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Pioneer Award: Rob Epstein

By Sara Scheiron

On October 28, 2008, one week before the US Presidential Election and three decades following the rise and assassination of Harvey Milk, the Gus Van Sant-directed biopic of San Francisco's first openly gay, democratically elected politician premiered at the historic Castro Theater, just a few doors from where Milk had owned a camera shop. The film's cast and crew and many of the original activists who had worked with Milk during his short but crucial term as Supervisor of District 5 walked the red carpet, amid signs reading "No on Prop 8" (the proposition seeking to ban same-sex marriage in California). The signs, the timing and the publicity notwithstanding, the Gay Rights Movement is hardly at a standstill, and we owe a fair share of the awareness and history of the movement to the documentaries of filmmakers like Rob Epstein. Without his 1984 doc The Times of Harvey Milk, Van Sant's Milk would be quite different.

Epstein says he didn't enter filmmaking to produce Gay Rights docs. The filmmaker and co-chair of the film department at the California College of the Arts came to San Francisco at age 19, "an artist in search of an art form." Empowered by a few film production classes he'd taken at San Francisco State, he answered an ad that read, "We are looking for a non-sexist gay man to work on a documentary about gay lifestyles. No experience necessary, just insane dedication and a cooperative spirit."

The film was Word Is Out (1978), the granddaddy of all Gay Rights docs. "It was the point of view that was exceptional--which was not an outsider's anthropological point of view; it was an insider's one," Epstein explains. "We were, as filmmakers, going out to ask the question of ourselves-‘Who are we?'-at a point where nobody knew the answer, not even gay people."

Epstein began working on that production as a volunteer production assistant. Though he cites Peter Adair as the film's mastermind and his mentor, he maintains, "The film was a collective enterprise." At roughly the same time as CineManifest was building its film collective in the South of Market area, Epstein was working less than five miles away with the four other directors of Word Is Out (Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Lucy Massie Phenix and Veronica Selver) as the Mariposa Film G G roup. "We all did everything on the film, so we're all credited as co-directors," Epstein recalls. "That was a three-year project and I stayed with it through distribution. That was my film school."

Since then, Epstein has made some of the most immediate, relevant and high profile documentaries about LGBT issues. The Times of Harvey Milk (Richard Schmeiken, prod.) was his first Oscar win. It was followed five years later with a win for Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (Bill Couturié, prod.) about the AIDS Quilt Project. Threads was co-directed with his filmmaking partner, Jeffrey Friedman. His most recognizable title (also produced and directed with Friedman) is The Celluloid Closet (1995). Based on the book of the same name by friend and colleague Vitto Russo, this film has lived a vibrant life on HBO and in hundreds of film history courses. His and Friedman's Paragraph 175 (Janet Cole, Michael Ehrenzweig, prods.), which earned a Documentary Directing Award at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, was named after the German Penal Code section that made the forceful transport of gays and lesbians to concentration camps a reality. Epstein and Friedman are currently set to direct Howl, a narrative feature based on the work of Allen Ginsberg.

Looking at the consistently precise organization of these docs, his rigorous research and well-used archival materials, one would think Epstein's pre-production plans were intense, but Epstein asserts, "Editing is where it comes together. It's where documentaries are essentially written."

However, at the same time, he says he's thought of his films as nonfiction features. "They're conceived as stories, scripted and even cast that way," he asserts. "The Times of Harvey Milk is essentially eight storytellers--who were cast-within a dramatic structure. We could have gone the direction of a survey, where we interviewed as many people as possible to get as much information in there as possible, but I knew early on I didn't want to do that. If we had fewer people telling the story, the audience could identify with the individual stories as well as the larger story, then it would work in a more layered way." Yet this too came together in the editing room, and emphasizes one of Epstein's themes: shared experiences.

Epstein's body politic is consistent: There is power in numbers, be they panels in the AIDS quilt, gay and lesbian characters in classic films, participants at Harvey Milk's candlelight vigil, activists or votes. And once those numbers are put into the ether, they echo. Through his carefully cast interviewees, Epstein looks for how they "can shape the bigger historical narrative."

Epstein took a lot of inspiration from Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A. "It showed me how a film can take you into another culture, another place, another experience and make you so invested in it, even if you had no natural inclination to feel invested. I really wanted Harvey Milk to have that kind of impact for any audience. But the challenge with the Harvey Milk story is how to do that in retrospect, so it still has the immediacy of a vérité documentary. The immediacy comes from the dialectic among the interviews, the documentary footage and the archival footage. These are the storytelling elements, but ultimately it's about the ideas and decisions made in constructing and structuring the story. Most people, even in the industry, don't think of documentaries as authored works, but they are."

Since Epstein had begun production on Times of Harvey Milk prior to Milk's assassination, the film had to change trajectories dramatically. "Record is very much part of the purpose. Harvey Milk was initially going to be a different film. After the assassination, it had to be approached as a historical film. It forced me to think of what needs to be remembered and how it can be conveyed in a way that will mean something historically."

This too can be seen as a thread among Epstein's works: the continued dialogue that follows the loss of a strong voice. Activist, writer and lecturer Vitto Russo died during production of The Celluloid Closet, and actress Lily Tomlin, a friend of Russo and Epstein, provided narration in his stead. Common Threads revolves around a community's efforts to tell the stories of their lost loved ones via the Quilt. Seen in this context, Paragraph 175 provides a sort of last reach towards record for a group of individuals who, having sharing their painful stories among themselves, had chosen to protect themselves with silence-to the detriment of history.

"A film has to have its own voice," Epstein maintains. "The result of my work may be activist in that the films have penetrated the mainstream, but there are different ways to get there." Epstein was "unofficially a consultant, in a minor way" on Van Sant's Milk, while his documentary "was more than a consultant in a major way."

Clearly the strength of a film's voice contributes to its effect as a vehicle of change and a record of history. Word Is Out will have its 30th anniversary re-release and was recently selected by UCLA and the OUTFEST Legacy for restoration. The restored master will be released in the early part of 2009-proof that a well-constructed film has the potential to echo long after its time onscreen.


Sara Scheiron is an editor at the film website as well as the assignments editor at Boxoffice Magazine. She also teaches film studies at DeAnza College.