Filmmaker Joel Katz discusses why he made STRANGE FRUIT, how audiences have reacted to the film and how a song can change the world.
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Why did you make this film?
I made this film because I wanted to honor people like Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol who were brave enough to speak out about injustice in their times, even when such protests were often met with opposition. STRANGE FRUIT is a film about a song that protests a human atrocity. Unfortunately the song's relevance seems to deepen in our world today. If we expand the meaning of the term "strange fruit" to encompass all persons who die unjust deaths, it is my belief that there is much "strange fruit" being created in Iraq now [April 2003.] Some of us feel that this is an injustice which must be protested and resisted, much as Holiday and Meeropol responded to issues in their own times.
How does the story of STRANGE FRUIT resonate with your background?
In 1968, when I was 10 years old, my father (a Jewish man from Brooklyn) began teaching at Howard University, where he continued as a professor in chemical engineering until his retirement in 1986. As a Jew starting work at the preeminent African American university during the height of the Black Power movement, he was in a unique and sometimes difficult position. Over the years there he went through a wide range of experiences and emotions about this. Black/Jewish relations was thus a frequent subject of discussion at the dinner table as I was growing up. Seven years ago I began to teach at a public university that has a highly diverse student body. Thus I sometimes feel that I am carrying on the spirit of my father's work.
Your film has been shown at numerous festivals. What kind of feedback have you gotten from audiences?
Most of the feedback has been extremely positive. What is interesting for me is how different types of audiences bring different needs to the film. I've shown [the film] in quite a few Jewish film festivals, and there, the questions are often about the Meeropols, the Rosenbergs, the Jewish Left, etc. I've also shown the film at a number of Black film festivals, or settings in which the audience was primarily Black. In these contexts the questions are more often about lynching, the anti-lynching movement, etc. A few times there have been audiences that have been substantially mixed, which to me is the most interesting and productive situation.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
I hope this film will give people hope - hope that creating a work of art, even just a short song, can play a role in changing the world. I also hope this film will help inspire some its viewing audience to carry on their own protests of injustice, however seemingly small. If the twelve short lines of the song "Strange Fruit" can make as enormous an impact as they have on the world, there is no knowing how important each small act of resistance may become.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Be passionate about your work. Pick subjects you deeply care about. Be meticulous, caring and patient.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Orson Welles, Chantal Ackerman, Pablo Guzman, Claude Lanzmann, Todd Haynes, Marlon Riggs and Chris Marker.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
What keeps me motivated is a sense of outrage over injustice in our world today. Americans can be frustratingly forgetful of our own history. Recently newspaper reports have claimed that in seeking the death penalty for Zacharias Moussaoui it is the first time the U.S. government has sought the death penalty for conspiracy charges alone. In fact, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the first persons executed on conspiracy charges, as is related in my film. Being able to provide some historical perspective on such facts is a powerful motivator for me to continue my work.
What material was the most difficult to edit out of your film?
It was difficult having the restraint not to play each performance of the song in its entirety. At first it seemed somewhat like a sacrilege to cut off a version once it had started. As editing progressed, however, I realized this was necessary not only to keep the program to time, but also to keep the editorial flow moving. There were a few versions of "Strange Fruit" which I very much wanted to use, particularly Nina Simone's, but I realized that the film could support only a limited number of performances, and that it is impossible to play a song in a film without compelling visuals to accompany it.