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Documenting the Documentarians: Marina Goldovskaya's Oral History Project

By Miranda Yousef

Marina Goldovskaya with Richard Leacock

Marina Goldovskaya, who heads the documentary studies department at University of California at Los Angeles, has been working on her “Oral History Project” since the mid-1980s. In her words, the project is quite simply “the history of documentary film.”

The Oral History Project is an attempt to preserve on tape (and paper) the words and ideas of the great living documentarians. The concept is simple: seminal documentary filmmakers are interviewed about their lives and their work. Each will have his or her own tape, which will consist of 30 minutes to three hours of lightly edited interviews. “It’s exciting because you can see the people who were making these films—their thoughts, their methods, their perceptions, their evaluations of what they did and what their friends did,” Goldovskaya says. “It is about the process of filmmaking which is relived in their reminiscences.”

Seemingly incongruously, this massive undertaking highlighting the achievements of mostly American filmmakers really began in Soviet Russia, where Goldovskaya made a career for herself shooting artistic and political films. Building on the fact that all of her films are about people and history, Goldovskaya began filming various icons of Russian culture—poets, actors and film directors who had done their greatest work from the 1920s to1940s. The fact that they were all in their 80s and 90s spurred Goldovskaya to capture their histories and lives before they passed on. Soon she began to hone in on filmmakers. “I tried to dig into the history of our [Russian] cinema. I interviewed people about Dziga Vertov [creator of Man with the Movie Camera], and they were so interesting in their own right that I started interviewing them.”

The project picked up with the advent of video technology, and around 1986, several factors converged to bring the project into its current focus. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies opened up the USSR to the outside world, and Goldovskaya made some important films around this time, which won enough recognition that she was able to go abroad to film festivals. There she met and befriended other filmmakers such as Robert Drew and DA Pennebaker. From there it was a natural progression to filming American filmmakers, and the Oral History Project in its present incarnation was born.

It is not hard to see Goldovskaya’s intense devotion to this project. “This is priceless experience that is dying out—because documentary is heavily underestimated,” she says. “[Documentary] gives people spiritual nourishment that is difficult to define… It’s very alive. Any insights by people who went through dealing with hard issues can be useful to future generations. It’s human experience that’s so precious.”

Capturing this experience and wisdom is “a permanent process of making and shooting.” Goldovskaya interviews the filmmakers “wherever I see them, using any opportunity.” Some she records at festivals, others she makes special trips to visit, and still others she invites to Los Angeles specifically to be interviewed and to conduct workshops and master classes for her documentary classes at UCLA (which she also tapes).

Among the documentarians Goldovskaya has interviewed are Richard Leacock, Alan Berliner, Alexander Hammid, Jonas Mekas, Les Blank, Albert Maysles and Jennifer Fox, to name a few. Knowing who these filmmakers are, and what their achievements in the field have been, makes it fairly easy for Goldovskaya to approach the interviews and prepare her questions. In addition, she says, “I always ask what they want to tell me. Sometimes they tell me very interesting things—you can’t predict what someone is going to say.” The success of each interview varies, depending on how comfortable the filmmaker feels on finding him/herself in front of the lens instead of behind it.

Goldovskaya is hesitant to pin down any specific moment of revelation from the interviews, noting that each person told wonderful stories and is him/herself an amazing discovery. When pressed, however, she does recall a story Leacock told her, about when he was working with Robert Flaherty on Louisiana Story. One scene of oil drilling, which had to be shot at night, took three weeks to shoot. When Flaherty saw it in the editing room, he insisted that they re-shoot it because there was not enough light. Leacock, astonished, argued that they had already spent too much money and time on it. Flaherty replied that he didn't care; he was an artist, not a businessman. This, Leacock told Goldovskaya, was the main lesson he learned from Flaherty: to privilege the art above any business-related concerns.

To continue her work, Goldovskaya received a grant through the Council on Research/Faculty Grant Program (COR/FPG), which supports research by eligible UCLA faculty. However, she still lacks the funding to make very thorough cuts of each interview. “We practically don’t edit—we just cut out repetitive things. We leave it as a document.” Goldovskaya is thinking about the possibility of adding clips of each filmmaker’s work, but for now she does not have the resources.

Within the next few years, students, professionals and the general public will be able to access these oral histories through the UCLA Film and Television Archive, where the interview transcripts and tapes will be housed. The transcripts might be published as a book, or recorded onto DVDs with the filmed interviews. “It will become a source for scholars and for the people who are interested in the history of documentary film, and in the history of cinema as a whole,” Goldovskaya says. “Because documentary is a very important part of cinema.”

Ultimately, she says, the Oral History Project is “a live history of documentary film. You can see the person. It’s his world that he’s talking about—he will be the extension of his films and his films will be the extension of his personality. A documentary filmmaker is making a film about himself all his life—about what interests him. Because a documentary is about what makes you excited.”


Miranda Yousef is in the graduate film directing and production program at the UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television.