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'The Pruitt-Igoe Myth' Chronicles an Urban Legend's Rise and Fall

By Shelley Gabert

When The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which tells the story of Pruitt-Igoe, the infamous public housing development built in downtown St. Louis in 1956, earned the ABCNews VideoSource Award for best use of archival footage at the IDA Awards in December, director/producer Chad Freidrichs accomplished a feat that originally wasn't his intention when he conceived the film more than four years ago. "I had no idea that I was going to make an archival documentary, nor did I want to," he admits. "It's costly, time-consuming and it can be challenging to find the materials."  

But as the documentary evolved, archival footage ended up driving the narrative, complemented by interviews with former residents. Rather than going to stock footage houses and the National Archive, where licensing and transferring of materials can be both difficult and costly, Freidrichs went another route: "I bought historical and educational films off eBay and rented them from libraries and incorporated them into the film because it was a source of untapped footage."

The footage from the 1950s, '60s and '70s came after long days of sifting through the archives at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, and other archives in St. Louis and Indiana. Not only did Freidrichs find rarely seen archival footage, but he also took on the meticulous process of transferring materials himself. "It was receiving my first lab bill for transferring archival footage to HD that motivated me to learn how to use the telecine," he explains. "I had some major breakthroughs as I learned the process."


Aerial view of the newly opened Wendell Pruitt and William Igoe Homes, mid-1950's. Courtesy of Missouri History Museum

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which premieres January 20 at the IFC Center in New York City and will roll out to other US cities over the next few months, is a powerful film that deserves the attention and critical acclaim it has received as it's moved through the film festival circuit. But it's also a film that evolved and changed from what Freidrichs had originally envisioned.  

Being from Wentzville, Missouri, a town outside St. Louis, Freidrichs was aware of Pruitt-Igoe and its legacy of failure, but initially it was the architecture of the project that interested him. "I had listened to an audio lecture about the history of the American city and Pruitt-Igoe came up as a failure of modernism," he recalls. "Whereas many believed that architecture had the power to modify the behavior of society, Pruitt-Igoe defied this logic."  

Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who later designed the World Trade Center, Pruitt-Igoe was once lauded as the model for other types of urban development. Two decades later, all 33 of the 11-story buildings of Pruitt-Igoe were declared unfit for habitation two decades after they were built, and were demolished. The project was considered a failure, and Freidrichs wanted to analyze other factors, such as how public housing was used as a tool of racial segregation, as well as showcase the residents' struggles and successes that had been almost universally ignored. 


The iconic implosion image of a Pruitt-Igoe building, Gateway Arch in the background, 1972. Courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The interviews with the former residents of Pruitt-Igoe give the film its heart and power, and balance well with the more scholarly parts of the story. Their recollections of life there are emotionally powerful and serve as the through-line to the film. "When I say we got lucky in this project, I first point to them," Freidrichs maintains. "We had to know how to ask the right questions and edit the interviews, but viewers have really connected to their amazing personal stories."   

Freidrichs didn't begin the interviews until after a year of research, which involved reading numerous academic articles and books. This was around May 2007, and he had just accepted a position as an assistant professor in the Digital Film and Media Department at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, where's he's lived and worked for 14 years; he graduated with a degree in English from the University of Missouri in Columbia. His two other feature-length documentaries include Jandek on Crowood, about a Texas musician, and First Impersonator, a look at the world of US presidential look-alikes and the troubled life of John F. Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader.

 "We approached the residents with broad questions--what it looked like, what was their family life like--and a lot of the same issues came up," Freidrichs explains. "As the film's narrative changed, I went back to them several times with more specific questions." He beventually chose five out of nine former residents to include in the finished film (along with three scholars).


A boy sits outside the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project, 1960's. Courtesy of St. Louis Public Schools Archive

After funding the film himself, Freidrichs and his wife, Jamie, a co-writer and producer on The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, secured a very sizable grant from The Missouri Arts Council. His childhood friend, Paul Fehler, is also a producer. It was producer Brian Woodman, who has also worked with several film archives around the US, who introduced Freidrichs to the archival process, which dramatically shifted the film 

When he wasn't teaching, Freidrichs was working on the documentary--shooting, doing color correction, cutting in music and writing voiceover and of course becoming what he calls an "editing monk." After their initial cut, he decided to remove the sections on architecture and focus more on the myths and stigma associated with Pruitt-Igoe. The film examines some of the issues that contributed to the ultimate failure of the project, such as the city's poor financial management, where there weren't enough funds to maintain the buildings once erected, along with rent increases, segregation, poverty and crime. 

He also screened a preliminary cut for students in his archival class, which earned him The Century Candle Award, an honor for all the knowledge he has passed on to them. "I learn more from them than they learn from me," he admits. "Through teaching and working on this film, I've really come to appreciate how much story matters. I always figured I'd recognize the story once I got there, but now I'm also much more conscious of the mechanics of generating sympathy for a character and telling the story." He's also enjoyed sharing the filmmaking and film festival process with students.  "In my Intro to Documentary class at Stephens, I've screened many award-winning films, like Hoop Dreams," says Freidrichs. "But to meet the filmmaker, Steven James, at Full Frame, was wonderful. I told my students about this experience."  

A screening at True/False in Columbia and subsequent feedback helped him shave 10 minutes off the film, which made the first 30 minutes so much better, Freidrichs notes. Still, the film was rejected by Sundance, and he experienced what he called, "a bad feeling in my stomach...First Impersonator didn't do anything.  It just kind of fizzled. I started seeing a replay of that and it wasn't good."   

Things started looking up, though, as The Pruitt-Igoe Myth won the Best Feature Documentary Award at the Oxford Film Festival and KCFilm Fest and went on to screen at SilverDocs, Full Frame, Big Sky and the Los Angeles Film Festival, earning critical acclaim along the way. Variety critic Robert Koehler called the film "an uncommonly artful example of film journalism...gloriously musical at times, cut in perfect tempo to Benjamin Balcom's resonantly moody score."  

"I sent Benjamin a lot of the scratch music I had selected while editing, which he said had a very rhythmic sound," Friedrich recalls. "He then recorded those songs to drum tracks, which he used to build the score."  

After its weeklong run in New York, First Run Features, which acquired the film for theatrical, video on demand and home video rights, has scheduled dates in Atlanta and Miami in February, and Chicago in April. "We had several distributors approach us, but First Run works like I would work," Freidrichs maintains. "Being independent, they're always looking for ways to work more efficiently and are budget conscious. Instead of sending out the BluRay production, I'm making it myself."  

The film, which already played the Tivoli, the art house theater in St. Louis, in June and July 2010, will screen in St.Louis at Webster University on March 1, and will also screen at the Missouri Conference on History in Columbia on March 29. Stephens College also plans to host a screening. "March 16 is the 40th anniversary of when the first building of Pruitt-Igoe was imploded," Freidrichs notes. "So that's a significant date for us. Being released wider during the month makes sense, and we're also pushing the educational DVD hard."  

While Freidrichs is already working on a new documentary, and waiting for news about a broadcast premiere, The Priott-Igoe Myth continues reap honors.  On January 6, he received the American Historical Association's prestigious John E. O'Connor Film Award for outstanding interpretation of history, and his film is also nominated for a Cinema Eye Honors Spotlight Award. "To have the experience of nothing happening with my previous documentary allows me to really appreciate the relative success of this film," Freidrichs observes. "It's the process of making the film that motivates me, but I have really enjoyed going to the ceremonies and collecting the awards.  I'm definitely enjoying the ride."


Director/producer Chad Freidrichs, with the ABCNews VideoSource Award he received for The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Photo: Cozette Lehman


Shelley Gabert, who lived in St. Louis for a decade, regularly covers film and television. Her last article for Documentary profiled 2010 IDA Pioneer Award winners Alan and Susan Raymond.