Whoever thinks enlightened can’t be found on a soap label hasn’t looked closely at that text-heavy blue bottle in the Trader Joe’s aisle. From afar Dr. Bronner’s unadorned, institutional-like bottles look as if they’re covered with warnings (one of the big ones: DILUTE!). Rather, they are packed with mind-twisting moral teachings. Even looking for some instructions gives you a healthy dose: “Enjoy body rub to stimulate body-mind-soul-spirit and teach the essene moral ABC uniting all free in the shepherd astronomer Israel’s greatest all-one-god-faith!” Sara Lamm‘s documentary about Dr. Emanuel Bronner, master soapmaker, self-proclaimed rabbi, and escaped mental patient (in 1947) opened recently in New York and now expands to LA and San Francisco. Check out “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox‘s” official website.
Tell us about yourself.
I am 32 years old and live in Los Angeles. I was born in Chapel Hill, NC and moved to New York City after college. I lived there for ten years – but moved to Los Angeles about a year ago.
What lead you to become a filmmaker?
In New York I was mostly doing live, downtown theater – producing, writing, and performing with a variety show called “Dog & Pony.” Sometimes I describe the work I was doing as “comedic performance art,” because I can’t think of any other way to describe it. “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox” actually grew out of one of these performances – we staged Dr. Bronner’s famous soap label (think male and female cheerleaders in white jumpsuits). I wrote to the company and asked them to donate soap to our group. Ralph Bronner, ever enthusiastic and generous, sent us a bunch and then began calling me on the phone to tell me his stories.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I was very interested in oral history in college, and, in a sense, a lot of my theater work has been based in documentary style-telling, non-fiction stories through a variety of texts-interviews, historical documents, photographs, video etc. It’s pretty interesting to me how film, like live theater, has the potential to be a real communal event and at the same time to effect change on a kind of personal, cellular level. So I have an impulse to think of “Magic Soapbox” as a kind of performance too, even if the “show” only takes place between one person and a DVD. Obviously though, there is a big difference between stage and screen and, this being my first film, I had to learn a lot. I was lucky to have had the support of smart, patient people who could explain things to me like, for example, why time code is so important.
How did the idea for the film come from about?
The initial connection with the Bronner family came from a performance piece I did, adapting the soap label for the stage. But my relationship with Ralph Bronner solidified after September 11th, when he called and asked me to take soap to Ground Zero – to hand out to the people who lived and worked there. It was an odd errand, in a way, but ended up making me feel more intimate with the whole downtown community. That’s the surprising method to Ralph’s madness I think – he has an incredible ability to cut through people’s defense mechanisms and to establish relationships between human beings. I made a radio piece that aired on NPR about the experience and Ralph called not long after to announce that he would like to come to New York City to perform an improvised show about his dad and the soap company. I had meanwhile learned a lot about the company and their progressive take on socially responsible business. That’s when it felt like the whole thing had to be documented, and it seemed like I was the one who was going to be doing it.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
About two years in, I was contacted by a filmmaker who had started but never finished a documentary about Dr. Bronner in the 1980s. He had beautiful 16mm archival footage of the whole family. Producer Zach Mortensen and I had to find a whole lot of money to license it. At the time it was a struggle, because the film at that point had been relatively cheap – we were shooting on miniDV, we’d borrowed equipment, and begged lots of friends to donate their time etc. In retrospect, I think having to invest some real money was a good thing, because it upped the stakes for the whole project, and really made me committed to completing it.
Also, I probably share the experience with a lot of filmmakers in that I had to learn and re-learn (and will probably have to re-re-learn) the disturbing and painful lesson that doing creative work necessarily involves criticism and rejection and sometimes not having your emails returned by VIPs. My husband’s dad had a phrase – “If you want to dance, you have to pay the fiddler,” and I guess its kind of like that. It can be emotionally draining, but there’s a great opportunity there – to find camaraderie with other artists and clarify your own sense of purpose, even though some days it feels like you are the most wretched and lonely filmmaker ever to walk the face of the earth.
What are your biggest creative influences?
I heard Albert Maysles speak so beautifully once about making films with compassion, and it really resonated with me. And my friend the photographer Lloyd Ziff has said, “It’s easy to take a mean photograph – its hard to capture what’s beautiful about someone.” I thought a lot about both of them while I was working on this film. And, I watched “Crumb” like six times.
I have been inspired by many performance/theater artists also, especially Marina Abramovic and Anne Bogart. A teacher of mine once quoted Anne Bogart as saying something that seems relevant to documentary filmmaking: “Look with interest, not with desire.”
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
I was crazy thrilled by John Cameron Mitchell‘s “Short Bus” – I wish everyone could make movies as personal and funny and far out. On the doc front, Agnes Varda‘s “The Gleaners” is an all time favorite, and Ross McElwee‘s work is up there too. I love the way both of those filmmakers respect intuitive story structures, as opposed to overtly linear ones. But I also like docs that are less abstract. “Lost Boys of the Sudan” and “Boys of Baraka” are two I’ve seen recently that really moved me – both use the juxtaposition with Africa to reveal and question so much about American culture and human nature.
What are your interests outside of film?
Right now I am 39 1/2 weeks pregnant with my first child. Very interested in that.