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Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: Stefan Forbes

By Tom White

In this history-making US Presidential election, in which the politics of division and fear were laid low by a grassroots-and-Internet juggernaut of unity and hope, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story couldn't have been more timely in reconstructing the man who brought us Bush pere, Bush fils and the notorious Karl Rove.

Filmmaker Stefan Forbes' second documentary is as much informed by a fascination with the American political system and those who control it as it is by his background in music, his major at Brown University. Documentary talked to this year's Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker honoree about music, semiotics and the cinematic gems that have inspired him.


You went to Brown, and graduated with a degree in music. Did you take filmmaking or cinema studies courses there as well? Were the seeds for a filmmaking career planted at Brown, despite--or perhaps, because of--your music major? Who were some of your mentors there?

Stefan Forbes: Some of the seeds for my filmmaking career were planted as a geeky fourth grader, making Super-8 films with my friend James Kravitz. I returned to that impulse at Brown, which is a great place for people who might chafe at the structure imposed on them at other schools. I was able to do independent studies such as a whole semester's Schenkerian analysis of the six Bartok String quartets with Hungarian professor Ivan Waldbauer, who'd actually turned pages for Bartok as a child.

I managed to make films there without having to take the semiotics prerequisites. I was wary of the semioticker-than-thou attitude, which almost precluded the actual making of movies. I'm all for deconstruction, but it doesn't necessarily help you construct. One of the refreshing things about making films is how so many of our "brilliant" ideas go down in flames in the edit room. It's humbling to work in such a binary medium; things often either work or, spectacularly, don't. 


Talk about your initial career path--the years leading up to One More Dead Fish (2004). How did they help shape your filmmaking sensibility?

Coming out of college, it took me another year to finish my 52-minute experimental science fiction thesis film. I was working double shifts at two waiter jobs to pay the lab fees and, on the rare occasions when I finally got to the edit room, I'd drink a huge cup of coffee, work for 20 minutes and just fall asleep on the Steenbeck. I finished it, but managed to completely burn myself out on film in the process. I spent the next six or seven years waiting tables and playing in indie rock bands in Boston.

One day, while interning in a recording studio, I met some film production assistants. I had no idea that the job even existed, and I instantly loved it--the camaraderie of being on a mission, the constant fear of fucking up, the chance to learn from union crewmembers who had total mastery over their craft. In a medium that can be so vague and perception-based, I'd hungered for the solidity of this knowledge. I wanted to be useful. Eventually I learned the different cameras, passed the AC [assistant cameraman] test, and got in the union. I couldn't believe I was actually earning a living in the film business.

Whenever there was time on the set, I studied how people like Darius Khondji and Erroll Morris did things. I was tremendously grateful for that opportunity. I took small shooting small jobs whenever I could, eventually building a DP reel. After AC'ing for a few years, I upgraded to DP. I shot five or six features and a lot of stuff for TV. Any day I can wake up and be on a film set is a good day.


Talk about your roots in music and how it figures in your filmmaking process. I interviewed Mel Stuart a number of years ago, and he too was a music major in college [at Columbia and NYU] before he pursued a filmmaking career. He told me, "I think the deep-down principle essence of movie-making is rhythm, especially in editing. My musical feeling and background have been of help in the pacing of a movie... It's very essential that that sense of rhythm--knowing when to cut--is always there." How about for you?

I really admire the propulsiveness of the music in recent films like Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and Man on Wire, how it knits story elements together and adds suspense. Editing is totally musical. When things don't work, logic can lead you to solutions but ultimately things must be felt

The central role of music in Atwater's life made this movie irresistible for me. I didn't quite realize how hard it would be to incorporate historical footage containing short snippets of music, such as Lee singing "Bright Lights, Big City" to his wife and child who've just joined him in DC. The scene fell within a larger piece of music, which had to bring you to a nearby key, passing the baton to Lee's song. After a lot of work, my composing partner Tim Robert and I created a segue where Lee's upbeat guitar strumming led back to the earlier groove, now mutating to reveal the emotional costs of Lee's hunger for the spotlight and resulting isolation from his family. It was so ironic of Lee to perform that song for his wife and young daughter and, in turn, the TV audience back in South Carolina, for whom the segment was originally filmed. There was so much at war within Lee, it often wasn't until I wrote the music that I was forced to decide what mood a scene would have.

Atwater's personality had to animate the score--at times self-consciously performative, often dryly humorous, always veiled. As a filmmaker, I was caught between the warring impulses of wanting to unmask my protagonist and wanting to challenging viewers with his essential unknowability.


Your previous documentary, One More Dead Fish--which, in full disclosure, I haven't seen--tells the story of a group of Nova Scotia-based fishermen fighting to survive in an era of globalization and its repercussions on the environment. What inspired you to make that film?

My Dad [Allan Forbes], 79 at the time, didn't just inspire me to make it; he hammered me until I gave in and agreed to co-direct it. He had so much passion. I remember one bitterly cold November night in Nova Scotia, he came downstairs at 3:00 a.m. in full-length long johns and a wool facemask, looking like a ninja assassin. He was so psyched to get out on the wharf on the first day of lobster season, he forgot to put on his pants!


In making the segue from One More Dead Fish to your next feature documentary, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, politics is an obvious connective thematic tissue, along with its by-product, the Machiavellian dance between the empowered and the disempowered. In the former film, your protagonists are the disenfranchised fisherman, whereas Boogie Man stars the nefarious Mr. Atwater, manipulator of the media, the message and the masses. What were some of the themes from One More Dead Fish that you wanted to explore in a different manner in Boogie Man?

In One More Dead Fish, these patriotic, religious, conservative Canadian fishermen banded together to seize a Federal building and barricade themselves inside for 26 days. They were furious at how corporate globalization was destroying the environment, and they made an amazing journey from being rednecks to radicals.

Atwater spoke to people in the American heartland who were similarly frustrated at being voiceless and powerless in the face of huge changes. And he expertly appealed to their fear and resentment of elites to get them to identify with forces in society that were, for the most part, tremendously harmful to them. I'm fascinated by how peoples' protean energy can get channeled into social change or, frustrated, boil over into the type of reactionary fundamentalism that opposes its own empowerment.


Your producer on Boogie Man was Noland Walker, who produced both Citizen King and Jonestown: The Rise and Fall of Peoples Temple. How did the two of you work out the inherent challenges in Boogie Man?

Noland's keen insights into Southern resentment and the ancient roots of America's culture war in the North-South divide really helped me unlock Atwater's psyche. Noland was also instrumental in helping me brainstorm new ways to bring historical footage to life and create vérité moments. After a lot of discussion, we finally hit on the idea of showing footage to interviewees on-camera, getting them to confront history in the moment. I studied how reaction shots in a feature film can draw you in and get you to wonder what people are thinking.

It was hard to pull off, though; a lot of things have to be happening. The footage you're showing has to get a revealing reaction from the interviewee. And the resulting moment can only be edited into the film at a point where we know enough about the interviewees to care about their responses, yet where both the footage and the reaction still tell us something crucial and new.


In your previous interview with us [Fall 2008], I was struck by the fact that in preparing for Boogie Man, one of the works you studied was The Gospel at Colonus. Talk about how that hybridization of Greek tragedy and African-American gospel figured in your process.

That piece united two traditions so powerfully. Yet rather than spawning its own genre, it just burned the bridge after itself. No one else has really gone there. Atwater's life had so many elements of Greek tragedy that I hoped to use music as a Greek chorus, which express things of which the characters themselves aren't necessarily aware. 

At the end of Boogie Man, when Lee sits, horribly disfigured by cancer, in the back of a long black Cadillac, rolling for the last time past the Capitol in DC, it was almost like Charon ferrying him across the river Styx. I built the sequence around a 12-bar chorus from Lightnin' Hopkins, interpolating interviewees in a kind of call-and-response with the vocals, before we feel the weight of Atwater's metaphysical terror in the lyric "what kind of chariot's gonna take me away from here?" Lightnin' Hopkins delivers that final line like a sledgehammer coming down.


Finally, you mentioned in your previous interview Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera as a continual touchstone for you. What other documentaries and docmakers have served as inspirations?

"Inspirations" is a great word--they're not exactly influences, because our films may not share the same filmic vocabulary or storytelling challenges, but as documentarians we need inspiring work just to reassure us of the inexhaustibleness of this tradition. Some docs that come randomly to mind: Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA, for how its lack of aestheticization intensifies its moral force; Paul Stekler and Daniel McCabe's George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, for the moments in which Wallace buddy Seymore Trammell's countrified reminiscences rise to Whitmanesque heights; Ken Loach's What Side Are You On?, for the scene showing striking miners discovering their talent for poetry; Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, for the sheer pleasure of listening to Werner Herzog's Dostoyevskian rants about the jungle. Who wouldn't want to just listen to him rant all day?


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.