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The Making Of

Filmmaker Michal Goldman talks about bonding with former communists, the pitfalls of editing one’s own film and an interview that surprised her with its emotion and intimacy.

What led you to make this film?

This film project literally knocked on my door, in the form of two people who brought it to me. Andy Hazelton, an architect, had been introducing students of architecture to these housing cooperatives as part of a course he was teaching on affordable housing, and he found that his students were fascinated by the social history of these communities. He approached a young filmmaker he knew named Ellen Brodsky with the proposal that they make a film together. Ellen didn’t feel she could take this project on herself, so she and Andy came to me. The possibilities attracted me right away, partly because I’ve been interested in working people’s radicalism for a long time—my father was a labor lawyer representing unions—and partly because there was something about these immigrant factory workers’ passionate belief that they could make a new kind of cooperative community that moved me. Given the prevailing materialism of the moment, they seemed generous and farsighted.

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

There was the narrative challenge of making an hour-long film that would be the life story of a community rather than the life story of an individual. How to convey the sense of a place changing over time? How to introduce enough characters so that viewers would feel they were watching the story of a group without getting hopelessly confused? And how to film the buildings so that the apartment complex itself would really seem to contain the life we were describing?

And then there was the other big challenge: the challenge of raising enough money to make the film. It took us eight years to make AT HOME IN UTOPIA, to a great extent because we had to spend so much time beating the bushes for dollars. Ellen Brodsky, who came on as co-producer at the very beginning, spent countless hours during those years brilliantly researching foundations and networking—as well as researching archival footage, doing outreach and helping to make the film happen in many other ways. During these years, I watched her two girls grow from little children to adolescents. And at crucial moments we were lucky. Our first funder, the Puffin Foundation, was deeply committed to this project and sustained us during the first years. And our final funder, ITVS, gave us completion funds just when I thought we had run out of options.

The third huge challenge was one of judgment. I edit my own films, which is wonderful in that I can explore my material very directly, and terrible in that I inevitably lose perspective. Quite late in the process I acknowledged this problem and hired a brilliant filmmaker named Peter Rhodes as a consulting editor. As soon as we started working together, the editing process became exhilarating for me, and the film began to take its final shape.

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

I do extensive pre-interviewing before I film. Ellen and I did long “background interviews” with more than 100 people, usually over the phone. On the basis of these conversations, we selected a small number of people to visit in person. I usually took my mini-DV camera with me on these occasions, so I could see how people responded to a camera. Many of these people had lived very dramatic lives and were wonderful storytellers. Gradually I came to understand which of them could play a crucial role in the film. I felt an emotional bond with them and made sure to speak with them frequently, so that by the time we actually filmed, they felt they knew me. And most of our interviews were filmed by Boyd Estus, a marvelous cinematographer who seems to have a knack for making people feel they’re in good hands—and they’re right to feel that way.

Are you aware of any modern-day examples of housing communities like the Coops?

Of the four original Bronx labor cooperatives, two are still cooperatively owned. The Farband, about 10 blocks away from the Coops, is a much smaller community. The Amalgamated Houses, about 15 minutes away, is now a much larger one. Due to brilliant management and networking, it survived the Great Depression and expanded after World War II. Some of the families who now live there have lived there for four generations. But neither of these cooperatives is as ideologically driven and committed as the Coops was.

In doing outreach for this film, we’ve become aware of cooperative housing and co-housing all across America. Some places share aspects of the Coops’ history of activism and idealism. Some are still deeply committed to cooperativism and progressive activism, as the Coops was. But we haven’t yet come across a place that is as large as the Coops—2,000 people lived there. [Nor have we come across a place] that is as dedicated, on a community-wide basis, to working for a full progressive agenda for working people, immigrants and African Americans.

For people who are interested in pursuing the development of a community like the Coops, what advice can they take away from the film?

In their architectural design, the courtyards of these cooperatives offer an interesting metaphor because they provide some separation from the outside world, but they also open up to it. The people in these communities didn’t withdraw from the issues and struggles of their times; they engaged. They also believed that as working people they had the right to healthful, pleasing apartments and beautiful surroundings. They filled their basements with communal spaces for themselves and their children—and they streamed out of their courtyards to march for workers’ rights on May Day. These cooperatives were a force in their surrounding communities, partly because they were organized. They got people elected to local government. They got public schools built within walking distance. They saw the advantages of acting together, collectively.

On the other hand, the Coops itself, unlike the Amalgamated Houses, fell beneath the weight of its own ideology. Too many people in the community were not able to bend their principles in favor of practical necessity. Ideological conviction sometimes became a bludgeon against other people, and the community was subject to internal splits and battles. (I guess we see some of the same kinds of problems in our own government.) I don’t know the answer to this dilemma, since I believe that ideals are enormously important, especially if I agree with them!

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

When we came to the home of Boris Ourlicht with all our lights and equipment, I think he was slightly flabbergasted—and impressed. All these people and all this obviously high-end gear so that he could tell his story!

He had told me his story many times, and I thought I knew it. But once we had rearranged his living room, set up our lights and got rolling, when we came to the story of his marriage, and I asked him to tell us how he’d met Libby, his wife, who had died a few years before, he began to cry. I could see that he was really remembering her at that moment, how beautiful she was and all the pleasure and pain of it. And then he told us something he’d never mentioned before—his first date with Libby, where they were pulled out of his car by a cop and taken into custody because Libby was black. We all sat very still as he was speaking so as not to disrupt his mood. On the screen it’s a very simple scene—just a long stretch of interview, intercut with two photos of Libby at the beginning. But it has a lot of resonance for me because it’s so personal and vulnerable, and at the same time it speaks about a fundamental social condition.

Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?

I wanted to give a sense of the architectural space of the buildings, gates and courtyards. Boyd Estus, the cinematographer, and I discussed how to do this. Should we lay dolly track? That would be elegant, but, I felt, inappropriately cool—too impersonal. And a hand-held camera wouldn’t give the unfolding visual composition I wanted. So we settled on using a steadicam—a stabilizing mount for a camera worn on the operator’s body so that the shots mirror human movement. We shot on 16mm film so that we could move easily in and out of shadow.

From early on, I knew that there would be a key scene during which the residents of the Coops lose ownership of their cooperative once and for all. We had good interview material from people who remembered the angry meeting where this happened. But we had nothing else: no stills, no archival footage to make the scene come alive. I decided we needed to give the audience a sense of what was at stake—the buildings that the community was about to lose. I didn’t want just to cut in random “beauty shots” of the buildings. Instead, we mounted the steadicam on the back of a pick-up truck and drove it around the whole two-block perimeter of the cooperative, so that later I could intercut this shot with the interviews. Our composer, John Kusiak, wrote very evocative music for this scene. In the end, something that started out as a limitation turned into quite a strong scene I think.

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

The response to the film has been pretty wonderful. People laugh at the jokes—which is very gratifying—and are moved where I’d hoped they would be. There’s that wonderful sound of mesmerized silence during the scene of Boris remembering his first date. We’ve shown it at lots of festivals, and yes, the people in the film have seen it, and they’re very pleased. Quite a few of them have even had the chance to see it with a festival audience, so they’ve seen how “strangers” receive it.

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

I’m not sure, frankly. At the end of each film, I think “Can I do this again? Do I want to?” So far what has happened is that I [get] bitten by an idea and it won’t let go. Or maybe it’s me who won’t let go. And then, once I actually manage to raise money and begin to spend it, my sense of honor—or maybe pride or shame—kicks in, and I decide I must finish the film no matter how hard it is or how long it takes.

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

At first, Ellen, Andy and I thought of making this a feature-length documentary. But as I got into it, I came to the conclusion that the subject wouldn’t hold up to that kind of treatment. And at the same time, we all felt that this story of grass-roots radical American immigrant activism was a piece of history that a broad American audience ought to have access to. So public television seemed like exactly the right place for it.

Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A?

I’ve loved getting to know the people in this film. I love their slightly self-deprecating humor, their toughness and their idealism after all these years. I was delighted at how openly they spoke about Communism. They’re an inspiration to me, and perhaps I can learn something from them about how to grow old.

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

I worked on this film for eight years, pretty much full time, so there’s a lot I didn’t get done. At certain points in the film, while I was editing very intensely, I couldn’t watch other people’s movies. I recently cleared up the piles on my desk, which had begun an alarming migration across the floor of my study and into my dining room. The paint on the outside of my house is peeling. There’s a lot of catching up to do with friends.

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