A TOUCH OF GREATNESS
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Filmmaker Q&A

Director Leslie Sullivan and producer Catherine Gund talk about the importance of arts education, teaching in public schools and “the re-productive substance.”

How did you meet and find out about Albert Cullum?

Leslie: I met “Mr. Cullum” in 1976 when I was in my sophomore year at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts. He had been there since about 1970. My first glimpse of him was in the school cafeteria where he was surrounded by at least 20 students. Who was this guy? He was so charismatic. I was an education major and I had my first class with him that fall. I was immediately enamored. One of the first things he did was bring to class the original black and white 16mm films that he did with Robert Downey (which are seen in A TOUCH OF GREATNESS). His energy was staggering. I knew then that he was a radical thinker and we became close over the next few years. He was my mentor. In the early 1980s we even shared an apartment in New York.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing public school teachers today?

Leslie: One of Mr. Cullum’s greatest strengths was his openness to other worlds. He had a great tolerance for ambiguity. That is what made him a master teacher. Public school teachers today are not allowed that luxury. I think also one of the most difficult things teachers face is their second-class citizenship in our society. The profession itself in not honored in our country.

Catherine: Great teachers face incredible obstacles in their work. While they want to help children use their minds, they’re being constrained by the requirements of standardized testing and other forms of dumbing down the student body. The inability of teachers to share their love of learning ultimately deprives children of the ability to think critically which in turn hobbles our democracy since these future voters have no way of understanding the system or what political leaders are responsible for or capable of.

What has the audience response been so far to the film?

Leslie: People are very emotional after viewing it. One young guy, a college student, said he was overwhelmed by the utter joy of the students in the film.

Catherine: There are two kinds of viewers: those who had a wonderful teacher whose memory they cherish and those who didn’t. All of them usually cry at some point during the film.

What was Albert Cullum’s reaction to A TOUCH OF GREATNESS?

Leslie: He never saw the completed film. He saw sections of it and was very pleased. Mr. Cullum would always jokingly say, “Are you going to finish this in my lifetime?” And I would answer, “Which lifetime?”

Why do you think arts education is important for children?

Leslie: The arts in schools are an invitation to explore identity and to challenge perception. They distill our sense of beauty and tell a truth. They provide a powerful opportunity to imagine a different world. At its best, arts education begins the collective conversation that enables us to become more compassionate and imaginative. Mr. Cullum believed that conversation had to begin as early as possible. What greater gift can you give young people? (I can’t wait for the day when this question will never need to be asked.)

Catherine: Having arts education in the schools provides the opportunity for children to express themselves, to give voice to their experiences and their emotions. When children participate in arts programs they learn that there isn’t just one right answer; they learn that there are a multitude of opinions, angles, ideas, realities; they develop strategies for living meaningful lives.

What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?

Leslie: The first interviews with Mr. Cullum and four of the students were shot in late 1990. I showed this initial footage to lots of people, trying to get them interested. We raised some money and shot additional footage— Cullum working in prison (which never made it into the final version) and his current work with schoolchildren. This was around 1995 and 1996. In April of 1999, I met Judith Blatchford and Alan Rosenthal and they helped pull the project forward in a substantial way. We shot interviews with former students all over the country and they helped organize the reunion that was held at Midland School. So I had all this footage and what did I do next but make another trailer. We edited that time at Aubin Pictures, the production company founded and run by Catherine who already knew about and supported the film. Cat kept on coming over to see more and more of the material. About a year later, I called Cat to see if we could make another trailer at Aubin Pictures and she said, "No. Why don't we make the film instead?" That sounded good to me! Catherine hired an editor, Bernadine Colish, and we worked for over two more years, mostly in post-production, to get this story out into the world.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Catherine: Documentary filmmaking is so powerful to me because there is never only one way to tell a story. A compelling story always has many meanings, histories and explanations. So, getting to work through possible interpretations allows me to play and experiment and communicate what I feel to be salient. I like the idea that a viewer might think differently about things after watching one of my films. At this point, I like to think about my children seeing my films, about how I might be adding something to their world.

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

Catherine: Everyone with a television can tune into PBS. I like that it’s not a pay channel, it’s not extra, it’s “basic.” Furthermore, the context for viewing influences the meanings an audience will take from a piece and the Independent Lens series is a place that people know has forward thinking, sensitive, and meaningful stories to tell.

What are your three favorite films?

Leslie: Michael Apted’s 28 UP and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Catherine: Sorry but I can only get it down to five: Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa), Ma Vie En Rose (Alain Berliner), Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs), Body Beautiful (Nguzi Onwurah), Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais).

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

Catherine: More amusing, in this case, would be what we did get done while we were making our film. First of all, I directed a second, feature-length, verité film called Making Grace, which follows the lives of two women over three years while they use anonymous sperm to have a baby together. One of the women is Leslie! It’s also distributed by First Run Features and it’s really funny. In addition to that, we are raising six kids. No wonder it took more than ten years to get A TOUCH OF GREATNESS to the screen.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Catherine: We both agree that it’s breast milk. It’s the re-productive substance, the creative base of our worlds. I had just finished nursing my twins when I started working on this film and then I started nursing my fourth child who was born about five months before we finished. My children are the inspiration for everything I do, including making documentaries.

Leslie: My partner Ann and I had our first child in 2001 and although Ann was breastfeeding Grace, I was the stay at home mom. So Grace traveled when we were shooting. When we went to do the final edit our second child Harry was born. Needless to say, we were very productive.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Leslie: Although I had raised money for two films in the late 1980s, I had never made a film before. My advice: Search out like-minded people who might fall in love with your vision. Be tenacious. Watch independent films and read poetry.

Catherine: Realize that filmmaking is a collaborative art. Each aspect of the work is an opportunity to tap into someone’s creative flow. Work with other people whom you can challenge and who can challenge you, who can bring out each other’s most fanciful moves, who care to spend the time it takes to mold a story to the medium and who are committed to their own uniqueness.

Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

Leslie: I think Michael Apted’s UP series was always present in my mind when I was making A TOUCH OF GREATNESS. Seeing people change over time is captivating.

Catherine: Jean Luc Godard, Marlon Riggs and all the creative filmmakers I’ve worked with including DeeDee Halleck, Ray Navarro, Lucy Winer, Julie Dash, Mary Manhardt, Yvonne Rainer, Aljernon Tunsil, Maryse Alberti, Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Ellen Spiro, Calogero Salvo, Angelina Sapienza, Cyrille Phipps, Jenny Raskin, Liz Mermin, Sedika Mojadidi and Leslie Sullivan.

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