My lifetime of interest in documentary film began sometime during the week of December 4, 1968.
I was 17 years old. The $12.5 million Ford Foundation experiment in public television and precursor to PBS, the Public Broadcast Laboratory, was starting its second and final season with a two hour cinema verite film by Arthur Barron and Gene Marner, “Birth and Death.” The concept was to follow the birth of a baby in the first hour and the death of a man in the second hour.
I have always felt like I was born that night. Neither childbirth nor death had yet become the openly discussed public events that they are now, and the film was a revelation.
Coming around the same time as “Salesman” by Albert and David Maysles, and a year before two incredible semesters at UCLA studying the history of documentary film with Professor Edgar Brokaw, it was the first time in my life that I saw the raw and emotionally jarring power of cinema verite documentary. Before that night I had no idea what was possible when a first-rate cinematographer, often working with a handheld camera, would use excruciatingly intimate close-ups and candid reaction shots to capture the inherent power of lived experience.
“Birth and Death” (1968) is discussed and remembered far too seldom, and was very much an early, brief precursor to POV. The night of that broadcast began what became PBS’s proud history of showing the work of outstanding documentary filmmakers to national audiences. It was also the night on which, as a teenager typically oblivious to mortality, it first struck me at the deepest level that going to Viet Nam with the rest of my age cohort might mean that I would die. And I remember thinking after seeing the Barron film: Dying means you stop breathing. Dying means darkness. Not good. Not good at all.
I thought of all those years tonight when I heard that Fred Wiseman’s film company, Zipporah, has gradually been releasing his extraordinary body of work on DVD. Wiseman, I only learned a year later in 1969 at UCLA, had — at the very same time as Barron’s “Birth and Death” — already begun his astounding body of verite work in 1967 with “Titicut Follies.”
I later saw most of that work, much of which was also broadcast on PBS. Check out the Zipporah site and catch up on some of the greatest verite film ever made. I have a personal favorite, “Near Death,” and I’m sure many of you have yours.
1967 – 1972.
An amazing time for cinema verite. An amazing time to be coming of age. And – for a 17 year old about to contend with the Viet Nam draft — an amazing time to realize that, sooner or later, for good or for bad, birth would eventually be followed by death.