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Interview with Jill Godmilow on "What Farocki Taught"

or the past 3 decades, filmmaker, teacher, and writer Jill Godmilow has created films that question accepted truths. Whether focusing on pioneering women like Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Louise Nevelson, and Antonia Brico or examining the Polish “Solidarity” movement and modern war, her films aim at an audience of critical individuals who embark on a process of reflection and action. Often combining styles and techniques, her 1997 “What Farocki Taught” is a replica of the 1969 “Inextinguishable Fire” by the German Harun Farocki, about the manufacture of Napalm B by the Dow Chemical Company during the Vietnam war. Just in time for the empire’s new wars, Godmilow will show both films at the Four Wall Cinema Collective, April 18th and 19th.

AR: How did you become a film-maker?

JG: Long story — but in brief, in 1967 my uneducated Puerto Rican painterboyfriend said, “let’s make a movie” because the French New Wave was just breaking on the shores of New York and they made it look easy, which Doris Day films did not. And so we did — we made a feature film in Spanish called La Nueva Vida, which we shot in 13 weekends (one day Saturday rental on equipment) with local Puerto Rican actors, and sold it to Azteca films. And that was the beginning.

AR: You have written against the false sense of reality, truth, coherence and moral order that documentary film offers the viewers and you prefer the term “films of edification.” Can you explain this term?

JG: Well, the word “documentary” is so corrupted now it can name anything and everything from Ken and Ric Burns’ national PBS epics, to Bunuel’s “Land without Bread” or Jean Vigo’s “Bood of the Beasts”, to corporate industrial films, to drivers’ ed. films, to Harun Farocki’s films, to reality TV.... so what could it possibly mean anymore? Not to mention that that “documentary” word still stinks of “truth”, which many of those films rarely tell. So films of edification is the only handle I’ve been able to find that takes in all those films, all of which do one thing, which is to say, they all take the same stance in their self-presentation to the public and that stance is, “You should know this” (or, “you will be edified if you watch this”). So I call them a “family of films that claim to edify”, or “films of edification.” It’s cumbersome, but it seems to set the record straight.

AR: Your 1984 film “Far from Poland” had its genesis in the Gdansk shipyard strikes of “Solidarity” and the defiance of the regime. Where do you see hope these days?

JG: I find some hope in the EU and non-aligned countries holding firm against Bush’s little Iraq War with the support of millions of world citizens marching our little hearts out, not to mention the “Impeach Bush” movement which I hope will grow and grow.

AR: Several of your films are about creative and path breaking artists, like Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, and Antonia Brico. What have you thought of several recent portrayals of artists such as Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf?

JG: I’ve avoided FRIDA like the plague because I love her too much and know her history and politics too well to watch a Hollywood-type “biopic” about her. Sadly, I was dragged by friends to see The Hours, and what a sad thing it was: to take one of the century’s two greatest women writers in the English language, dear Virginia (thank God they left Gertrude out of it), and feature her as one of three in a “suicide trilogy”, and to be completely uninterested in her writing at the same time... well, I could only continue by saying terrible, unprintable things.

AR: You criticized Ken Burns and his desire to create “national mythologies.” At a time when myths about American virtue, evil terrorists, and homeland security are promoted, is it hard to get funding for films that counter the dominant ideology? What about distribution?

JG: Yes, funding and distribution for non-mythologizing films is hard to find (which is why I took a job in the academy in 1992) but I say, either make cheaper films, or make radio, or pool resources and collaborate with others... or move to Mexico.

AR: Your approach reminded me of Brecht and also of Peter Watkins in his early films like “War Games” and his recent film about the Paris Commune. What are some of your influences and what current film makers do you respect?

JG: Harun Farocki is my all time living model for non-fiction filmmaking, but also very important to me — dead or alive — are Peter Watkins, Alexandre Kluge, Bruce Conner, Alain Resnais, Kidlat Tahimi, Syberberg, Kenneth Anger, Luis Bunuel, Jean Vigo, Su Friedrich, Leslie Thornton, Zoe Beloff, Mike Rubbo, Carolyn Strachan, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Knut Eric Jensen, Jean Rouche, Kyle Kibbee, Chick Strand, Raul Ruiz, Chris Marker, Jan Oxenberg, Marlon Riggs and Forough Farrokhzad and William Kentridge.

AR: Your films combine various styles and approaches and reflect the fact that reality is complex. I was reminded of the work of the Palestinian filmmaker Suliman, using humor, satire, and dramatizations, to portray the Middle East situation.

JG: I haven’t seen his old films or his new one (I live in South Bend Indiana), but I’m trying to.

AR: “What Farocki Taught” was made five years ago and is a replica of a short film about the manufacture of Napalm B by the Dow Chemical Company during the Vietnam war. Its expose of the death industry and being good citizens is very timely on the eve of the latest imperialist adventure. What has been the response to the film?

JG: Happily, it’s been very well received: lots of unanticipated sales, festival screenings all over the world, an invitation to the Whitney Biennial, and it is taught in many adventurous “documentary film courses” in colleges and universities, etc. etc. But most important to me is that so many younger filmmakers have said that it seems to point to “new” ways of making films that are cheap to make and hard as hell to figure out. And if there was one critical reason for making that crazy replica of a 25 year old German film about a war that has been well-surpassed in our memory by so many others, it was this: to try to re-energize the independent community to think in fresh, useful ways — not about telling the truth, but about what you know in cinema. This might slow down the digital camcorder racket for a minute — no need to shoot and shoot and shoot thousands of hours of description to puzzle over in the digital editing room for years and years. Better to stay at home and smoke dope and think. Then, happily, shoot.

“What Farocki Taught” and “Inextinguishable Fire” will screen April 18th and 19th at 7:30 pm at The Four Wall Cinema Collective, 425 SE third, # 400. Jill Godmilow in attendance both nights.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003