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FRONTLINE Show #1507
Air Date: January 21, 1997
Six O'Clock News
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE a very different
kind of investigation_
BARRY: Well, I'm in television, too, figuratively
ANNOUNCER: _filmmaker Ross McElwee's unique exploration
of truth and T.V. news.
ROSS McELWEE: It's supposed to be real life, what
we see on the news, but it seems increasingly unreal to me.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight a personal journey, part home
movie, part meditation on the disturbing images we glimpse every
night on the "Six O'Clock News."
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] This is my son, Adrian,
when he was 1 week old. He seems a little perplexed by me, or
maybe it's just my movie camera.
MARILYN: [to Adrian] What? You want to stop? You
want him to stop for now? Okay, then.
ROSS McELWEE: Okay. That's all.
[voice-over] Since the baby's been born, we're home
a lot more now and we've ended up watching more T.V. than we used
to, especially the local news.
REPORTER: Channel 7 photographer, Richie Zaskin on
the scene_ Johnny-on-the-spot. Got some incredible pictures I
think we can show you here. The officer's trying to break into
the car to save these guys. One we understand didn't make it_
dead on arrival.
1st NEWS ANCHOR: Twenty-six-year-old Gina Lynn Jones
is a survivor of 20 stab wounds with two knives, a meat cleaver,
a hammer and a lawn edger.
2nd NEWS ANCHOR: Adele Gaboury, an elderly loner,
was found dead in her Worcester home yesterday. She had apparently
died four years ago. How could this have happened?
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] How could any of this
1st CHILD: Yeah, hit the lights!
2nd CHILD: Hit the lights, Mom!
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] This is the version of
reality I'm more familiar with. I make documentary films for a
living and I also like to film everyday life, including my own
life. I've become kind of obsessed with making these autobiographical
home movies. This is a birthday party for my wife, Marilyn's,
father. But still, trying to film family events and at the same
time participate in them can be a little awkward, to say the least.
GRANDPA: Thank you, Ross. Thank you.
NEWS ANCHOR: A huge gas pipeline explosion levels
an entire block of apartments_
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] But I keep wondering about
the real world, the world of the 6:00 o'clock news. The people
in these stories suddenly, due to a twist of fate, the 6:00 o'clock
news becomes their home movie, a movie they never wanted made.
Maybe it's because we've just had a kid, but lately
the real world seems to be a lot more dangerous than it used to
be. Even though he's been around for five months, Adrian sometimes
startles me. It's like finding a stranger in your house. How did
he get in here? And how in the world will we know how to take
care of him, keep him safe?
NEWS ANCHOR: Over the weekend, a woman from Weymouth
was nearly beaten to death by her own boyfriend. She was attacked
with a hammer, repeatedly stabbed in front of her own son.
REPORTER: At first light this morning, the extent
of the wreckage and the carnage became clear.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Anyway, I'm watching the
news one night, wondering how I've managed over the years to convince
myself that these things can only happen to other people, not
to me, not to my family or friends, when suddenly I see this.
REPORTER: The Isle of Palms has homes built to weather
hurricanes, but Hugo was too much for many of them. A massive
swing bridge linking one of the islands to the mainland was manhandled
by Hugo, a testimony to the incredible power of the hurricane.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] I recognized the bridge
right away, even though it's upended. It's the bridge to the South
Carolina island where my former high school teacher and close
friend, Charleen, lives.
I've known Charleen for a long time and she's been
through a lot. Three years ago her husband died in a terrible
fire that also destroyed their home. Last year she moved into
another house and was just beginning to put her life back together.
And now this house has been hit.
As I watch these news images, I find myself thinking
back to other images, images I've filmed from Charleen's life
over the years.
STUDENT: I'm going to close this poem with one last
saying: Brothers and sisters, stay together and keep on praying.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Years ago I filmed Charleen
teaching poetry in the public schools of North Carolina.
CHARLEEN: Okay, now tell me this. Did the man let
you know how he was feeling?
CHARLEEN: Do you believe he was honest?
CHARLEEN: You're a great American poet, John. Sit
down over there.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] I have no idea where Charleen
is, so I called her son, Tom, who tells me that Charleen is safe.
She got off the island in time. But she hasn't been able to get
back on to see what's left of her house. Tom and I make plans
to meet in two days.
I check into a motel north of Charleston, where
electric power has just been restored, but all television transmission
has been knocked out by the storm. I still don't know where Charleen
is, so there's nothing to do but wait until our rendezvous tomorrow.
I decide to drive to the bridge I saw on television.
Charleen's house, or what's left of it, is on the other side of
the channel there. Charleston is, of course, crawling with camera
crews, but I guess all this news footage being shot in Charleston
won't be seen by anybody living here, at least until the power
is restored. Anyway, the T.V. crew gets its images and I get mine.
JERRY: This is like nuclear weapons gone off. I could
almost compare this to the great earthquake and fire of San Francisco
because it's just_ except for the deaths. There's very few deaths,
which is surprising. But the amount of damage that I have seen_
I mean, for_ this is like Hamburg, Germany, of World War II.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] His name is Jerry and
he works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and he's
just set up his base of operations here. I'm hoping maybe he knows
something about how to get onto Charleen's island.
[interviewing] I'm trying to get_ get in touch with
someone who lives on the island, on Sullivan's Island, just across
JERRY: Well, I met with the mayor yesterday briefly.
I met him trying to get over the bridge. They were even keeping
him from going over. The people that live on the islands, the
Isle of Palms Sullivan Island, Montgomeryville_ they have no idea
what's going on.
The military's completely taken it in siege. They
are running the whole thing. These islands are going to be completely
wasted. There's been a big problem with bees here because there
are no places for them to nest. The fire ant problem has become
ROSS McELWEE: What's happened with the fire ants?
JERRY: The fire ants have been all washed up. They're
all being floated up here. There's people are getting bit all
over. But the bees are the major things, the yellow jackets. As
you see one flying around over here. But it's_ this is major.
I mean, this is_ this is war!
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Jerry wants me to see
the worst destruction, but what surprises me is that some homes
have actually escaped destruction.
JERRY: Tornadoes, probably high winds here for the
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] It's the randomness of
the destruction that gets to me.
JERRY: Beirut_ I was in Beirut a few years back and
this whole city looks like a Beirut. You got your Shi'ite Muslims
over here and you got your Christians on one side. It's just a
wonder that people aren't shooting at each other. That's the only
difference. As far as the damage, it looks like this could have
been about 15 RPGs going in here. And they talk about Northern
Ireland. This is it. This is the_ an American Beirut right now.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] It's been four days since
the hurricane struck, but I still haven't quite adjusted to being
here. It's as if I was just sitting in my living room, watching
the news, when suddenly my television set imploded and it sucked
me right into the world I was watching.
And how must Charleen feel? The next day I go to
the command post to meet Charleen and her son, Tom.
[interviewing] How are you?
CHARLEEN: We meet again.
TOM: Military men are out there with M-16s and shotguns
and bayonets fixed. And we tried to get on the island and they
told us we weren't going to get on the island.
CHARLEEN: The biggest danger, they thought, was that
there was open gas everywhere.
TOM: And balls of fire ants.
CHARLEEN: Balls of_ yeah, that was the thing that
scared us the most. They said there were ants that had been driven
out of the ground that were in balls the size of a grapefruit.
TOM: They were crawling_ crawling like mines.
CHARLEEN: Yeah, crawling like mines and_
TOM: And if they hit you_
CHARLEEN: _that they had 10 feet of water with these
floating grapefruit balls of ants and that if they hit you, they
TOM: They would attack you. You'd be seriously injured
by these ant balls.
CHARLEEN: Now, we heard that here at the command
post. We didn't hear this on the street.
TOM: This is the official information.
CHARLEEN: This is official information, that there
were grapefruit-size balls of ants that would kill you.
The day after the storm and I finally found a phone
and we called the police at the Isle of Palms, not knowing what
was out there. And I said, "I'm a property owner on the Isle
of Palms" and the policeman said, "Well, forget it,
lady. Your house is gone. There's nothing out there." Then
we said to somebody else who said, "I've been there."
"Is it falling down? Is there gas?" "No."
"Yes." You just couldn't_ I mean, you just couldn't
know! And the more you didn't know and the longer you didn't know,
the crazier it made everybody.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] The National Guard has
commandeered a tour boat to take island residents over to see
if their houses are still standing.
CHARLEEN: What I find in a minute determines what
I'm going to do 10 years from now, 20 years from now.
ROSS McELWEE: You think that you would not come back
and rebuild if your place is destroyed?
CHARLEEN: Ross, I was as brave as I could be after
the fire. You know, after that last fire, when Jim was gone and
everything was gone, I talked to myself all the time. I said,
"Okay, I can do it. I can do it. I can do it." And I
talked myself into rebuilding from nothing and I'm tired. I'm
tired now. I don't know if I can do it or not. I'm trying not
to ask myself that.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] We're dropped off at an
intersection about a half mile from Charleen's house and, although
I've been here many times, I don't even recognize it as being
the same intersection. This used to be paved and now it's a beach.
Another truck takes us to Charleen's house, past a house that's
been washed into the middle of the road. But Charleen's house
is still standing.
CHARLEEN: My house is there! I love that little brave
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Charleen's main concern
now is her papers and the writing that she had to leave behind.
CHARLEEN: Somebody_ oh, there's water in here!
TOM: That's from the rain. Are you okay?
CHARLEEN: Yeah, sure. I'm okay. You know what made
a mess is the laser printer. Can I go through here? I can't go
through there. Oh, no!
TOM: But look, Mother. Here it is, intact, covered
in plastic, your filing cabinet. Go check. Everything's okay.
Everything is still here. The roof is gone.
CHARLEEN: The ink's not even wet. Oh, gosh! I can
TOM: Made it through fire and water now.
CHARLEEN: This was the one thing that I had to have.
This was the one thing.
TOM: I'm now soaking this. A little perfume_ Charlie.
It's nice. White Linen will do in a pinch. Taking this, wrapping
it_ wrapping it around my face. I've done this before. The dairy
products are always the worst_ the eggs. Have to get the eggs.
It's pretty terrible. My towel is falling off, but I'm too far
into it to stop now.
CHARLEEN: Here's the water mark, to right here. Let
me see if that was over my head. Well, no. It wasn't over my head,
but I couldn't have breathed in here.
ROSS McELWEE: You would have had a hard time.
CHARLEEN: The water mark is to right here.
TOM: Mushrooms_ a nasty pot of something. There it
goes. That's it. That's how you clean a refrigerator after a disaster.
CHARLEEN: There's so much that is lucky or unlucky
or circumstantial in life. It makes me afraid. If I had been through
these things before I had children, I don't think I could make
a rational decision to have them now. I'm too fearful to do it.
But when you're 20 and you don't know how things can happen suddenly
or come from behind or how things are suddenly abnormal and can
get out of sync and_ that the universe is not predictable.
When I was 20, I felt there were laws that you could
follow that there was cause and effect for everything. I don't
experience life to be that way anymore and if I had felt as little
control then as I do now, I don't think I could have chosen to
be a parent.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] We have lots of home movies
from my childhood, but somehow it's this corny studio photograph
that I find myself thinking about now, my mother with her brood.
I wonder what the photographer did to make us laugh. For the most
part, the world has never really seemed dangerous to me before.
I suppose that's a tribute to my parents.
Even after my little brother was killed by a motorboat
while swimming, even after this, my family's own private 6:00
o'clock news story, my parents somehow managed to make us kids
feel safe in the world. But recently my brother's death has, in
a sense, come back to life for me. The probability of that boat
hitting him on such a large lake was_ was infinitesimal, but it
did hit him. He was just a little kid. As the newscaster said,
"How could this have happened?"
Now that I'm a father, I guess I've been thinking
about these things more than I should and I can't say watching
the 6:00 o'clock news has done much to ease my concerns.
JOANN YAVNER: It's scary. And we've not really had
a moment's peace at night since.
1st REPORTER: Joann Yavner and her family went out
and bought a dog the very next day after this man broke into their
home with everyone asleep and tried to lure their 7-year-old daughter
2nd REPORTER: Police say Norm was driving the car
which ran over 15-year-old Steven Rosk as the straight-A student
walked home from a party.
3rd REPORTER: Faulty electrical wiring is listed
as the cause tonight of a horrible fire in Chelsea. Fire officials
say 11-year-old Jonathan, 10-year-old Jesse, 4-year-old Jose Luis,
18-month-old Raymond and 8-month old Alva never had a chance,
the fire was so intense.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Lately I can't get these
stories, these images out of my mind. They've sort of bled into
my brain and I can't seem to stop watching the news.
This is Barry. Barry became my landlord when I moved
in with Marilyn. He lived across the hall and his apartment was
identical to ours, except that his was equipped with 10 television
BARRY: See, now, I can switch remotely from this
deck to this deck.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Barry's obsessed with
television, too, but not the news.
[interviewing] How many Twilight Zones do you have?
BARRY: I have all of the new Twilight Zones. I probably
have, like, I don't know, maybe 70 percent, 75 percent of the
ROSS McELWEE: Really?
BARRY: Yeah. The old Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight
Zone and Star Trek. [crosstalk] See, here are my clippings. And
then on the back, on this thing, I put the title and on the back
I cut out the little synopsis from T.V. Guide.
ROSS McELWEE: Do you lend them to people?
BARRY: A very select group of people.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Barry has taped tens of
thousands of hours of television. By now he's probably accumulated
more hours of recorded viewing time than there are hours of his
BARRY: Now, this is a goody_ [reading] "A bizarre
series of events convinces a young woman that her mother and fiance
and psychiatrist are all part of a conspiracy to secretly film
ANNOUNCER: ["The Twilight Zone"] Exit Mr.
and Mrs. Horace Fort, who have lived through a bizarre moment
not to be_
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] At any rate, I end up
watching a fair amount of television with Barry. And then one
day television comes to watch me. A producer I know at one of
the local T.V. stations told a colleague of his that he knew this
guy, meaning me, who was always filming his own life, so the T.V.
features department asked if they could interview me.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Hello.
ROSS McELWEE: Hello.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Hello.
ROSS McELWEE: You must be Debbie Shapiro?
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: I am. You must be Ross.
ROSS McELWEE: I'm Ross. Nice to meet you.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Nice to meet you.
ROSS McELWEE: Come in.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Okay.
ROSS McELWEE: Crew's on their way?
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Yeah, crew's on their way. [crosstalk]
1st CREW MEMBER: I'd shake your hand but they seem
to be filled.
2nd CREW MEMBER: A two-man band is a lot better,
I'll tell you that much.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] No, the interview isn't
over. The producer just decided she wants to shoot as they come
in the door so the piece will have more of a spontaneous feel
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Hello.
ROSS McELWEE: Hello. You must be Deborah Shapiro.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: I'm Debbie. Hello, Ross.
ROSS McELWEE: Nice to meet you.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Nice to meet you. [crosstalk]
CAMERAMAN: Hi, Ross. Dave Delacourt. [crosstalk]
ROSS McELWEE: Hi, Barry.
BARRY: Hi, Ross.
ROSS McELWEE: So what's next, Debbie?
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Well, why don't we_ why don't we
sit down. Why don't you sit over here and_
ROSS McELWEE: Okay.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: _I'll sit there and we'll just chat.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] I suddenly realize that
the T.V. cameraman is jockeying me out of the best shooting position_
in my own home, no less.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: This is very much a film about you
and your life.
ROSS McELWEE: Yeah, it is a film about me and_ I
guess what I've tried to do is put a little_
[voice-over] So already I'm starting to get that
slightly panicked feeling that my answer to her question is way
too long and that what she's waiting for is a sound bite. And
somewhat desperately, I try to come up with one, but I just can't
seem to do it.
[to Debbie Shapiro] _what's going on around him.
Why shouldn't he become a kind of persona or a character in this
[voice-over] If I were the only one filming, well,
I'd just turn the camera off and wait for me to make my point.
But the other guy's still shooting, so all of this keeps getting
recorded, whether I choose to film it or not.
[to Debbie Shapiro] _and capture things as they
happen the first time. You know, you give up a lot by having to
wait that long and the time that it takes you to do_
[voice-over] At any rate, I'm sitting here, wondering
how I got into this mess, when suddenly we're interrupted by my
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: We people on television love to meet
people like you, Barry.
BARRY: Well, I'm in television, too. Figuratively
and literally. [crosstalk]
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: In a way that you could never imagine!
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] At last the perfect sound
bite. Anyway, Barry finally leaves.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: People have this conception, you
know, that the dream of filmmaker must be to go to Hollywood,
be a famous Hollywood director. Is_
ROSS McELWEE: Well, it's not really something that
I'm interested in.
[voice-over] So I'm determined to think of a succinct
way to answer this question, but actually, the more I ponder it,
the more it puzzles me. And people do always ask it_ when am I
going to give up making documentaries and go to Hollywood and
make real films?
[to Debbie Shapiro] _it seems to me. It's just something
I'm not interested in doing.
[voice-over] I mean, documentaries, which are more
or less films about reality, are actually not considered by most
people to be "real films." But Hollywood films, which
usually have an extremely high fantasy quotient, are considered
to be real. Anyway, I could say a lot more about all this, but
something tells me this is not the time to go into the finer points
of the issue.
[to Debbie Shapiro] It would have to be a film that
would be on my own terms.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Yeah. All right. I think that's it.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Finally, after an hour
of taping, they're finished. Or so I think.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: See you shortly.
ROSS McELWEE: Yeah. Real shortly.
[voice-over] So is it any less real that they're
filming themselves coming into my apartment a third time? Ultimately,
what difference does it make? I'll edit this scene for my purposes,
just as they'll edit it for theirs. But is one version more real
than the other?
[to Debbie Shapiro] Hello.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Hello. How are you?
ROSS McELWEE: Just fine.
REPORTER: When our producer and camera crew went
to visit this polite Southern gentleman with a knack for getting
people to open up to him, they found themselves on the other side
of the camera.
ROSS McELWEE: Hello.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: I'm Debbie.
ROSS McELWEE: Hello. You must be Deborah Shapiro.
Nice to meet you.
DEBBIE SHAPIRO: Nice to meet you.
CAMERAMAN: Hi, Ross. Dave Delacourt.
ROSS McELWEE: Nice to meet you, Dave.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] So now I've become part
of the local news scene, the guy who incessantly films his own
life. And I do keep filming my own life, but I also keep wondering
about the lives of all those people I see on the 6:00 o'clock
1st NEWS ANCHOR: The gunman opened fire. He killed
four people before taking_
2nd NEWS ANCHOR: Officials are reluctant to call
the blaze part of an attempted suicide, but sources say_
3rd NEWS ANCHOR: 7's Andrew Frame reports the scars
from this fire go_
1st REPORTER: As the body of a student was carried
out of Oakland Elementary School, parents frantically searched
for their children.
2nd REPORTER: Police say the 19-year-old man they
have in custody during the shooting spree seemed to single out
the children who were crying or who were most afraid.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] It's supposed to be real
life, what we see on the news, but it seems increasingly unreal
to me, all those stories, each with its own strange, tragic twist.
What I think I need to do is somehow punch directly into the territory
held by the 6:00 o'clock news. I decide to take my camera on the
road for a while.
I'm not quite sure why I've stopped here in Jackson,
Mississippi, but it probably has something to do with spotting
this motel. I kind of like the idea of having my own private Alamo
where I can retreat and think about things. And I can't say I
didn't notice that each Alamo comes equipped with satellite television.
Anyway, I turn on the television and right away I see this.
NEWS ANCHOR: Wilson's sentence follows his conviction
for the murder of wig shop owner Gloria Im. The victim's husband,
Steve Im, was at the court house when the sentence was passed.
His reaction was disbelief.
STEVE IM: I cannot accept today's life sentence.
Maybe you see the_ my wife [unintelligible] that picture. It's
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] I can't explain exactly
why, but there is something about this man's expression _ his
face, what he's been through _ that makes me really want to meet
him. His face haunts me. It's as if he's looking out through the
window of a sealed room and all I can think about is how I can
find the door to that room and go in there for a while and talk
The next morning I call the police to try to locate
Steve Im. The detective who solved the case and the district attorney
who prosecuted it suggest that I meet them at the scene of the
DETECTIVE: We were called to the scene and we found
the victim, who was the owner of the business, had been brutally
murdered. She'd been stabbed and cut and her head was almost cut
from her body.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: This is a photograph of the victim
in the case, Gloria Im, the owner and proprietor of the store
that we're in right now.
ROSS McELWEE: Do they keep that here all the time?
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: It's been here ever since they
opened, I understand.
ROSS McELWEE: You got to know Mr. Im during the course
of the trial, didn't you.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Fairly well, I would say, yes.
He_ I would describe him as a man that was very much in love with
his wife and I think that this tragedy has been a severe blow
to him emotionally and I'm not so sure if he'll ever get over
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] The robbery in which Gloria
Im died netted the murderer $44.94. Steve Im comes to America
to find a better life and ends up losing his wife. It's been just
over a year since the murder. He has three kids. How in the world
has he managed? Im moved to Arkansas after the murder, so I call
him there and_ and we make plans to meet at the restaurant where
I'm somewhat surprised when Mr. Im picks me up in
a chauffeur-driven Lincoln. I'd been told that he worked as a
manager in a restaurant but, in fact, he owns the restaurant,
as well as several clothing stores, wig shops and other businesses.
STEVE IM: My children is born to the United States.
I have three daughter_ three daughter, all of them born in United
States. So my daughter is like_ is just like you, like all the
thinking, attitude. Everything is just like American. I'm_ half
is Korean, half is American. So it's a very difficult situation
to me, very difficult situation. Sometime I hate the United States,
sometime I love the United States.
You know, all the time we didn't shoes wear in the
room. That is Korean.
ROSS McELWEE: Oh, I should have taken my shoes off.
STEVE IM: Yes. That is Korea. Nobody use them inside
ROSS McELWEE: You'll forgive me for not taking them
STEVE IM: Oh, it's okay. It's okay.
DAUGHTER: Nice shoes, Daddy. You can put the shoes
STEVE IM: Outside? [unintelligible] It's okay.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] The next day Steve and
Mr. Joe, his driver, take me out to see Steve's new pulp wood
business. I've been with Steve for several days now, but he seems
reluctant to talk more about the loss of his wife. It's obviously
a painful subject and I'm hesitant to bring it up, so for now
we talk a lot about his businesses, especially his trucks.
STEVE IM: It's nice truck.
ROSS McELWEE: Yeah. It looks brand-new.
STEVE IM: Uh-huh. I bought it yesterday. It's beautiful.
ROSS McELWEE: Yeah.
STEVE IM: You want to see inside?
ROSS McELWEE: Sure.
STEVE IM: It's brand-new.
ROSS McELWEE: Yeah.
STEVE IM: It's my baby!
ROSS McELWEE: Can you drive it, Steve?
STEVE IM: No! No driving!
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Steve later tells me that
when he came to America he only had $50 in his pocket. Now he
estimates his holdings to be worth well over $6 million.
At any rate, while I'm in his church, where the
hymn melodies are so familiar, but the lyrics are incomprehensible
to me, I begin thinking about how capitalism is sort of the state
religion of America and how it can encourage you to seek a kind
of, I don't know, monetary salvation and how maybe this has helped
Steve cope with his loss.
And anyway, I'm thinking about all these things
when suddenly I notice that Steve's with a woman I've seen before.
Her name is Yung Su An. I thought she was a housekeeper because
she always vanished as soon as she served us tea, but it turns
out that she and Steve have recently married.
[interviewing] Has it been a good marriage for you?
STEVE IM: Yes. She's very good for children.
ROSS McELWEE: Yes.
STEVE IM: So children like her. She like children.
She's a nice girl.
ROSS McELWEE: Yes.
STEVE IM: Yeah. It's_ life is happy, sometimes sad.
But that is life.
ROSS McELWEE: It's life.
STEVE IM: Uh-huh. It's not easy life.
ROSS McELWEE: No.
Yung Su An_ is Yung Su An happy in America?
STEVE IM: She say yes.
ROSS McELWEE: She said yes? Do you believe her?
STEVE IM: Well, I don't believe. She want to go back
ROSS McELWEE: She wants to go back?
STEVE IM: Yes. I find out after marry, she's the
1974 Miss Korea. This is_ in the middle is her.
ROSS McELWEE: That's her in the middle_
STEVE IM: I don't know she is Miss Korea. Also, she
don't know how much I'm successful.
ROSS McELWEE: She did not know you were successful
as a_ [crosstalk]
STEVE IM: No, she don't know still until now. Now
she still didn't know, but she don't understand English_ I can
talk now, but she_ still she don't know. So maybe soon I show
to her all of what I got. Everything I will show her.
ROSS McELWEE: You'll show her everything.
STEVE IM: Uh-huh. Very soon.
ROSS McELWEE: Yes.
STEVE IM: Because now I trust her.
ROSS McELWEE: Yes.
STEVE IM: And I love her, too.
ROSS McELWEE: Good.
STEVE IM: And I think first wife, she understand.
She understand my situation and if_ if she say_ she can talk to
me, I think she say, you know, "Marry, for you and for our
ROSS McELWEE: For the children.
STEVE IM: Uh-huh.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] I tell Steve I've decided
to leave tomorrow, so we go out for a drink. Afterwards, he says
he wants to talk, but not to the camera.
[interviewing] It's difficult for you to talk to
STEVE IM: Yes! Very difficult to talk to in front
of the camera. Much better the tape recorder.
You know, how believe in God!
ROSS McELWEE: How can you believe in God?
STEVE IM: Yes.
ROSS McELWEE: Yes.
STEVE IM: It's hard to believe in.
ROSS McELWEE: But you do believe in God.
STEVE IM: But I go to the church. I believe in God,
ROSS McELWEE: How do you answer the question about
why your wife was killed?
STEVE IM: That is_ I cannot believe it. Hard to believe
ROSS McELWEE: Yes.
STEVE IM: Very difficult believe in God. Lots of
time I ask the preacher, "My wife such_ is good person,"
you know? "Then why God take her so early so hard killed?"
ROSS McELWEE: Yes. Very brutal.
STEVE IM: Uh-huh. Brutal, the murder.
ROSS McELWEE: What does the preacher say when you
STEVE IM: Preacher say, "God love your wife,
so take early," but is nonsense. God love my wife, then_
then why? Oh, no. She loved me very much. She loved God. Oh! So
what I'm thinking now, out of control, the God.
ROSS McELWEE: The God is out of control?
STEVE IM: Out of_ yes. God out of control this world.
He cannot control the world.
REPORTER: Then he committed suicide. Tonight residents
stand in groups talking to one another, trying to make sense_
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] As I leave Arkansas and
drive through the Bible Belt, I stop each night to sample the
6:00 o'clock news.
1st REPORTER: _and her 10-year-old friend, Tony Moline.
Bernardi Angelo called police after having_
2nd REPORTER: Children recently found a skeleton
in a dress and petticoat lying in a Clarksdale playground.
3rd REPORTER: The rampage by an axe-wielding man
described as having psychiatric problems left much of the church
4th REPORTER: Manus's parents say their son has
suffered with mental illness for 20 years. He first became ill
in college while studying for the ministry.
FATHER: But he thinks God has let him down, I think.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] The further I drive and
the more I watch, the more things really do seem out of control.
If you view enough local news, you sense that there really are
thousands of people out there waging battles against their own
demons, against fate, even against God. And for better or worse,
it's only the 6:00 o'clock news that really acknowledges them,
tells their stories.
But meanwhile, where do I head next? I mean, I could
go anywhere. Then I see this: a huge storm front moving in over
Arizona, torrential rains, massive flooding, high winds, all in
the desert. It all has a kind of Old Testament quality to it and
this weatherman suddenly seems like a prophet, telling me not
only that there are storms on the way, but_ but that I should
go to Arizona.
I drive all night and almost make it to Phoenix.
In a daze, I check into a motel, but as I'm falling asleep, I
have a kind of vision of that weatherman telling me that_ that
certain things, certain signs will be revealed to me here, that
I simply have to go out and find them.
The next morning the storm awakens me and I remember
my visionary mandate. The only trouble is that the storm's now
so bad that I can't even get out of my room to film any of it.
The storm goes on into the night and, finally, there's nothing
to do but watch television coverage of the storm.
The next morning I venture out into the neighborhood.
A tornado has devastated some homes, but others have hardly been
damaged at all. I keep thinking about what both Steve and my friend,
Charleen, said about things being out of control. Do you just
chalk all this up to chaos theory, who gets to be fortunate and
This mobile home park seems like the perfect place,
almost a kind of laboratory, to explore this question. But meanwhile,
where is everybody? Finally, I flag down a car and meet John Noeding,
who offers to take me back to his trailer, where he lives with
his wife, Carolyn.
JOHN NOEDING: You just rolled clear over it, it looks
like. There was a storage shed, as you can see, and it's gone.
ROSS McELWEE: And there's one right next to it.
JOHN NOEDING: Yeah. Looks like it's all right. And
this one obviously blew over there and blew into the other one.
Doesn't make much sense, does it.
ROSS McELWEE: No.
JOHN NOEDING: If it made a pass through there, you
could understand that. That would be logical.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] John and Carolyn's home
has been spared, but just 20 feet across the road from them a
home has been completely demolished. The owners were out of town
when the storm struck and Carolyn and her friends have spent most
of the morning salvaging their possessions for them.
CAROLYN NOEDING: Put them in plastic.
ROSS McELWEE: It's strange to look at these pictures
and not even know the people, really.
CAROLYN NOEDING: Yeah, I know, but I think what it
would mean to me if I lost all this and I would want someone to
ROSS McELWEE: Yeah. It's nice of you to save all
that for them.
CAROLYN NOEDING: Oh, that's the way we are, I guess.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Uh-oh. Where did they
come from? It's as if they were beamed down by satellite transmission.
They must have seen Carolyn showing me the photographs and now
they want her to do it for them. I can't help but feel my laboratory
is being invaded.
1st REPORTER: You want to hold those up for us?
CAROLYN NOEDING: I was inside the trailer and it
shook, like this. And I just held onto the door and I thought
I was going to go who knows where? And then I heard this boom.
So it was really devastating.
1st REPORTER: Yeah. Scary stuff. Okay.
Where are you from?
ROSS McELWEE: I'm an independent film producer from
1st REPORTER: Oh, okay.
ROSS McELWEE: I've been filming these people this
1st REPORTER: Oh. Okay.
[to resident] Tell you what. If you want to come
on over here, we'll ask you about the news, okay?
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] In the time that I turn
my back long enough to shoot this shot of the news crew finally
leaving me in peace, I discover that yet another crew has turned
2nd REPORTER: Tell me what it was like yesterday
when it came through.
CAROLYN NOEDING: Well, I was in my trailer, preparing
lunch for my husband and myself. It sounded like a freight train
and, all of a sudden, this terrible wind.
It's not working. Either that or [unintelligible]
I was on the radio last night.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] The news crews keep coming
and going all morning. I give up on filming John and Carolyn and
settle for filming the crews instead. This crew literally appeared
through a hole in the wall.
Finally, the invasion is over. I guess there's nothing
to do now but watch it all on television.
NEWS ANCHOR: Many areas were damaged, but some of
the worst came in Mesa at two mobile home parks. Theresa Vishnek
spent much of the day in the damaged areas.
Theresa, how are things holding up?
2nd REPORTER: Well, pretty well, considering what
the people there have been through. The storm caught everybody
off guard and many people didn't realize how much damage it caused
until they looked out this morning.
CAROLYN NOEDING: "It sounded like a freight
That's me! Right here!
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] So we now have these three
versions of what happened: the nine seconds of Carolyn that ended
up on the news, the somewhat longer version that I filmed this
morning and what I'm filming at this very moment, here in the
trailer. But I'm not sure if any of these versions really manage
to reveal that invisible virus of fate that apparently controls
everything by making everything out of control.
As I leave the trailer park people are still picking
through the rubble.
1st RESIDENT: This is where we would have been, right
ROSS McELWEE: Right here?
1st RESIDENT: Right here. And where that corner of
that frame is_
ROSS McELWEE: Yeah?
1st RESIDENT: _we would have been in that part last
ROSS McELWEE: You just moved last week?
1st RESIDENT: Yeah. Yeah. And so who knows what's
going to happen to you.
ROSS McELWEE: This would have been your debris, I
guess, if you'd stayed.
1st RESIDENT: Well, if we'd been there, it would
have been. Who knows?
2nd RESIDENT: It would have been ours.
1st RESIDENT: Who knows what would have happened.
2nd RESIDENT: Or else we would have been down the
street. I don't know.
1st RESIDENT: Yeah.
ROSS McELWEE: You think of yourself as just being
1st RESIDENT: Grateful to the Lord because He directs
our lives for us and if it hadn't been for that, we'd have maybe
said, "No. No, we're going to stay here," you know?
But something told us we should go over to the other park. Nothing
specific. But it's just the way our lives run and more than once,
things have happened that we know that we have been guided that
ROSS McELWEE: Uh-huh. It seems pretty certain that
if you had been here, if anybody had been here, you would have
1st RESIDENT: I'm sure we would have.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] I guess life's easier
if you believe that, in fact, God is in control of everything.
Or maybe life's only easier if your house trailer is the one that's
Well, this is my wigwam. It's a pretty nice place.
It doesn't have any windows, but somehow I kind of like that.
It gives me a feeling of security, you know, being in a concrete
wigwam with no windows. It's just fine. And I have cable television
and not just cable television, but Cable News Network, where the
news never stops except, of course, for commercials.
CAR DEALER: [television commercial] Hi, folks! I'm
Tex Earnhardt for Earnhardt Ford right here in Tempe and I guarantee
you this ain't no bull!
ANNOUNCER: [television commercial] What could be
ANNOUNCER: [television commercial] _succulent_
NEWS ANCHOR: Police say a despondent 50-year-old
man shot and killed his 10-year-old daughter and_
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] When I began this journey
I expected to make it all the way across the country and, perhaps,
peering over the Pacific, my trip would end with some sort of
epiphany, an epiphany about fate and news gathering and reality.
But for now, I've run out of time. I need to see my family and
I've also got a job that starts soon.
NEWS ANCHOR: SWAT team members had fired tear gas
into the apartment, but_
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Sometimes when it's taking
me an especially long time to finish a documentary, I teach a
course in film making to help ends meet. I like my students and
I think they like me, but they sometimes seem less than enthusiastic
about making documentary films. I think most of them want to go
to Hollywood. My teaching appointment runs out at the end of the
year. Then what will I do? Maybe I should be the one going to
Documentaries aren't getting any easier to fund
and meanwhile we've got a baby to support. Maybe I should just
leave reality to the news teams and try to make fiction films.
Then one day I get a call from a man I don't know.
His name is Michael Peyser and a Hollywood film producer and somehow
he's seen one of my autobiographical documentaries. He wants to
know if I'd be interested in directing a fictional version of
an autobiographical film. I begin to take the offer seriously.
Maybe this is the West Coast epiphany I was meant to have, that
we should just move to Los Angeles for a while. Sunny California_
1st NEWS ANCHOR: Early this morning, life in L.A.
went into chaos.
2nd NEWS ANCHOR: A major earthquake, registering
a 6.6 on the Richter scale, struck before dawn.
3rd NEWS ANCHOR: Seventy major fires, hundreds of
homes burned or collapsed, power out to tens of thousands. At
least 12 died here.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] The search for survivors
begins. Here firemen have located a man trapped in a collapsed
parking garage. He's conscious and apparently he's in tremendous
pain. As the morning goes on, coverage bounces randomly all over
the city, but it keeps coming back to the man trapped in the parking
garage. They've now been working to free him for four hours. They
know his name now, Salvador Peña. He was working at his
job, driving a sweeper, cleaning the garage, when the quake struck.
He has a wife and four kids, but they're all still back in El
Salvador. Rescuers report that he's been conscious the whole time.
Finally, after eight hours, he's freed from the rubble. A few
days later, I see this.
REPORTER: His mangled arm and leg in casts, his first
public statements were of thanks.
SALVADOR PEÑA: Me siento muy contento.
TRANSLATOR: Thanks to God, primarily, and to all
the people responsible for helping.
SALVADOR PEÑA: Pense que iba morir, y mi familia_
TRANSLATOR: I thought I was going to die, but yet
my family needs me so much.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Eight months later I find
myself on a plane to Los Angeles. The producer who called me has
been persistent and he's even agreed to fly me out here. But I
also hope to meet Salvador Peña. There's something about
him that stayed with me. Eight months have gone by. He survived,
but what's happened to him in the meantime?
Anyway, my meeting with the producer won't take
place for a few days, so I decide to look up Salvador Peña's
former employer, George Starr.
[interviewing] It's amazing that he could have survived
GEORGE STARR: Yeah. Yeah.
ROSS McELWEE: It seems if he had been, like, a foot
to the right or a foot to the left_
GEORGE STARR: Right.
ROSS McELWEE: _he would have died.
GEORGE STARR: Or forward or back.
ROSS McELWEE: Or forward or back, yeah.
GEORGE STARR: Because_ because of the main beams,
the way they hit. There was kind of a pocket and that's_ you know,
that's pretty thick steel there. It just crushed it like an aluminum
ROSS McELWEE: George, what's happened to Salvador?
GEORGE STARR: He's much better than they expected.
They thought they were going to have to amputate his arm and both
legs, but they were able to save them. He was in such critical
condition and guarded condition that they actually changed his
name in the hospital because people were trying to get in to see
ROSS McELWEE: Really?
GEORGE STARR: _and they didn't want anybody in to
see him. And of course, attorneys. There was hundreds and hundreds
of attorneys trying to get ahold of him. So they gave him an alias
and people would try anything to_ you know, they would lie and
say they were family or whatever to get in to see him. So they
changed his_ changed his name and that really_ that really helped
him. He was able to get some quiet for, you know, a couple months,
while he was in there.
ROSS McELWEE: What were the attorneys trying to do?
GEORGE STARR: Being attorneys, you know? Because
there's somebody they can sue, you know?
ROSS McELWEE: But whom could they sue? I mean, it
GEORGE STARR: I suppose they could_ they could_
ROSS McELWEE: _act of God.
GEORGE STARR: Yeah, but I suppose they_ you know,
they could sue the contractor that built the parking structure
or the owners or whatever.
ROSS McELWEE: It seemed like for 12 hours there,
he was a focus for all of Los Angeles.
GEORGE STARR: There was people from all over the
United States that sent in contributions, but it was, oh, I guess
a little bit disappointing because he actually only, I think,
received about $1,100 in contributions from, you know, people
throughout the United States. And sometimes you see on the news
somebody like John Wayne Bobbitt, whose, you know, wife dismembered
him, received $100,000 or $200,000, you know, and here's a poor
guy, Salvador, who's going to be, you know, crippled for the rest
of his life and a hard-working man and he only gets $1,100. So
that was a little bit disappointing that that_ that turned out
ROSS McELWEE: Yeah, to say the least.
[voice-over] Life is almost back to normal in Los
Angeles, but evidence of the earthquake isn't hard to find. Even
in my hotel room. I have to confess, these cracks in my bathroom
wall add an element of existential edginess to the decor. Speaking
of my hotel, I ask for a room with a view and this is what I get.
George Starr, Salvador's former employer, did agree
to tell me how to get in touch with Peña only after he
was sufficiently convinced that I wasn't a lawyer masquerading
as a filmmaker. George kept saying how lucky Salvador was and
it's true, in a sense, but still, thousands of parking garages
withstood the earthquake, yet the one Salvador happened to have
been cleaning collapsed.
Anyway, I finally call Salvador Peña and
he tells me to drop by for dinner. Salvador's family is still
in El Salvador, but some friends have come by to help him celebrate
WOMAN: Cumpleaños -- 44.
1st FRIEND: [subtitles] That day, I went to look
for Salvador where he'd been working and all I could think about
was how fragile the human body is and that if he dies, I'll be
the one who has to ship him in a plastic bag of ice back to his
2nd FRIEND: [subtitles] We saw it all on Channel
9. Two guys bringing him out on a stretcher through a cramped
space. And right there on the news we could see exactly how he
was screaming because of the pain. Yes, the clearest views of
this were on Channel 9.
SALVADOR PEÑA: [subtitles] The pain was so
tremendous that I wanted to strangle myself. If I had both hands
free, who knows what would have happened? But with only my left
hand, I couldn't do anything. In the wreckage, something ended
up around my neck and I tried to use that to strangle myself,
but I couldn't. I couldn't. Finally, I said it must be the will
of God, that by the grace of God I would survive.
NURSE: Relax. Relax.
[subtitles] Pain? Okay, move this foot, too.
NURSE: Okay, I guess that's it. Are you okay?
[subtitles] You're very lucky because many people
who have accidents as grave as yours cannot walk like this.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Everyone keeps saying
how fortunate Salvador is, but it also seems a lot more complicated
than that. Salvador comes to America, the promised land. And he
finds not one, but two jobs, works 80 hours a week and earns enough
money to support not only himself, but six family members back
in El Salvador. Then he loses it all in the earthquake. The promised
land takes back its promise. How in the world does he resolve
all this in his own mind?
Today's the day I meet with Michael Peyser, the
producer, and Josh Kornbluth, the star and script writer of the
film I might direct. Kornbluth has successfully starred in three
off-Broadway shows and Peyser's produced more than a dozen films
for people like Woody Allen and Danny DeVito. Meanwhile, I don't
have any experience in fiction filmmaking. I mean, I think I must
be one of the few human beings in North America who's never written
a film script.
MICHAEL PEYSER: What's unique about what Josh had
been doing in his monologues was tremendous storytelling. And
the only filmmaker that we really came across who was also doing,
like, personal kind of storytelling was you and we kept using
you as a reference_ well, if we could find some other filmmaker
who could do what you do and do this, it would be great. And then,
finally, we said why not you?
JOSH KORNBLUTH: We were saying that, "Yeah,
we"_ well, we were talking about, like, documentary stuff,
you know? It's, like, sort of have a documentary feel to it, you
know, and not be like a regular movie_ well, not like a regular
Hollywood movie, and_ but we'd like sort of a documentary and
not like a Hollywood documentary, but, like, be like a_ you know,
ROSS McELWEE: Like a documentary documentary.
JOSH KORNBLUTH: Yeah, sort of. Yeah. I feel embarrassed
to look at your camera, by the way. It's sort of_ it's, like,
you have, like, this eye and then that eye and_
ROSS McELWEE: Yes.
JOSH KORNBLUTH: _and it's really_ it's_
MICHAEL PEYSER: You should get used to it if, indeed,
there's going to be a camera looking at you doing your thing regularly.
JOSH KORNBLUTH: Well, but it's sort of like we've
always simulated, we're, like_ actually, we're sort of, like,
sitting here in a booth. It's, like_ and I'm just thinking, like,
you know, at some point, like, the waitress'll go, "Would
your camera like something?" I mean, there's, like_ there's
a bunch of us in the booth. It's, like_ it's_ we're_ it_ it isn't_
you know? It's not fakeness and it's not reality. We're, like,
in the middle.
MICHAEL PEYSER: I think, also, we were talking about
making_ well I know we were talking about doing the story in terms
of observation of behavior. And quite frankly, you do that really
ROSS McELWEE: I'm flattered, but I've never shot
five seconds of fiction. Part of it also is that if there were
just the three of us, I'd say, "Sure," but the fact
that, you know, Miramax is behind this and_ how much have them
committed, at this point?
MICHAEL PEYSER: They haven't committed all that much.
They've paid for a draft of the script. And a lot of phone calls
them to try to get their lawyers to pay attention to make deals
JOSH KORNBLUTH: You know, face it, you know, you
and me, Ross_ I mean_
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] So I'm sitting here, thinking
how unreal all this is. The budget for this film will probably
be more than the budgets for my last six films put together. These
guys are serious. Maybe I should try to direct a fiction film.
MICHAEL PEYSER: _stars, but what I was able to do
was get us to the point of saying we can take this limited amount
of money and use it any which way we can to tell, basically, the
ROSS McELWEE: Right.
MICHAEL PEYSER: _that's in the monologue that many
people laughed when you did the monologue. And they're willing
to take that chance.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Two hours after the meeting,
I'm feeling slightly uneasy at the prospect of committing myself
to directing a fiction film. I go back to Salvador's for the solace
There are dozens of kids living in Salvador's apartment
complex and they've sort of gotten used to me by now. Everyone
in this neighborhood seems to get along pretty well, but Salvador
says it can be different when the sun goes down. They have to
close the gates to the yard at dusk and keep the kids inside.
There have been shooting deaths. But during the day _ this day,
anyway _ everything seems safe. But still, you look at each of
them and you wonder how their parents will continue to keep them
The next morning I'm taking a walk on the pier near
my hotel when suddenly I notice these guys. I try to go down to
the beach and get closer to the action, but a policeman tells
me I'll have to film from the pier. But actually, as the shooting
goes on _ theirs and mine _ I begin to like my perch.
From up here it all seems like a board game, a game
of chess. You can see the director deciding where to move the
pieces. And it is the usual set of pieces: guys, guns and, of
course, babes in bikinis. But still, this director has absolute
control. Six inches to the left or a foot to the right_ he can
make things happen just as he wants them to, unencumbered by the
fateful intrusions of real life.
And anyway, I'm thinking about all these things
when suddenly I'm interrupted.
MAN: Don't look like Paul Newman, do I.
ROSS McELWEE: I'm sorry?
MAN: Paul Newman!
ROSS McELWEE: You look like Paul Newman? You ever
been in a movie?
MAN: Yeah, once.
ROSS McELWEE: What do you think of all this moviemaking
MAN: I like it.
ROSS McELWEE: Yeah.
MAN: You mean all those naked girls [unintelligible]
ROSS McELWEE: What'd you say?
MAN: Naked girls. All naked down there.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] It wasn't until later
that I noticed the policeman who had banished me to the pier was
actually an actor in a policeman's costume. Anyway, the crew moves
on to the next location and someone informs me that this is a
shoot for the T.V. series Baywatch. I later read somewhere that
Baywatch is seen by more than 1.4 billion people worldwide.
Today marks exactly eight months since the earthquake.
Staff members at the UCLA Medical Center have asked Salvador if
he'd return to the hospital so they can see the progress he's
1st NURSE: Oh! I can't believe it! Look at you! My
God! Is it you? Is it really you? [crosstalk] Look at him standing
all up! Yeah. [crosstalk] Exercise! Boy, we made him do_ we made
him do exercise. I said, "You got to have strong muscles."
[crosstalk] You are a miracle! A miracle. I'm responsible for
his muscles, I want you to know. This is my responsibility. [crosstalk]
I gave him my [unintelligible] to do push-ups.
2nd NURSE: Now you know what we're talking about,
3rd NURSE: Don't go to the garage anymore. [crosstalk]
2nd NURSE: Yeah, look at his muscles.
1st NURSE: Look at that. Yeah. And you couldn't even
squeeze my hands before. [crosstalk] Remember when you left, I
said, "We don't want to see you again this way. We want to
see you standing up. No more lying down_ standing up and walking."
That's the next time we wanted to see you. And we got our wish.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Salvador spends a lot
of time reading, mainly religious books. I ask Salvador why he
thinks God allowed such misfortune to befall him, even though
he's a very religious man.
SALVADOR PEÑA: [subtitles] I think of it as
a test that God gave me to see how I would react to the experience.
Definitely, it's the most beautiful thing I now see in myself,
that it's made me believe more in God.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] El Salvador _ "the
savior" _ a name given to his country by Spanish conquistadors
who enslaved the people they converted to Catholicism. I keep
wondering how this Salvadoran man has managed to keep his faith
intact. It makes me wonder about my own idea of faith.
It's strange. I keep finding myself in church with
a camera. When I was 12, I managed to land a job tape recording
sermons in our church for the preacher. And then, years later,
my first summer job: balcony cameraman for the Presbyterian Sunday
service broadcast. And now here I am again. It's almost as if
I have some latent desire to capture the presence of God on film.
Anyway, I'm thinking about this, sort of preaching
this agnostic little sermon to myself, when I notice this woman
across the aisle. My camera's only a few feet from her face and
she doesn't even see it. What exactly is she seeing? Where has
We go back to the apartment, but I can't really
think of anything more to talk about with Salvador. As I start
shooting miscellaneous shots around the house, I begin to feel
immersed in a strange calm. Maybe it's Salvador's calm. Or maybe,
on some level, I'm reverting to my old habits again. Maybe I think
God's hiding over there between the light and the shadow.
Finally, the light begins to fade and the kids come
home to dinner and it seems like a good time to head back to the
Suddenly, there's a new development in Salvador's
life. He's been approached by Rescue 911, a television series
that recreates dramatic rescued based upon true stories. They've
promised to fly Salvador's family to the U.S. to be part of the
show if he signs a contract with them. He would also have to agree
not to participate further in any other film productions_ for
When Salvador asked me what he should do, I tell
him to jump at the chance to sign the contract. Rescue 911 can
do much more for him monetarily than I can. Actually, maybe this
is the West Coast epiphany I was meant to have, that everyone
who comes out here _ me, Salvador, everyone _ is destined to be
involved in a movie deal of some kind.
I decide to head back to Boston, but before going
home, there's a place near the pier that I've been meaning to
visit. Right here in the Santa Monica Senior Center there's a
real camera obscura, the camera obscura of Aristotle and Kepler.
I don't mean this particular one, but the concept. The concept
has been around for centuries. Hope there are no tourists up here.
Actually, I doubt that this provides much competition for Universal
City or Disneyland.
This must be the screen. And there's the shaft that
rotates the turret and the oculis on the roof. If it works, a
mirror will bounce an image from outdoors down onto the screen.
This is so beautiful. It's like looking at some
strange planet. There's the pier where they were shooting that
T.V. show a few days ago. The image is so strange, off axis, and
it all seems so fragile, the people and palm trees, the buses
and buildings. I feel this overwhelming desire to be with Marilyn
and Adrian again.
ADRIAN: [Three years later] Why do you have that?
ROSS McELWEE: Well, that's so I can record sound.
ROSS McELWEE: Uh-huh.
ADRIAN: My name is Ike, the mouse.
ROSS McELWEE: Ike, the mouse?
ROSS McELWEE: When did you get this name, just today?
ADRIAN: Yes. Because I'm Ike the mouse because I
have an "I."
ROSS McELWEE: Because you have an "I,"
that begins with an "I"?
ROSS McELWEE: Wow. Well, is Ike, the mouse, ready
to celebrate his birthday?
ROSS McELWEE: Okay.
ADRIAN: That's right.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Time goes by and suddenly
we're all celebrating Adrian's 4th birthday. I'm amazed by how
fast Ike, the mouse, is growing up.
Anyway, even though I was hired by Miramax to work
on that script, the project was put on hold, so I've gone back
to filming real life. But those nagging metaphysical questions
I encountered on the 6:00 o'clock news still haven't gone away,
even here at home.
ADRIAN: This picture is a serious picture of God.
That's the name for it.
ROSS McELWEE: Serious or mysterious?
ADRIAN: Serious. A serious picture of God, see?
ROSS McELWEE: Who is God?
ADRIAN: Up there.
ROSS McELWEE: Up there?
ROSS McELWEE: Have you ever seen him before?
ADRIAN: I talk to him, though. This was very easy
ROSS McELWEE: How long did it take you to make it?
ADRIAN: A few days.
ROSS McELWEE: And how did you know what God looked
ADRIAN: Well, I don't really know, but this just
reminds me of God. It reminds me of God, this picture does. I
think God looks like this, Dad.
ROSS McELWEE: You think that God's seen this painting?
ADRIAN: Sure. I_ well, not inside. I'll show Her
or He out the window. Mom, open the window, please. Thank you.
This is a serious picture of God. You want to go camping?
ROSS McELWEE: Okay. Where are we going to go camping?
ADRIAN: Right here.
ROSS McELWEE: Here in the playroom? Okay.
ADRIAN: So how do you go camping with a camera on
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] I put the camera down
and go camping, but what's a little disturbing is that God sort
of looks like a movie camera here. Anyway, Adrian's growing up
and I'm about to finish a new film and, overall, things are going
pretty well. But every time I start to relax into not worrying
about life, something bizarre happens.
REPORTER: Chaos on Beacon Street in Brooklyn. A gunman
opens fire on two separate abortion clinics on the same street
a few minutes apart. Rescue workers struggled to save the lives
of seven victims.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] The killings take place
several blocks away from where we live.
WITNESS: The guy started coming towards us, just
shooting and shooting and shooting! And as he was shooting, the
lady that was in front of me, she was the one that just went out
on a stretcher, and if she wasn't in front of me, I would have
been the one shot!
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] That night I walk around
the corner and down the street to the scene of the murders. The
reporters are waiting for their live broadcast slots. The murderer
is still at large, armed and dangerous, as the news reporters
like to say. I guess what I want to know is why is it possible
for a psychotic to walk into a gun store and buy a collapsible
semi-automatic rifle? When will this change? I get a prompt answer
to my question a few weeks later.
1st NEWS ANCHOR: An attempted bank heist and then
a gun fight.
2nd NEWS ANCHOR: A Brink's security guard managed
to shoot and wound two of the suspects. It's a wonder that no
one else was hurt.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] All of this takes place
less than 100 yards from where I've been working every day, editing
REPORTER: That's what this tourist from Holland thought,
ERIK DEZKAAN, Tourist: It's like in an American film.
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] Well, maybe that says
it all, except for one final footnote, some good news, for a change.
CHARLEEN: And I like Easter. It's a good time to
celebrate new things being born in eggs. Look! There's a bird's
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] The hurricane damage to
Charleen's house has been repaired and things are back to normal,
except that now, for the first time, she's a grandmother and her
granddaughter is about to make her first visit.
CHARLEEN: I think if I didn't have a baby, I'd just
get old and grouchy. I think you would, too. That's one reason
I want you to have a baby. You and I are both getting old and
ROSS McELWEE: Well, I've got one.
CHARLEEN: Yeah, well, he barely keeps you from being
old and grouchy.
Oh, my! My little Easter egg! My little Easter egg
baby! Look at that Easter egg!
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] At the risk of sounding
old and grouchy, I have to say that I'm wondering how babies survive
this period of their development, the saccharine period.
CHARLEEN: Granny made it a tree. Granny made it a
tree, my little darling!
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] I mean, Marilyn and I
were probably the same way with our son, but once you're a step
removed, it's unbearable.
CHARLEEN: Look at this! Look at all the many-splendored
things! Many-splendored baby!
ROSS McELWEE: [voice-over] But I guess, as a species,
we somehow get through this. Somehow we manage to survive it.
CHARLEEN: Are you getting in touch with your inner
child, my darling? No, you're getting in touch with a granny is
what you're getting in touch with.
TOM: With her granny's inner child.
CHARLEEN: Oh, now she's gone back to sleep. Enough
ANNOUNCER: At FRONTLINE's web site, go beyond the
broadcast. Ask the filmmaker, Ross McElwee, your questions. Read
about his work and explore independent filmmaking on the Web at
www.pbs.org. And let us know what you thought about the program.
[Fax: (617) 254-0243; e-mail: FRONTLINE@PBS.ORG; DEAR FRONTLINE,
125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134].
Next time on FRONTLINE, return to the Gulf war with
the television series that left the critics raving, the dramatic
inside story of America's war with Saddam and America's war with
itself. Don't miss FRONTLINE's "The Gulf War."
SIX O'CLOCK NEWS
FILMED, EDITED & NARRATED BY
SOUND EDITING ASSISTANTS
THE FILMMAKER WISHES TO EXPRESS HIS GRATITUDE TO THOSE APPEARING IN THIS FILM
Yung Su An
THE STAFF OF THE UCLA MEDICAL CENTERMaria Chilcott
AND THE STUDENTS OF Intermediate Filmmaking, Harvard University
AND ESPECIALLY TO
Marilyn and Adrian
SPECIAL THANKS TO
"NOBODY DOES ME LIKE JESUS"
Performed by Markham Chapel Baptist Church Choir
The Abstract Title Co. and The Frame Shop
Stan Sztaba, World Cinevision
A Homemade Movies production in association with Channel 4, London
The Film Study Center, Harvard University
© MCMXCVI Homemade Movies
POST PRODUCTION DIRECTOR
POST PRODUCTION PRODUCER
Mary E. Fenton
The Caption Center
Lee Ann Donner
SPECIAL PROJECTS ASSISTANT
SENIOR STAFF ASSOCIATE
Anne del Castillo
Valerie E. Opara
Janel G. Ranney
DIRECTOR OF ADMINISTRATION
SENIOR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
A FRONTLINE coproduction with Ofra Bikel Productions, Corp. © 1997
WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED