
DR: I have been inspired by the people who make documentaries in general. These people are the innovators and the true artists of filmmaking. Most are never well funded and have learned to make innovations, not just for the sake of art but oftentimes in order to get their film finished. Their work is generally characterized as a "Labor of Love"--another way of saying it won't make much money, if any. Documentarians are special people. They understand that most of them will never get rich at what they do, but what they do adds richness to the lives of those who view their work. They make people think, react, feel.
In particular I am a fan of Errol Morris, the films of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and Stan Brakhage, who taught at the University of Colorado. I consider myself most fortunate to have heard him lecture on several occasions. Warren Miller, another Coloradan--well, he is just the best at what he does.
To view the entire Docuweek program, visit http://documentary.org/programs/index_06.php.
To download and view the Docuweek schedule, visit http://documentary.org/src/DW/DocuWeek_Schedule.pdf.
To purchase tickets to Docuweek, visit www.ArcLightcinemas.com.