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Passings: Robert West, Jean Bach, William Miles

By Tom White

Robert West, Co-Founder, Working Films

Robert West, who, with filmmaker Judith Helfand, co-founded Working Films, the nonprofit dedicated to building an activist infrastructure around a documentary's release, died June 6 at his home in Wilmington, NC, after a nine-month battle with brain cancer. He was 60.

Working Films, launched in 2000, was among the early pioneers in instilling an engagement and activist philosophy around the release of a film. Among the documentaries that West and his team took on include Helfand and Daniel Gold's Blue Vinyl and Everything's Cool; Marco Williams and Whitney Dow's Two Towns of Jasper; Williams' Banished; and Micha X. Peled's Bitter Seeds. Working Films would work tirelessly in developing campaigns and engaging NGOs, associations, colleges and universities and faith-based organizations to effect change and generate results, rendering a given documentary a true force for transformation.

In addition, West and his team would create projects such as Reel Education, a package of ten docs that address specific issues about the American education system; and New Faces, a multimedia initiative that addresses the economic and cultural contributions of Latinos in North Carolina.

Working Films expanded beyond its North Carolina base, opening offices in New York City and London, and establishing partnerships with Channel Four BRITDOC Foundation, Chicken & Egg Pictures and the Fledgling Fund.   

We interviewed West for two separate articles in Documentary- Summer 2012 and May 2006. "Our sole intent is to link high-quality documentary filmmaking with really concrete impact," he maintained back in 2006. "We support life-changing media, organizing, that works for social, economic and environmental and racial justice, and we strive for strategic and measurable outcomes. Filmmakers can look back over the release of their film, maybe two to three years beyond the broadcast, where the film is still doing quite strategic and intentional work, and say, ‘This is the difference that my film made.'"

The staff and board at Working Films announced the establishment of The Robert West Reel Engagement Fund, which will be used to support Reel Engagement, an issue-driven initiative developed and evolved under West's leadership.

For his personal reflections on his final passage, click here.

Jean Bach, Maker of ‘A Great Day in  Harlem'


Jean Bach, speaking at the Jazz Museum of Harlem,in an undated photograph.


As announced in The New York Times, Jean Bach, the producer/director behind the Academy Award-nominated documentary A Great Day in Harlem, died May 27 in New York City at the age of 94.

A longtime jazz aficionado, Bach had been a radio producer when she acquired, from bassist Milt Hinton, a home movie that documented the session for Esquire magazine photographer Art Kane's celebrated 1958 photograph of some of the greatest names in jazz at that time, all assembled together in front of a Harlem brownstone. Over the next nine years, Bach worked on the film, supplementing Hilton's footage with interviews with the surviving musicians from the photo, archival performance clips and a narration by Quincy Jones. In addition to its Oscar nomination, A Great Day in Harlem (1994) earned the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Bach's subsequent films included The Spitball Story (1997), a short about jazz trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie, which earned a bevy of festival awards, and an unfinished feature on saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

William Miles, 82, Chronicler of African-American History


William Miles (left) with author James Baldwin, in produciton on Miles' 1981 documentary series I Remember Harlem.


William Miles, whose Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, which he made with Nina Rosenblum, earned an IDA Documentary Award and an Academy Award nomination, died May 12 at age 82.

According to an obituary in The New York Times, Miles was born in Harlem, and got an early start in his filmmaking career as an occasional projectionist at the Apollo Theater, then as a restorer of silent films and archival footage for Killiam Shows and the Walter Reade Organization. Though never formally trained, Miles went on to produce a canon of landmark documentaries that brought to light little-known episodes in African-American history. His 1977 film Men of Bronze told the story of an all-black infantry unit that fought under the French flag during World War I because of segregation in the US Army. The film aired on public television, as did I Remember Harlem, a four-part series about the legendary New York City neighborhood. According to an entry in Wikipedia, other highlights of Miles' filmography include Black Champions (1986) about African-American athletes and their role in the fight for equality and civil rights; and James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (1989), which he co-produced, and which aired on PBS' American Masters series.

In addition to the IDA Documentary Award and the Academy Award nomination, Miles earned an Emmy Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Independent  Film and Video Makers.