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Jon AIpert Returns to "A Life of Crime"

By Timothy Lyons

A white man wearing headphones holds a camera. Jon Alpert's (photo) 'Life of Crime 2' will be aired on HBO's America Undercover on December 15.

Jon Alpert is a nine-time Emmy® Award-winning independent producer, remembered by many as a contributing correspondent to NBC's Today Show for more than a decade. His skills as a video camera-toting investigative journalist, coupled with his relentless and single-minded determination, have gotten him into perilous world hot spots well ahead of the formidable network news divisions. Between 1974 and 1979, Alpert co-produced five one-hour documentaries for public television. The earliest, Cuba: The People, presented the first American television coverage inside Cuba in ten years. In 1976, he won one of his three Columbia-duPont Citations and The Christopher Award for Chinatown: Immigrants in America. In the following year, it was Alpeit's camera that first gleaned Vietnam after the war and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He brought American viewers pictures from inside the U.S. Embassy in Iran during the hostage crisis, the only reporter to gain access during this event. From Teheran he crossed the desert into Afghanistan to bring the earliest coverage of the Russian invasion. Alpert was in the second car filming the Sandinistas when they drove into Managua. His reports from the Philippines provided the strongest evidence of Marcos's corruption and of the ruthlessness of the NPA guerrillas, earning him a National Emmy. From the U.S.S.R., Alpert brought back some of the first reports about glasnost and perestroika. He was in China during the Tianarunen Square Massacre, and by posing as a tourist, reported from parts of the country off-limits to other reporters. He also won many honors for his reporting in Angola and Korea and is the only reporter to have interviewed Saddam Hussein immediately after the Persian Gulf War.

Alpert still does his own camerawork, and he pioneered the use of the one-person ENG crew. He's credited with originating many of the technological innovations that helped usher in the ENG revolution, including the initial use of interformat computer editing, the first telecast of color ENG and the first use of Betacam.

In recent years Alpert has worked with HBO to produce a series of investigative documentaries. One Year in a Life of Crime (1989) was a ground-breaking reality TV portrait of three criminals from Newark. Alpert's Lock-up: The Prisoners of Rikers Island (1994) won critical acclaim and one of the highest ratings for an HBO documentary. In 1995, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell was hailed as the best anti-drug documentary ever made.

Together with his wife and collaborator, Keiko Tsuno, he operates the Downtown Community Television Center, founded in 1971 as one of the country's first community media centers. Alpert bought a used mail truck for five dollars, installed TV sets in the side, and began showing his videotapes on street comers in Chinatown. Among other production activities, DCTV trains more than 6,000 students a year on the use of video equipment, free of charge.

Jon Alpert's Life of Crime 2 will be aired on HBO's America Undercover on December 15.

The following interview is excerpted from a conversation between Alpert and ID's editor, held at DCTV in May of 1997.

Colgate University, in central New York state... doesn't seem like a bastion for preparing the '70s liberal to go out into the world and make everything better for the proletariat...

I was majoring in Urban Studies... urban studies in the middle of nowhere. A nice thing at Colgate was that they let you construct your own majors and do more or less what you wanted to do. When the smart kids were taking junior years in France and in England, things like that, I took my junior year in New York. And I went to NYU for a year. This was 1967-68, when everything in the United States was about ready to go tick-tick-tock­ boom! And it all started happening in New York. I got swept up in a lot of that energy. At Colgate I was pretty much taking four out of five courses of independent study, basically making up my own reading lists. One of the courses was Improvisation on the Trumpet. And it made me somewhat more self-reliant in terms of furthering my own education, which was probably good. I tried to take an independent study in filmmaking, and I went to the head of the department ; the response was: "That's ridiculous. Film is not art, and we're never going to lower the standards of our department by..." So, NYU was there for my junior year.

I didn't have any training at all—formal or informal—in film or video. I got interested because when they had a cultural festival up at Colgate, some guy rented a couple of Janus Films, and we saw Salvador Dali's films and things like that. That got every­body excited. We thought that's what experimental documentary filmmaking was all about, and it was pretty cool. But in general we had a prejudice against things artistic because that was artsy­ fartsy, and we were all jocks and tough guys and that just really wasn't a manly type of pursuit to get involved in.

After I graduated, I came back to New York. I'd already met Keiko [Tsuno] by then. She was an artist—I didn't know anybody who was an artist, and she was doing things l ike building a barbed wire fence inside a room. Or she was wrapping trees-she actually did some of these thi ngs before Christo got aU the attention. One of Keiko's friends said that the next artistic medium was going to be film and video and the people who were the most avant-garde would be working in that. Keiko couldn 't afford to work in film­ it was too expensive-but around this time the first bl ack and white porta-paks were coming out. And she got her mother to send one of the first black and white porta-paks, and that's really where this all started.

So, you've got urban studies, maybe journalism, video art and, of course, documentary. What do you call what you do?

Well, it changes. I mean right now I guess I'm a documen­tarian, not so much by choice but for the opportunity to have the work seen by other people. HBO has become our dearest and best friend, and they're broadcasting documentaries. So, I'm making documentaries. And we've roller-coastered over the years from short pieces that we played on the street—and they had to be short because people were walking to work, and they were all of a sudden passing by our mail truck, and they would see something on the screen. They'd stop for a minute, but they wouldn't stay longer than that. So the pieces were all short. We were much less self-indulgent than the other early video people, basically because our audience wouldn't tolerate the same picture for more than a couple of minutes. The first broadcast outlet for us basically was just PBS, and PBS took documentaries, so we made documen­taries, even though we didn't know what we were doing at the beginning. We came back with our tapes from Cuba—I can't tell you how little really good material there was in there in terms of shot composition. And the editor said, "Well, this shot's okay, but I need a cutaway." We looked at him and said, "What's a cutaway?" We were inexperienced, about as inexperienced as anybody getting a show on TV. But we—got better. We kept looking at our tapes and wondering what was wrong with this and that, combined with our editor yelling and screaming—this really... nasty, irascible character, but it didn't matter, he was quite helpful to us. It I, took about ten years for us to get to the point where we were proud of our craft, and that coincided with the doors at PBS being closed on us. So, all of a sudden, whether we wanted to be documentarians or not, we couldn't because we didn't have any place to show our stuff to the public. Then it was really tough making a shift because in a documentary, you have time to explore your theme, your characters can develop, you can move your excitement levels up and down to keep your audience in the program. All of a sudden, we were making three-minute pieces, four-minute pieces, for NBC. At that point we had to stop being documentarians and almost become poets and learn how to be very, very sparse. And we did that for fifteen years. About five years into that, the label of journalist would have been appropriate. For the first couple of years, it was the same type of inexperience, getting thrown into a situation and not being prepared for it, but the responsibility began to accumulate as we began to go to places that nobody else had ever gone, and we were bringing back really hot news stories that were going to help shape public opinion and public policy. It was a really, really heavy responsibility, and we had to take it seriously. In most cases we did a good job. When the rug got yanked out from under us at NBC, we were lucky that we had already established a relationship with HBO, and we began making documentaries again. And we had to relearn that ability to tell a long story. Difficult.

We never got hung up on labels or professional appellations. We were looking for tools, and video basically was a means for community organizing for us in the beginning. To buy tape stock and pay the rent, I was driving a taxi cab, and we were trying to organize a rank-and-file movement of the taxi drivers union. We were really being abused, by the owners and by the union. The pay was getting cut every year; the benefits were being taken away. It was a really dangerous job: one or two cabbies were getting killed every month. But it was very tough to try to organize the cabbies. All the cabbies were angry, but the nature of the job—fighting against each other for fares, putting you in competition with your fellow workers—just not a good situation to organize them. Of course, everybody was a character, and they all wanted to tell about the latest ride they had from the airport, how they took them to Brooklyn, how they took them here, then the guy wanted to pay them to go to Philadelphia... At meetings, we couldn't get anything accomplished, so we took the camera—we shot conditions in some of the cars and in some of the garages and made an organizing tape, and brought this to the cab drivers union, and we played it—it was about ten minutes long—and everybody sat there in Sheila silence watching this. And afterwards, it was the only constructive meeting we had ever had—people began organizing garage committees, all sorts of things. We began taking this tape around to all the garages and putting it on the hoods of cars and playing it for the drivers. It was a terrific organizing tool, and at that particular point, we said, "Whoa, this really works!" So, we backed into this. We didn't say, "Gee, I'd like to be a filmmaker," or ''I'd like to be a journalist." It was just a tool we were using to try and organize. And it also worked in the neighborhoods. It was very effective in improving health care and conditions in the schools. Those were two real concrete issues that got us involved in making tapes.

I think that we've had three phases to what we went on to do. The first phase would be public broadcasting, where we were lucky enough to encounter David Loxton. David is really, in terms of all video documentary and journalism, maybe the most important person because he ran the TV Lab here at Channel Thirteen. So all the early video projects that ever made it to TV came through him. A really astonishing, nice guy, who was able to navigate the public broadcasting service and get this material on the air when no one else wanted to show it. They didn't reject it by saying they disliked the content; they wouldn't put it on the air "for technical reasons." And David managed to get enough time-base correctors and equipment so that they could bring the signal up to broadcast quality. That was tremendously important, a breakthrough. They couldn't use the technical bar to keep you out. If they didn't like the content, they 'd tell you, "Well, this is really great. We love your documentary, but, you know, it doesn't meet our technical specifications for broadcast. We really want to broadcast it, but we can't." David could be very, very creative—the Rockefeller Foundation didn't want to deal with controversial subjects, but they might fund a series of six programs about video art. So, David would say, "Jon and Kei ko are really artistic." So our documentary on Vietnam was made with Rockefeller art money!

Then there was Steve Friedman, who ran The Today Show for many, many years. He reacted the same way as David. Let's send Jon with his camera off to Central America and maybe get something that nobody else has gotten. He fought off all the powers at NBC and the people that were trying to make us walk the plank for many, many years.

And now it's Sheila [Nevins, at HBO]. She doesn't have to broadcast our documentaries—there's 150 other people that are out there going, "Me, me, me!" But she sees some value in what we're up to, and she makes it happen.

Speaking of mentors, years ago people got their interest in documentary from seeing the films of Flaherty, or the Grierson group, and Pare Lorentz. And later; it was Don Pennebaker, Al Maysles, people like that, Drew Associates and direct cinema, Rouch and cinema vérité. Did you have any of your own heroes in documentary?

No. And I feel really bad about that because over the years, I've seen glimpses of some of the work by the people you mention, and they were really Nevins terrifically talented—much more talented than I am in many, many respects. But we had a different set of heroes. It would be the lady who's working in a sweat shop here, fifteen-twenty hours a day trying to support her family. Or Vern Sager from Porcupine, South Dakota, who is trying to organize the ranchers so that people can hold onto their family farms and not have to go into the city and work at the Five and Ten. People fighting for their freedom in different countries around the world. I'm embarrassed to say that of all those filmmakers that you mentioned, I've maybe seen three or four. That's dumb on my part.

I've carried my non-intellectual persona rather consistently over all these years. Part of the action orientation that we have is just basically part of my personality—I don't like sitting around. The editing's very difficult for me, not because I don't like the challenge of editing, but I just can't sit still. I've been working on this return—to Life of Crime documentary for five years, and it's made me crazy. Back in the days when we were cutting our teeth, at the end of the '60s and the '70s, people would be sitting around for hours, SDS leaders and people like that, and they would talk about what they should be doing and what's the best way to be doing it, and after a couple of hours of this, I'd be rocking back and forth in my seat, and I'd just leave and say, "Listen: If you want to improve the schools, you go to the schools, and you start doing something, and you don't sit around here talking about it; you do it." There was that schism in community organizing, too. People would sit around and they would wonder how they would best integrate themselves with the working people in these factories, and they would debate endlessly, and they'd have the best historical references to back up their points of view and they were a lot smarter than me, and their theories were really good... but they'd never do anything; they just sat around all day long!

As a kid, I remember what it was like being cut from the baseball team, or being on the team and sitting on the bench thinking, "Me, me, me! I can hit that ball! Won't you just put me in, coach?"—and just not having a chance to play. And that's really what most independents are asking for: Just give us a chance to play. Put one of my works on the air, and let's see if people would watch it: just don't lock the doors and close the windows.

When we were getting started, there was a lot of resistance­—we were young, we were dumb and we didn't know what we were doing—and there was resistance to working in video, from filmmakers. We endured lots of insults and doors being closed in our faces because we were working in video, but inside me is a real strong determination that when that door's closed, I'm going to get in. We just wanted to get our work seen by people. I'm sure that it would've been a lot quicker in terms of us mastering our craft and being able to communicate better, if we would've spent time studying some of the people who'd done good work. But I'm no intellectual—I was out there in the streets: I mean, to some degree, what we were doing was reactive rather than planned. We didn't have any sense what par­ticular style we were going to use. We just were improvising within the limitations of the equip­ment and our own skills, and maybe the battery was running out, so we had to shoot something faster. There was a way we had to film because the color would change because of light value. Obviously we couldn't do pans with the limitations of the equipment; we couldn't shoot scenery; we couldn't do what they call "wallpaper shots" because they just didn't work. And we had to have people talking to us and communicating; we didn't have a sound person, so we needed to put the One Year in a microphone someplace, so we stuck it on top of the camera, and the next thing we know, someone's looking at the camera, speaking to you, and all of a sudden, "Wow! They're communicating directly with the viewer at home." We began stumbling on these things, whether or not it was there 20 years-30 years earlier—we didn't care—we were just looking for what looked the best and worked.

We're action artists—more or less, we're action documentary people. I' m not thinking so much about what style I'll use when I get in that sweat shop; I'm trying to figure out how to outwit the owner of the sweat shop, so I can actually get in there and film something, and I'm going to deal with the conditions once I get in there. See, without any training in film, we took our cameras out, we shot something, and we played it back right away, and we looked at it. And if it didn't work, we figured out the other way we were going to approach it, and we kept on shooting it over and over again. You'd stay with your subject for two or three days until you got the one or two moments that you thought were real. And that's what went into your program—the rest of the tape you erased and used over again. With film equipment, you couldn't afford to do that; with film you had to plan. So, for someone who has a short attention span like me, who likes interacting with people and is really curious, video was the perfect medium for me. If I would've worked in film, I would've been dead.

I'm wondering if in shooting something like Life of Crime 1, or even your new piece, if you ever found yourself manipulating the action because you hadn't gotten what you expected on your first take. You know, the kid steals some silverware off the shelf of a store and the light wasn't right, so you ask him to do it again...

It was basically the opposite. The guys in Life of Crime tolerated us on these stealing expeditions, but just barely because we really slowed them down. I'd check after I came out of the store to see whether the hidden camera had worked, but that checking wears the batteries down, and they weren't going to wait for us. They were only able to hit one store a day when we were following them, and they normally did about three. So they really complained that we were slowing them down, they'd rather not have us along. We had to make sure that we were traveling in their car, with their gasoline in the tank, going to the store that they planned to heist, and that we were really completely passive. We were smart enough to know the ethical implications of what we were doing—and we knew we were right on the borderline. That was one of the things that made the first program so controversial and it sat around for quite a while before it finally found a home at HBO. Since then, the envelope has really expanded, what with the role of trash television and things like that, and so the material that's on that program has sort of tamed out over the years by comparison to when we shot it. There's an incident of domestic violence on that tape where the guy hauls off and whacks his girlfriend. And that was a moral dilemma for us because we knew it was going on in the house every single day. We'd arrive there, and the kids would tell us about what had happened the previous evening. There's one kid on the tape talking about one of the guys taking a sword and beating his girlfriend with it. As a documentarian, how do you portray that? Do you have people just talking about it? Do you actually witness this? What do you do when you it happens? We knew that the longer we stayed with these people that eventually the moment would come when something like that would happen, when they'd let down their guard and behave normally... which means they'd haul off and whack somebody. We knew it was going to happen, and we wondered what we were going to do. It happened so fast that really we didn't have the opportunity to intervene to prevent the first slap, but we stopped the rest of it. We said, "Leave her alone. You're a guy. You don't have any business doing that. That's not the right type of behavior." You know, they didn't understand that because their fathers had hit their mothers, and the grandfathers had hit their grandmothers; it was a tradition in the family. There was another time when we were driving along the road, and they saw this kid walking across the street with a boom box. And they wanted to run the kid over with the car, so they could steal his stereo. I had to grab the wheel—I was filming! And I put the camera down and grabbed the wheel to turn the car out of the kid's path. They would've hit him. So we had our participation, but it was in the other way; it was basically trying to stop things from happening.

So, what made you want to return to these guys, for Life of Crime 2?

I couldn't wrap Life of Crime 1 until they put all of these guys in jail. I felt that the wrong message would be given to society if these guys had basically thumbed their noses at everybody, including you and me, and had managed to happily rob one store after the next. And it took a long time before they got caught. They had so many phony names, so many aliases, that every time they'd get caught, the police didn't know who they were, and they were released. So anyway, they're finally in jail, and three years pass. Every once in a while, they'd call me from jail to talk, and to connect with the outside world. And I'm the only guy who accepts their phone calls. So, one of the guys, Rob, calls me up from prison, and he says, "Well, I'm about ready to be released, and I've changed." I said, "Yeah. Have a good day." And he said, "No, really. I'm a different person. I've got my GED. I've got a stack of certificates for good behavior from the governor for all the programs that I've participated in. And I'm never going back to jail again." He said, 'I'm embarrassed by the way the first film ended with me—no teeth, snorting cocaine, my life a failure. And that's how people remember me, and I don't like that. So I'm asking you to come and start filming me again."And I said, "We're just going to waste both of our times because you know what's going to happen: You 're going to wind up doing the same stuff that you do, and you're just going to take longer, and we're going to make the same program again. And I'm not into making the same program; I want to go and do something else." So, I go down there and meet him, and 50% of him was the same old Rob, and 50% of him was different. And I thought, "Let's see what happens. He's going back to Newark; the unemployment rate is astronomical; all of his friends are junkies or crooks; he's got no place to live. Let's see what happens, how society receives him." So that's what we did: We got these guys in their last week in jail, and then back onto the streets. It was a real roller coaster ride because Rob wanted to go straight, and so the first half of the film that we made is his struggle to get a job, find a place to live, buy a nice set of clothes and to be a good boy. The other guy, Freddie, really wasn't like that. Freddie was good for about a week.

And then there's another character who didn't even appear i n the final version of Life of Crime 1. Rob's first girlfriend, Deleris. She was Puerto Rican, about fourteen years old at the time when she was with Rob. Then I was driving down the street one day, looking for Rob, and I see this skeleton walking down the streets. There was something about the eyes of this person; I couldn't put her out of my mind. Turned out it was Deleris. She'd become a stone cold junkie. So she became a character in the second program.

We have followed these guys now for ten years. That's a huge portion of my life wrapped up with theirs. When you produce something that's taken your whole heart and soul, you want to make sure that you do the best job with it. In the old days with The Today Show, breaking news with NBC breathing down your neck, we'd stay up all night long, and we'd throw something on the air in the morning and hope that it was as good as we could make it. But now, one of the things we have is the luxury of time. That's what Sheila gives us. And we both want to wait until the piece is just right-for us, for HBO—before it gets aired. I want critics to look at this and see that it's different from anything we've done before. We've made documentaries that have had elements of drama and feature film-type characters in it, but I don't think I've ever succeeded in developing it fully because of the amount of time we spent on it. With Life of Crime 2, I think that finally we've come closer than we've ever come, to tell a real life story in a natural way.