IDA Member Interview
By Denise Bigio
Will Roberts is an independent filmmaker who has produced and directed the Academy Award winning "Men's Lives" (1975) with Josh Hang, a study of male socialization in America; "Between Men" (1979), an exploration of the relationship between masculinity and the military; and "American Rebel" (1985). American Rebel took Roberts five years to make. In an interview with Denise Bigio, the Ohio based filmmaker explained the significance of the film.
How did you come to make "American Rebel"?
In 1979 I was in Moscow for the International Film Festival presenting my second film, "Between Men". I was walking through Red Square with my interpreter when he said, "Oh my god, there's Dean Reed!" And I looked over to see this guy being mobbed by hundreds of Soviets for his autograph, which is a rare sight in the Soviet Union. Not even Elizabeth Taylor or King Vidor or Coppola are mobbed there. I asked my interpreter who Dean Reed was, and he said, "I can't believe you've never heard of Dean Reed - why, he's the most famous American in the world!" So I became intrigued.
Why did you think Dean Reed would be a good subject for a documentary? What are you trying to show in the film?
I realized through my studies that the only way to overcome war, to work against war, was to work against the forces that make it possible to perpetuate war, which principally is dehumanisation of the enemy. So what makes it legitimate to kill an enemy is the fact that they are "gooks" or "Nazis" or "atheists" or "heathens". Throughout history that has been the situation. I felt the strongest possibility of war in the United States exists in the dehumanisation of the Soviet culture, the communist culture. Dean Reed was in a prime position to explain to Americans what motivated him, to explain their society. At the same time Americans could see teenage Soviet girls, they would be able to see who was classically consider the enemy, and realize that they are not evil as we suppose them to be.
Also as a documentary I felt it had incredible possibilities for pulling the audience out. Here is this very good looking subject. Here is a star. And Americans are very into star power. Here was a very unique story, an adventure story. It was the story of an American who had 'gone the other way'.
You say he is an American who has gone the 'other way'. How would you define his politics?
I think he is an independent Marxist, an internationalist. He has been a fighter for the right of the artist throughout the East bloc. He has made incredible progress throughout Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in terms of pay scales, and the level of exploitation many of the artists were feeling from the official state art organizations.
I think he used his career to further politics. There is a different attitude in the eastern bloc. One's ability as an entertainer is not meaningful if there is not some kind of political consciousness behind that. So the fact that Dean was extremely attractive to them was also based on his history of working against oppression, working for the poor in South America, frequently contributing money. He made a substantial amount in Chile, Argentina and Italy, and would support many causes with his funds, so he never became wealthy. He was in it for, I hate to say a higher cause, but perhaps an unselfish cause. Which is unique in the entertainment business, and unique from the p erspective of American.
Alot of the people go to South America, but don't become radicals. What do you think Dean's formative experiences in America were? His radicalisation must in some sense have started here.
Well, that's a good question. I think Dean grew up in very honest, concerned and positive American family that had principles. He went away to Hollywood, and the comparison with the principles he grew up with in Denver as a performer on dude ranches and that kind of thing, alienated him. He found that Hollywood revolves around sex and money and sex and drugs. People's concerns here are not about making the world a better place. When Dean went to South America, that was the catalyst; seeing the divisions that existed down there, and the complicity of the Catholic Church in keeping the people in their place.
Reed obviously made very difficult decisions; decisions that must have caused great tension in his life. Yet the film never indicates this.
It's very hard to recreate tension in a documentary situation. I know if I was doing "American Rebel" as a scripted feature, scenes would have been far different, situations where you have dramatic tension - like the American Embassy threatening to take away Reed's passport. Fighting within a society as he does, there are little things that are very difficult to tell in the third person or the past tense. I think one of the great problems with documentary, is that one is generally working in the past tense. If the person is talking, you know he escaped the situation. It's hard to make an audience feel, unless you are documenting in the present tense.
The film must changed you both personally and as the filmmaker.
Yes. It gave more experience internationally. And also seeing different conditions in the world, specifically South America. Chile was an amazing emotional experience. You are in a situation where the secret police follow you all the time, where people point machine guns at you, these kind of things. But I also realized the media is always hungry for sensationalism. Dean understood that enough to wash the U.S. flag in front of the Chilean Embassy, or to say "Vive Ho Chi Minh!" on the steps of the American Embassy.
But also the film is a work of art. I was more into developing the film into an upbeat example of documentary. For instance, most of the films you've probably seen from Nicaragua deal with hospitalization, or medical care, or statistics, or the oppression of Samosa. We were in Nicaragua for three months, and I have a segment where a child is singing a Nicaraguan folksong ... behind him they go "Sandino vive!" which within the context of the film means that the culture of the Nicaraguan people lives. It was the celebration of the Nicaraguan culture.
The same is true with interviewing in the Soviet Union, or the performance in Chile. It was not the policy you saw oppressing people, other than historically, rather it was the people chanting together, the 'up' end of that.
You do not include in the film the fact that Dean's father committed suicide because he could not afford medical care. Within the context of the film this fact seems highly significant to me.
It's not the point of the film. Dean's father, Cyril Reed, shot himself two month after I interviewed him because he couldn't afford medical care in the Unites States, the only major industrialized country in the world that doesn't have socialized medicine.
And then there is the question, should I cover this in the film, and where does it take you at the end of the film? Does this drop you on a dive? And initially in approaching the film I had decided that Dean's life was Tolstoyan in a sense in that it was an attempt to elevate people, and the film should be an attempt to elevate people. I saw this as something progressive that could be done in the documentary. It is an attempt to elevate people, not to remind them of their oppression, or show the impossible odds that face them, or to whine, or plead for support for their struggle - but to present them in their dignity.
Do you think that is how Americans are going to view the film?
No, not initially. I think they'll react to it for what is not there. They'll say, "Well, what about Afganistan, what about Poland, Sakharov or Solidarity?" The film is in defense of people. Dean is a socialist. I allow him to defend that perspective. I feel that within our society that perspective is being constantly undervalued, or misinterpreted to the point that if someone is a socialist, it's grounds enough to bomb them. The world is a complex place, and hopefully the film will present more questions than answers. It's going to be controversial.
Do you think you are going to have problems with distributions?
Yes. I think I'm going to have problems with certain critics too. There are so many people in the entertainment industry who have a bias against the Soviets, against the Chinese, certainly against the Palestinians. And the film has got all of that. The entertainment industry is very entrenched.
Are there any particular film principles you work by?
I have a theory of film editing developed by my editor, Brian Cotnoir, which is the nerd and yahoo theory. Most documentaries fall into the nerd genre. The nerd in you is that element that studies and reads books. The yahoo in you wants to go out dancing. So when you're being a nerd sometimes you feel you should go out dancing, and sometimes when you're not dancing you say why aren't I doing my laundry? We felt editing "American Rebel" that we would juxtapose the nerd and the yahoo. So we would provide some content, some information, and just when we felt we had enough content, we would go off yahooing somewhere, jumping on a train in Siberia, swashbuckling through Italy.
One of the great pleasures of the film is the fact that you use so little narration.
I really despise narration in general. Wall to wall narration is the death of many documentaries. I don't comment as narrator in "American Rebel". The comments are made through the editing. A person shouldn't be spoken about in the objective. I used a female narrator because there were so many male voices within the story. Some people said, "Oh, hideous, Will, how can you put in a female narrator?" Because of preconceived ideas that the narrating voice should be male, the voice of God.
Why do you make films?
Three reasons: Courage, stupidity, and love. Courage to feel that I have something important to say, stupid enough to believe that it is possible to say it, and say it in film, and love - the love I have for an audience, and the need of love from an audience.
I am interested in film as communication of content. I need to reach people and inspire them and change their lives. I want to bring elements together that haven't been brought together before to make an obvious statement that has not been discovered.
But it's very difficult when you come from a working class background to make films, to get in a position of power where you can have access to the tools, let alone the courage. Few people from my background would have the courage to think that they could do anything beyond working in a factory. In think in a sense both Hollywood and New York do a disservice to people interested in film because they mystify the process; they make it seem more difficult than in reality it is. In reality it's principally the commitment and the ability to stick to it, until you get the product that says what you want it to say. And that can take five years, ten years, a lifetime. Which is why I felt fortunate growing up in Ohio, because it was a situation where I didn't have fear. I thought it was possible. I didn't have people running around telling me it was impossible to do what I was doing, or that I had to work for an industrial corporation first, before I could do what I wanted to do. I think many people have been lied to that way.
There was a thing in the "Los Angeles Times" last week that said the three most foreign words in the English language were 'parade', 'museum' and 'documentary'. So naturally it's a turnoff. I'd like to try and change that if possible. But I don't want to become a jaded old documentarian; there are too many of those around. I like comedy. I think comedy in documentary may be the way to go.
What do you see as the current problems with documentary?
When I first started in documentary back at Antioch College, a friend of mine saw a rough cut of "Men's Lives" where there is an interview with a barber. After the cut he said, "That barber, his pausing, his annunciation, ...he is so real - he's real enough to be an actor." And then when I moved back to Springfield, I saw a friend I hadn't seen for 10 years. He said, "Hi, what are you doing now?" I said, "principally I've been a documentary filmmaker." He said, "Oh, documentaries, I know a guy who used to do that; now he's making real films." That's the problem with documentary. People's sense of reality is so warped that documentaries aren't real films.