If there was a shortlist of the best documentarians in cinema history, Joe Berlinger would definitely be on it. His first theatrical project was “Brother’s Keeper,” an award-winning portrait of a rural family that found a context in the divide between country and city life; his second was “Paradise Lost,” a film that exposed the vagaries of the American justice system, spawned two follow-ups, and was ultimately instrumental in helping the West Memphis Three prevail over the injustices they suffered. Since then, he’s continued to dominate the landscape of documentary filmmaking with projects on both film and TV. However, hot on the heels of his Academy Award nomination for “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” he’s back with “Under African Skies,” a documentary about the creation and cultural history of Paul Simon’s landmark 1987 album Graceland.
A few days after the premiere of “Under African Skies” at the Sundance Film Festival, and in fact on the same morning that he received his Academy Award nomination, Berlinger spoke to The Playlist about the process of developing his latest film. In addition to detailing his attraction to the material and his collaboration with Paul Simon, he offered a few thoughts about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ recent changes to the criteria and voting process for their Best Documentary category, and reflected on the meaning of his work as a documentarian, and the context in which he feels comfortable celebrating his socially-conscious achievements.
You’ve examined other musical subjects before [“Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster”], but what prompted this particular project?
I was approached by Sony Music and by Paul Simon. Paul Simon and I had done an episode of [Sundance Channel series] “Iconoclasts” together and had hit it off, so when the 25th anniversary of “Graceland” started percolating as an idea, Sony said to Paul we should do a film to include in your re-released box set of the album, which they’re doing later this year. So Paul thought that was a good idea and my name came up to do it, and so I went up to Paul’s office in Manhattan and talked about what kind of film we’d each like to make. And we were both on the same page, which is I’m not interested in us doing a Paul Simon puff piece that gets tossed as a DVD into the box set; of course that’s an important goal and I’m happy that it’s going to eventually end up on a box set, but to me I don’t want to just do a behind-the-scenes or a making-of. To me if we’re going to cover the story, we’ve got to cover the musical history, connect it to the record. We take it for granted, but going into another culture, assembling backing tracks with various African rhythms and instrumentation and then laying your own pop sensibility on top of that, it created a new work. That was pretty new and before the age of Pro Tools, and as [music critic] John Pareles says in the film, “Welcome to hip-hop.” In many ways this album was a precursor to hip-hop — not that it’s musically similar, but in the sense of assembling sounds from different sources and then laying your own sensibility on top.
So I wanted to tell that story, and I also wanted to tell the political story, and the reason I wanted to tell the political story is I actually remember when I was 25 and the album came out. I remember loving it, and it has been one of my all-time favorite albums for decades; in fact, it’s my goto album at times when I’m feeling down or I need to lift my spirits. So it has been a very important album to me since its release. I was also a very politically aware 25-year-old and was very supportive of the anti-apartheid movement. I believed in the economic sanctions, I believed in the cultural boycott and the political sanctions, I believed in all of those things, and I loved the record and I was always confused by why recording an album with black South Africans is a violation of the cultural boycott. Because I understood the cultural boycott to be performers going to South Africa and performing for segregated white audiences where the black population could neither afford the tickets nor were they invited because it was a segregated society. That to me legitimizes the regime. That to me was a breaking of the cultural boycott, to not allow South African musicians to tour and to not allow Paul Simon to intermingle with black South African culture and to export it to the rest of the world, which puts a human face on apartheid. So the intellectual knowledge of oppression is then linked to this emotional connection of “Hey, that guitar player there on stage, that guy is oppressed.” That’s a very powerful emotional connection that I think helped, it wasn’t the only thing, obviously; I think Apartheid would have probably come down without “Graceland,” but I think he played a role, and I didn’t understand the criticism. So to me that was a great opportunity to explore all of these ideas, and Paul was into it.
I give him a lot of credit for allowing me to push this film into places that a lot of artists might want the door to be closed upon. And after the Metallica film, we were approached a number of times by other bands to do an on-the-road film or something like that, and that never has interested me because I don’t enjoy watching music on the screen unless there’s another story. So this was the first time in a while where I was presented with an opportunity to do a musical film, to allow the music to live and breathe in the film, to understand the music but also to tell a richer story. I kind of like to say that this film, “Under African Skies,” ends where most concert films begin — like the concert is just starting, but really it’s just the end of the film. What I think is so beautiful about that ending is as you’re hearing kind of reprises of pieces of each song that you’ve learned about throughout the movie, you have a much deeper understanding of who the players are, you have a much deeper understanding of what the musical achievement is, and you have a much deeper understanding of the turbulent birth of this music and how that experience really changed and forged who these musicians are.
Your credibility is unassailable, but when you have a record label and an artist asking you to make something, how do you maintain the independence to examine it however you want? For example, one of the things that isn’t mentioned is the controversy over the song Los Lobos says they deserve songwriting credit for; was that just not relevant to the story to you, or why wasn’t that included?
I will tell you I had final cut on this film. I mean, Paul Simon, if he was unhappy with the film, obviously that would have been problematic. But I think my skill as a director is to work with all of the parties and hear what they have to say and manage the situation so that I would get the cut that I want to have. I’ll get to Los Lobos in a minute, and that’s why I sat and met him. We had a number of conversations about the type of film that I would want to make, and they knew who they were hiring. I’m the guy who did the “Paradise Lost” series and “Crude” and I stood up to Chevron as they sued me; I’m not a shy fellow, so they knew who they were hiring and we all agreed that this was the kind of film that we wanted to make and that’s why, thank God, that’s the film Paul wanted to make.
But the Los Lobos issue has to me has nothing to do with the story. We didn’t deal with the Zydeco track or the Los Lobos track because we were focusing on the South African story, the trip back to Africa, so I just didn’t feel that was relevant.
Is the success and Oscar nomination for “Paradise Lost 3” a kind of validation of all the effort that you’ve put into this story for so many years?
It’s nice to get a pat on the back, without question. And it’s certainly better than the experience that I had in 1996, because the original “Paradise Lost” was a critical darling that was on the critics’ top ten lists, many of them because it had a strong theatrical release in addition to its HBO broadcast, but I literally felt guilty because here I am giving an award acceptance speech and the subjects of my film are still rotting in prison. I was deeply distressed that the story was not moving off the entertainment page and onto the editorial pages. Over time I realized that the films actually were being effective because they were building this worldwide support which ultimately led to their release — and the catalyst was the films.
But in 1996 I remember feeling incredibly guilty accepting awards. The filmmaker in you is like, yes, of course, this is great; we all want validation for our work. But the fact that these guys were still rotting in prison was very distressing to me. So the fact that we got National Board of Review, DGA best Documentary, DGA Nomination, of course this Oscar Nomination, I am so relieved that they are out of prison, and that we can now celebrate the films with these guys out of prison is a very different experience and a very positive experience. So I don’t look at it as validation, because to me the validating event was August 19th when they got out of prison. As my wife said to me when she was telling me to temper my Oscar expectations, don’t be disappointed because the real Oscar is you helped get a guy off death row and two people out of prison, and keep that in your heart. So I have been keeping that in my heart. One of the proudest days of my career, personally and professionally, was the New York Film Festival premiere of “Paradise Lost 3,” in which the West Memphis Three were in attendance. And at the end of the movie, the New York Film Festival has this balcony where they put the filmmakers and the subjects, or the actors if it’s a feature film, and when we stood up at the end of that screening at Alice Tully Hall with a theater of 1200 people the West Memphis Three got a ten minute standing ovation. Maybe a minute of it was for the film, but nine minutes I’ll say was for the West Memphis Three, and that was an incredibly, powerfully, satisfying moment. That to me was the validation of my work. Getting an Oscar nomination and these other prizes, of course as a filmmaker you want to feel like your work has been validated, but it’s more relief that I don’t have to feel guilty that they’re still in prison and I’m getting awards.
What are your feelings about the way the Academy has managed the documentary category, and how they’ve recently changed their rules about documentary nominations?
Well I agree with some of the documentary rule changes, and I disagree with some of them. The one that hasn’t gotten much attention but to me is a very positive step forward is the democratization of the voting process, meaning it’s my understanding that the entire documentary branch will nominate the films instead of a small committee, and the entire Academy will vote on the best documentary. All of that I think is incredibly positive, because historically, and I don’t think people are doing it for bad reasons or with hidden agendas, I just think the smaller number of people that you have voting on films means that statistical anomalies can have a deeper impact. So in theory, yes, someone could have an agenda or just not like a person or not like a film, but more likely it’s just certain people have different tastes. If it’s a handful of people evaluating, someone with different taste or a lack of appreciation for a certain film, I think has a greater chance of knocking it out then a larger body of people. So I think it’s a very positive change.
But the change that I don’t agree with is the review, because I am already not in support of the one-week theatrical release being the only way of qualifying. And now it’s even worse that you have to get a review, because I think it creates an economic line in the sand for only allowing more popular-themed documentaries; that doesn’t mean they’re better quality, just more popularly-themed documentaries, and I think there’s there a whole category of social issue documentaries that may not do very well in theaters but do very well at film festivals. And it’s very important to say I understand and agree that something that is purely a television film should be submitted to the Emmys, but there are a lot of documentaries that straddle those lines, or aren’t even for television, but aren’t going to have a traditional theatrical release. So this one-week run where maybe ten people show up, that whole economic orientation doesn’t feel right to me, and knocks out a whole class of films. Now, for that run in New York and L.A., you have to buy ads and hire a publicist to make sure there will be a review, and even though the New York Times says it has a policy every week, you’re still at the whim of human error and having to ensure that you get a review. To me that belies the spirit of what the rule is supposed to be about. What the rule is supposed to be about is, does this movie have cinematic aspirations? Is it cinema versus television?
In the old days, a certain number of A-list film festivals would qualify a film for Academy Awards, and I believe, certainly, keep the theatrical run as one avenue. But pick the number, five film festivals, three film festivals, or a certain number of audience members attending the film. I totally believe in the idea of creating a line between a purely television show and something that has cinematic aspirations. The film festival circuit has become increasingly sophisticated and for many films that’s a de facto theatrical release. I’ll give an example. Sometimes I make more popular films, like the Metallica film that had a great theatrical run and a huge DVD life, and that rule wouldn’t be a problem for me, and sometimes I make social issue films like “Crude,” my 2009 film about the Ecuadorian lawsuit in the Amazon rainforest. That film had a disastrous theatrical release. It bombed at the box office but had an incredible film festival run. Tens of thousands of people saw it at film festivals all around the world, it won prizes, it played in theatrical settings meaning a bunch of people in a dark room watching the movie on a big screen. And I just worry that these new rules, the addition of the review, just further takes us down the wrong road of creating economic class warfare of a certain kind of documentary that will be excluded. And I think if the Academy wants to honor documentaries, it needs to broaden its definition of what is a theatrical experience without throwing in the towel to television. Another example from my own career is this summer I had a TV show on Animal Planet, a two-hour special called “Black Tide: Voices From The Gulf,” about the impact of the BP oil spill. I wouldn’t have dreamt of submitting that for Oscar qualification because it was formatted for TV, it clearly was for TV and had no other aspiration. But “Paradise 3” made for HBO is a different thing: those films historically have had post-broadcast theatrical releases. They are an odd length, they are not formatted for television and they are very cinematic in their aspirations and have been enjoyed prior to release on HBO. They have been enjoyed by the New York Film Festival, and that was a very theatrical experience. So I think the strict economic definition is going to block a certain class of social issue film and that concerns me.
Do you feel at all that their insistence on the publication of reviews in the New York or LA Times is kind of provincial? There are so many incredible websites that cover documentaries in a very informed way that insisting on two print outlets seems to limit the number of people who can offer valid and astute options of documentaries?
I think that’s not the intention of the rule, but first of all I agree with you that a lot of terrific film writing has migrated to the web, and to not give credence to those writers is disappointing. But again, I don’t want to create an economic ghetto for social-issue documentarians. I think the insistence on a traditional theatrical run validated by print reviews just eliminates an entire class of films that are deserving of consideration. But I think Michael Moore would say the New York Times and LA Times are obligated to run reviews for any film that has a legitimate theatrical release. To me, the bigger problem is that we need to broaden our definition of what is theatrical.
Some of the families of the victims in the West Memphis Three case released a statement saying that the film isn’t deserving of an Academy Award. Given the sensitivity you’ve tried to show both sides for so long, do you have any thoughts about that statement?
I feel bad for those families, and I have nothing but sympathy for them. I respect their right to disagree, but I think they’re directing their anger at the wrong people. They should direct their anger at the state of Arkansas, who I think has mishandled this case at every step, and it pains me that the film has caused pain for people. But we went down to Arkansas thinking we were making a film about guilty teenagers, because that’s what the press reports were, and we spent the first couple of months primarily spending time with the families of the victims, getting to know them, and had no reason to think we still weren’t making a film about guilty teenagers. We thought we were going down to make a real life “River’s Edge” — how could three kids do such a terrible thing? And over time, by digging into the evidence, by embedding ourselves into that community for a full eight months prior to the start of the trials and by experiencing both trials in their entirety, Bruce and I were there in the courtroom, were there in the community, and of all the storytellers that are out there, we witnessed what happened, and it’s sad. And I respect their right to disagree, but we did go down to make a film about bad guys, and learned that they weren’t bad guys, so when you sit in the editing room you have to put those relationships aside and you have to focus on what you think is the truth, I can’t say it’s the objective truth, because no one knows the objective truth, but I fervently believe in their innocence and I know that causes pain for the family members — and that’s my one regret about this film, not that I can do anything about it. I would do everything I’ve ever done on these films exactly the same way, so when I say “regret,” it’s not like I would change anything. But it does cause me pain and reflection that these films have caused pain for some of these family members, because God knows they’ve gone through an unimaginable tragedy.
“Paul Simon: Under African Skies” will be released this spring as part of the 25th anniversary “Graceland” box set. It will also receive a limited theatrical run and air on A&E.