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The Making Of

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Harvard professor Vincent Brown discusses the irony that the modern understanding of the African diaspora in America is owed to a traditional outsider: the child of immigrant Jews.

Producer/director Llewellyn Smith talks about how he and his partners combined unconventional filmmaking techniques with a relatively obscure subject to create something wholly original in form and function.

Independent Lens: What impact do you hope this film will have?

Llewellyn Smith: I hope people will begin to consider the questions we raise: Is knowledge simply another commodity of commerce? Is it a product to be consumed? Who has the authority to create commentary defining who people are?

We want people to think about how information is created and disseminated in the world, to ask who controls that discourse and who is excluded from it.

The production of knowledge in academia, or any institutional environment, is almost always political in our view. The question is: are the politics clear or are they obscured? When we are not prepared to investigate this discourse more closely and responsibly, and we allow less responsible forces to take it over, we end up in extreme situations with conditions that can create the intellectualized “justification” for Auschwitz, Abu Ghraib, Bosnia, Rwanda, and race profiling.

We want to challenge our audience with questions about how we create understanding about each other, and we want them to consider that the process has real world consequences that can be dramatic — especially in cases where individuals in a culture are denied the right to explain and define themselves in this discourse. As Johnnetta Cole says at the end of our film: “The real question is: who has access to understanding and explaining a people — and to what use?”

IL: What led you to make this film?

LS: The idea for the film originated with Harvard professor Vincent Brown, who is one of the film’s producers. He had collected in his research a trove of film and photographs shot by Melville Herskovits, evidence of his impact on ideas of African and African American identity. He approached Vital Pictures about making a film about the anthropologist. At the time Vince approached us, my producing partner Christine Herbes-Sommers had already been discussing ways of combining different, unusual filmmaking techniques into a narrative. We were looking for a vehicle to explore these ideas, as well as the concept of a narrative about ideas. It was a good fit all around.

IL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

LS: Every film has its challenges, but even those of us with years of documentary experience were at times overwhelmed by the number of unexpected obstacles that arose in HERSKOVITS. From the very beginning our challenge was to convince funders that our concept would create a watchable film. The visualization of the film was absolutely daunting. Still photography was a key component, and we wanted to use photography to create photomontage reenactments based on Chris Marker’s exquisite black and white film La jetée, which was the basis for the Hollywood feature 12 Monkeys. And we also wanted to use photography as a way of transforming our expert historians, scholars, anthropologists, and so on, from predictable talking heads into real people with real stories. We wanted to humanize our experts in a way that allowed us to break the proverbial “fourth wall” — as a way of continually referencing the insider/outsider, observer/observed dynamic. To do this our director of photography shot each interview and our production photographers photographed each interview. Adding up interview photography and reenactment photography, we were handling well over 8,000 stills in our edit room at one point — and that didn’t include the archival stills we were bringing in from all over the world. It was staggering problem to figure out a workflow that allowed us to organize and access everything.

IL: How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

LS: The fact that we were not academics, but that we still knew who Melville Herskovits was, went a long way toward convincing folks we should be taken seriously. And as our various interview subjects and collaborators — like Jean Herskovits Corry, the anthropologist’s daughter — began to realize how much research we’d done and how much thought we’d put into the message and presentation of the film, they became more open to trusting us.

IL: What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

LS: There was quite a bit of material on the strong influence of Jewish culture and religion in Herskovits’s early teenaged life in our early versions, and much of this is confirmed in his early diaries. But eventually we felt this material began to point our portrait of Herskovits and the film itself in the wrong direction. Also, we wanted say more about Herskovits’s collaboration with other scholars like Mieczyslaw Kolinski.

IL: Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

LS: One of my favorites is where we talk about Herskovits’s struggle with his own identity as a scholar: Would he present himself as Jewish or American? And of course the story of the Montreal conference at the end of the film is probably one the most powerful scenes we created.

IL: What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

LS: The film has played well to general and college audiences, with lots of interesting discussion afterward. Folks in the film have seen it, and they love it.

IL: Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

LS: Mainly because I believe in the mission of public television. And without Independent Television Service’s support of and belief in our vision, the film would never have been made.

IL: What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

LS: Don’t even go there.

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