Barbara News - March 2000
their messages out 2 filmmakers use art to make a difference.
by Joan Crowder
Wexler and Kevin McKiernan are filmmakers who use their
cynicism about "the system" to fuel their belief that
they can use their art to make a difference--or if they
can't they will darn well try.
an Academy Award-winning cinematographer for both feature
films and documentaries, and McKiernan, an intrepid photojournalist,
both have documentaries screening in the 15th annual
Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Riders Union" chronicles the grass roots struggle of
Los Angeles bus riders as they organized to press L.A.'s
Metropolitan Transit Authority to allocate money from
the mass transit budget for more and better business.
It is a social movement that proves that activism lives,
and can still get results. It will screen at 6 P.M. Friday
at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
has made more than 30 documentaries and has been director
of photography for 60 feature films, winning Oscars for "Who's
Afraid of Virginia Wolf?" and "Coming Home."
is an attorney-turned filmmaker who received awards for
his documentaries and has been nominated for a Pulitzer
film, "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends but the Mountains," exposes
the plight of the Kurdish people in Turkey, victims of
a long and bloody battle of ethnic cleansing that has
gone virtually unreported in the U.S. The documentary
features a Santa Barbara family of Kurdish immigrants
whose lives resonate with the events in Turkey. It also
tells of McKiernan's frustration at not being able to
get them mainstream media to let him tell the story.
He title refers to the difference between the Kurds living
in Iraq, who receive moral and military support from
the U.S., and the Kurds in Turkey, who are being oppressed
by the Turkish government, a strategic U.S. ally aided
by U.S. weapons. The winner of the film festival's Humanitarian
Award, "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds" will have two screenings,
at noon, Sunday at the Fiesta 5 and at 7 P.M. March 11
at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
shot much of the American footage in McKiernan's film
and they are not only colleagues cut from the same cloth,
but friends. Wexler first met McKiernan in 1973: "I heard
him on a radio program, broadcasting from inside the
siege at Wounded Knee and I wanted to meet him," Wexler
said during a lengthy and far-ranging interview with
the two men.
had also run into each other while each was filming his
own controversial film in Nicaragua in the early 80's.
Their descriptions of each other put the two filmmakers
firmly on the same wavelength.
is in the tradition of the old idea of a foreign correspondent-a
guy out there looking for the truth. His life functions
on principle," Wexler said.
describes Wexler as a mentor to many. "It's amazing that
with all of his awards and his star on the sidewalk,
he still works with people like me." It's all about getting
the information out, he added. "He finds something on
page 37 of the New York Times and yells about it because
he thinks it's important."
out a story of social injustice or political struggle
was the purpose of broadcast journalism in past decades,
he pointed out. "Journalists used to be the leaders and
the educators. Now they are the reflectors. They don't
tell you what you should know, but ask you, "What do
you want to hear?"
marriage to the millionaire was on every TV channel," Wexler
noted, and the prevailing superficiality can be seen
in the current political races. "The cultural attitude
(of the viewer) is, 'I'm going to judge whether they
did a good job.' It's about how they look and sound--did
they make a faux paux? They're evaluating the presentation
and ignoring or minimizing the content."
filmmakers complained that when someone sees a film,
even a documentary, the comments are often about the
length of it, or that there was too much music, not about
what it was about. A friend saw an article he wrote about
a brutal murder in Guatemala, McKiernan said, and reacted
to how the photos were printed.
we in some celestial art club, with no connection to
earth? Art is an abstraction and that's the paradox of
documentary filmmaking. We want the audience to be moved
by real content."
are so bombarded with visual stimuli that they think
they know everything. McKiernan added. "But they have
less real experience. Art imitates art instead of art
is equally frustrated about the use of the media. "How
do you create the ideal consumer?" he asked. "Isolate
them. Dumb them down on genuine knowledge of worldly
and philosophical things. Convince them--'if I buy this,
my life will be better.' Lock them in the house and scare
them to death so they are expecting what they saw on
TV. Instead of opening the door with a smile for a neighbor,
they will open it with one hand on a handgun."
experience comes from interacting with real people, touching
them, he added. "With the internet and TV, you can turn
it off when you want to."
own apparent cynicism doesn't discourage these two, however.
It just makes them more driven to get their messages
out. "You do something you think is important and hope
someone picks up on it," McKiernan said.
nine years and a dozen trips to Turkey he met a stone
wall with both U.S. government officials and the media
when he tried to market his story. "I kept hearing the
reply, 'It's not on our radar screen,' he said. "It's
a story about human rights, but the U.S. has a sliding
scale of human rights." When he met the Santa Barbara
family that was fleeing the situation in Turkey, McKiernan
realized that he had an angle that would make American
viewers more interested in his subject. Kani, one of
the members of the family who had been a local Maytag
appliance salesman, went to Washington, D.C., and set
up an office to lobby for the cause of the Turkish Kurds,
a David and Goliath effort that gives the film human
interest in this country. He drew attention to himself
by making waves in Washington that threatened to embarrass
the Turkish government. He was threatened with deportment
because he had entered the U.S. illegally. As the film
ends, in conflict with the INS, he is seeking asylum
and waiting to see whether he will be deported. If he
is, he will surely be persecuted in Turkey. As in most
documentaries, the story is ongoing.
dramatic structure of a feature film demands a resolution," Wexler
noted. "That's the tough thing about a documentary."
Riders Union" story is not over either. It focuses on
the type of community activism that is rare in the 90's.
As the L.A. Metropolitan Transit Authority made big plans
for expensive rapid transit that would mostly serve the
business community, the daily bus riders, mostly black
and poor, were finding services cut back to the point
where they were unable to keep their jobs. They banded
together to demand consideration. It was more a class
struggle than a racial one, Wexler, said. "There's a
law against racism, but there's no law against discriminating
against poor people."
films, he has often focused on the civil rights movement
and so this situation intrigued him, a similar action
in a much different time. "I was impressed by honest,
marvelous young people doing things because they believe
in democracy, the way it was taught to us in school." It
ends on a positive note, with the bus riders feeling
empowered, but, as in McKiernan's film, the story has
is just a slice of life, not the whole pie," McKiernan
filmmakers see their art as a way to counteract people's
complacency. "People have given up the idea that they
can do something. They feel that big industry owns democracy," McKiernan
said. But information is hope--it is democracy. The way
I see it, somewhere that bread on the water will be picked