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Career Achievement Award: Giving Voice to the Conscience of the People: Haskell Wexler

By Bob Fisher

Photo by Mark S. Wexler

I was in Vietnam with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden shooting a documentary. I was filming a peasant working in a field when he stepped on a landmine. I was torn. Should I put the camera down and try to help him? I kept shooting while two Vietnamese farm workers ran into the field and carried him to a little nearby clinic. They were struggling, because he was a big guy and they were rather small. After they got him into the clinic, I kept shooting through a window as they attended to him. Most of his leg was gone. My tears made it difficult to see through the viewfinder. Should I have put the camera down and tried to help another human being, or was it my responsibility to keep rolling? That sums up a lot of my experiences as a documentary filmmaker."

Haskell Wexler, ASC, was speaking about Introduction to the Enemy, a 1974 documentary that put a human face on "the enemy" in Vietnam during the aftermath of the war. At that time, Wexler was already in the front ranks of a new generation of narrative filmmakers embraced by the Hollywood studios. He had won an Oscar in 1967 for his artful camerawork on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his first Hollywood studio movie.

Wexler's next films were In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair and Medium Cool, which he conceived and directed. Wexler concentrated on anti-establishment documentaries during the next three to four years: Interviews with My Lai Veterans (which won an Oscar in the short documentary category in 1971), Introduction to the Enemy, Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971) and Conversation with Allende (1971). He also shot The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972), which was based on a stage play about Father Daniel Berrigan who encouraged resistance to the draft.

Wexler won a second Oscar for Bound for Glory in 1977, and has earned Academy Award nominations for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1976), Blaze (1989) and Matewan (1987).

Wexler has received lifetime achievement awards from the American Society of Cinematographers (1993) and the Camerimage International Festival of the Art of Cinematography (1996). In 1996, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and at the presentation declared, "There are no neutrals in the battle between good and evil."

No one has ever accused Wexler of being neutral in that conflict. When he accepted the Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he told the theatre and TV audience, "I hope we can use our art for love and peace."

The 2006 recipient of the International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award has around 60 credits. More than half are nonfiction films that have taken him into the eye of the storm, including war zones and controversial issues.

"Documentaries are the voice and the conscience of the people," Wexler says. "When I hear someone say they are making a film because someone at a network likes that subject, it leaves me cold. You have to trust your gut instincts and what's in your heart to tell meaningful stories; that's what makes it an art."

His career path has a kind of storybook quality. Wexler was born in Chicago in 1922. He was raised during the convergence of the economic depression that paralyzed the nation and the rise of Nazism, which turned the world upside down. As soon as he was of legal age, Wexler enlisted in the Merchant Marines. He served on a tanker that ran the gauntlet of German U-Boats while carrying vital supplies to the Allies in Europe.

The ship was torpedoed and sank off the coast of North Africa. Wexler spent several weeks drifting in a lifeboat and about a month in a native village until he was rescued. He was awarded the Silver Star and promoted to ensign, and he served until the war ended. Back in civilian life, he heeded his father's wishes by agreeing to work in the stockroom at Allied Radio, a family-owned business in Chicago.

"Everyone knew that I was the boss' son," he reminisces. "I hated it. When I was growing up, I made home movies on 16mm film, so when my dad asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I told him that I wanted to make movies."

His father rented space for a stage and office in an armory in a suburb near Chicago. Wexler made several films, including one for the local Crippled Children's Association. Then, his dad arranged for him to shoot an industrial film celebrating the 50th anniversary of an Alabama cotton mill owned by one of his friends.

The mill owner rejected Wexler's first film because it focused on the workers and their families. Wexler re-shot the film, emphasizing the mill owner's expensive machines. Thinking back, he says that experience taught him that the moment of truth in filmmaking is a fleeting and delicate thing that has the power to touch the soul.

His next projects included 16mm documentaries about the early days of the Civil Rights movement at Highlander School in Tennessee, and fox hunting in Appalachia. Wexler also shot films for the Encyclopedia Britannica, including The Living City, which earned an Oscar nomination, and a documentary about Igor Stravinsky.

His first narrative film was Stakeout on Dope Street, in partnership with Roger Corman. They both anted up $15,000. Irvin Kershner was the director. Wexler shot it documentary-style with his own handheld clair camera. That was in 1958.

There was another milestone in 1965, when he shot The Bus, a memorable documentary that retraced Martin Luther King's journey to the nation's capitol where he delivered his historic "I have a dream" speech.

"Albert and David Maysles shot part of that film," Wexler recalls. "I remember them standing near some railroad tracks with some rednecks yelling at them to turn the camera off. Albert lowered and put the camera by his side, but he didn't turn it off. You can hear the hatred in the voices calling them 'nigger lovers' and other ugly things. I worked with the Maysles brothers later on Salesman and other films."

In 1968, Wexler was going to direct a narrative film called The Concrete Wilderness in Chicago for Paramount Pictures. It was a light-hearted story about a kid who finds animals in city parks. During pre-production, he noticed that anti-war protesters were gathering on the streets and the police were preparing for demonstrations.

Wexler wrote to Peter Bart at Paramount saying he wanted to make a few changes in the script. After Bart told him to go ahead, he rewrote the script, directed and shot Medium Cool documentary-style with original sound and no dubbing. The film apparently came too close to the truth. It was rated X and pulled off the market.

After Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, Wexler directed and/or shot a number of anti-war and anti-nuclear documentaries, including No Nukes (1980), Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1978) and Rocky Flats: Enhanced Radiation (1982). In 1982, a rising rock 'n' roll star who toured in Nicaragua told him about a secret war being fought by expatriate Contras and the Sandinistas who came to power in the wake of the fall of the Somoza regime. Peasants and villagers were caught in the middle.

Wexler met many American volunteers who were mainly working for church groups helping the poor. It became evident that American government agencies were secretly and illegally aiding the Contras. He and director Saul Landau, a frequent collaborator, spent most of a year in Nicaragua shooting 16mm film in the villages.

Their documentary, Target Nicaragua: Inside a Covert War (1983), ran on PBS around the time that Newsweek magazine and the NBC network featured similar stories about the secret war that was later tied to what came to be known as the Iran-Contra Scandal. A few years later, Wexler produced, wrote and directed Latino, a dramatic interpretation of the documentary.

His extraordinary body of nonfiction work ranges from the IMAX films Hail Columbia, a bigger-than-life depiction of the maiden flight of the space shuttle, and At The Max (1991), a journey with the Rolling Stones on tour, to Bus Riders Union (1999), an in-depth probe of the neglect of the public transportation system relied on by the working class in Los Angeles. When the Pope visited Cuba in 1998, Wexler believed it was important to document that encounter in 35mm format for posterity. He cut through the red tape, documented the Pope meeting with Castro and touring the country, and archived thousands of feet of film and audio tracks documenting that history.

His most recent film is Who Needs Sleep?, a probing documentary inquiring into the health, family problems and safety hazards caused by the 14- to 16-hour work days that are typical in the US motion picture, television and various other industries. Wexler concluded that Americans typically work 25 percent longer days than their counterparts in other Western countries.

This story is just a snapshot in words of an extraordinary human being who has made incomparable contributions to enlighten the public.


Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.