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2005 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: Marshall Curry

By Doug Change

Marshall Cury, recipient of the Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award. Photo: Angela Jimenez

After college, Marshall Curry looked for ways to get a foothold in the documentary world. But as with so many filmmakers, his ultimate career move amounted to an act of faith. He left a good job, pooled his own money together, found a great subject and started to shoot. Since its premiere at the 2005 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last April, Curry's first feature-length documentary, Street Fight, a probing inside view of a raucous mayoral campaign in Newark New Jersey has been earning accolades and provoking impassioned discussion about the state of politics in America. Curry talked to Documentary about his remarkable film and about his goals for the future:

What kind of films had you worked on prior to Street Fight and what kind of documentary training did you have?

Marshall Curry: Back in the early '90s, soon after I finished college, I had worked on a historical documentary which I loved, and I started looking for a job that would pay me to do that. I got hired, initially as a writer, at a company doing touch-screen interactive documentaries for museums, but when the Internet took off, the company became a Web design firm, and I stayed there doing websites. It was great work--I got to lead the team that designed and built the Metropolitan Museum 's website--but I missed telling stories with characters that you grow to care about over an hour or 90 minutes. I had saved up some money and thought, "I could either go to film school, or I could take time off of work and just make a film." So I just took a leap--I bought a camera and a few days later started shooting in Newark.

I don't have any formal film training, and most of what I have learned has been the result of trial and error. I shot over 200 hours of footage, and the last 50 hours are a lot better than the first 50. At night after shooting I'd go home and watch the footage and try to figure out how to improve the light or the framing, or how to make people more comfortable while I was filming them. Most of my editing knowledge has also come from spending month after month holed up in my apartment, cutting and re-cutting scenes until I liked them. I also read a lot about documentaries, and I watch a ton of documentary films and pay close attention to how they are constructed. Sometimes if I really like a film, I'll watch it a few times in a row and write down how long each scene lasts and what its role is in the story. I also have a lot of friends who make films, and they were invaluable in screening cuts and giving me tips.


How did you get interested in Mayor Sharpe James and Newark politics?

In 1991, I took some time off college to set up a literacy project in Newark and I fell in love with the city. At that point James was in his second term as mayor, and I had a very positive view of him. He was a funny, rascally, charismatic booster for the city, and people were saying Newark was entering a renaissance.

Ten years later I started hearing people talk about this young guy, Cory Booker, who was going to take on Sharpe--who, by this time, was going for his fifth term. My brother, who raises money for a lot of Democrats, was particularly enthusiastic, saying Cory was going to be the first black President of America, which seemed a bit over-the-top to me, given that Cory was just 32 and had only won one election in his life--for city council. But I went to a fundraiser and met him, and I went home thinking that this was going to be a really interesting election. When you put two charismatic guys like that in a ring together, there are bound to be some sparks.


Were Cory and his campaign at all skeptical about your interest in the story?

When I first contacted the Booker campaign to ask if I could film, they were unsure. Some people on the campaign were against the idea--it's risky to let someone into your strategy meetings, etc., when you don't have any control over the final product. But I had a long conversation with Cory and in the end I convinced him that he should do it for historical reasons"How great would it be," I said, "if someone had filmed Bill Clinton 's first run for office as a 30-something year old?" I think his decision ultimately turned on his belief that his campaign would have nothing to hide.


At one point Cory compares himself to Muhammad Ali fighting George Foreman. That was a racially charged fight even though both were African-Americans. How do you feel that dynamic played out in this story?

I think when Cory mentioned that fight, he was referring to the fact that Ali was an underdog, rather than any racial implications--in the same breath he mentions David and Goliath. However, the election did have a significant racial dynamic--which was surprising since both Booker and James are African-American. The mayor, who grew up poor in Newark accused Booker, who grew up in the suburbs and was a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School grad, of not being "really black." This prompted a heated discussion among Newarkers of how we define race in America. If going to an Ivy League school means you give up your "blackness," what kind a message does that send to the kids who are growing up in Newark today?


Do you have any plans to follow the 2006 campaign?

I will go over to Newark and do a bit of shooting--probably to make a mini-feature for the deluxe DVD--but I won't be making an entire film about the upcoming campaign. I have a few other projects that I am really excited about.


What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the film?

My biggest challenge was probably a lack of resources. Shooting was a constant scramble. Some days I had a friend help with driving around the city or with a second camera, but most of the time it was just me, driving, shooting, doing sound, carrying the gear, getting releases, etc. And in the editing room, it would have been nice to have a computer that crashed less often, or if I didn't have to log all 200 hours of footage by myself. I learned a lot by doing each step myself, but hopefully on my next project I'll be able to hire some more help.


Where would you like to go next with your documentary career? And how do you plan to make a living while doing it?

I have a few film ideas that are in development, and I'm looking for funding. I have also talked with some people about directing their documentaries, and there is definitely something appealing about having someone else handle all of the producer work, and being able to focus exclusively on the creative side. I'm hopeful I can make enough that I can do this full time. I have also been talking with people about teaching documentary production, which I think would be fun.


Doug Chang was recently elected Second Vice President of the IDA Board of Directors.