SnagFilms’ 2nd annual SummerFest, a free online festival showcasing exclusive, limited-duration runs of popular new documentaries, wraps up with “The ‘Socalled’ Movie,” the sixth and final film in the series, premiering today.
[Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of indieWIRE.]
“The ‘Socalled’ Movie” is a multi-faceted portrait of a similarly multi-faceted performer, Josh Dolgin AKA “Socalled,” a gay, Jewish, Montreal-based hip-hop klezmer artist. Presented in 18 separate segments, the documentary offers an entertaining and illuminating look into Socalled’s creativity, influences, and background.
indieWIRE spoke to the film’s director, Garry Beitel, last week about how he met Socalled, their collaborative process, and how the film got its shape.
iW: How did you meet Josh/Socalled, and how did the project come together?
Garry Beitel: I used to teach documentary filmmaking at McGill University. In 1998, Josh was my student, so I got to know him as an aspiring filmmaker. We talked about film and music and became friends. We kept in touch after university, going for coffee every once and awhile. This project came about after I bumped into him at a klezmer concert in Montreal – he was there with his father, trying to organize a klezmer cruise to the Ukraine, and he said I should film it. While that was the original idea, it became clear to me quickly that he was more interesting than this one event. He was surprised that I wanted to make a film about him – it was a little uncomfortable for him at first.
iW: Can you tell us about why you decided to structure the film as a series of vignettes? It seems to reflect both the practice of sampling music as well as Josh seemingly being involved with 100 projects at one time.
GB: The structure was inspired by one of my favorite films, “Thirty Two Short Films About Glen Gould.” Gould was someone you thought you knew all about, and the filmmaker switched things around to show you new persepctives. I wanted to do something similar, and Josh lent himself to that kind of treatment. You have him pegged as a musician, but then he’s also a filmmaker, and a magician, and a cartoonist, and he rediscovers all these old musicians and makes old music contemporary. The structure let me get at all that, it’s like peeling away at the skin of an onion. So the structure allowed that, while also referencing the sampling of his work and the creative process that he is involved in.
iW: How much time did you film Josh, and did you have a good idea what you wanted to include in the film at the beginning of the process?
GB: Filming began in November 2006 and the film was completed in 2010. It took a long time to raise money, but that was a good thing for the film, because it meant I followed him for a long time – about 2 and a half years of filming. There were some things I knew I wanted to include immediately, like the magic. I wanted to show him practicing his tricks just like he practices the piano, a long meticulous process of repetition. But there were other things I couldn’t predict, like following him around France on tour, or giving a tour of his childhood bedroom which hadn’t changed at all.
iW: What was Josh’s level of input about what the project would look like? Was there anything that he didn’t want to include in the film?
GB: Every time we got together, I would ask him what he had coming up in the next few weeks or months, and based on that we would plan a filming schedule. But I would discover through other people that he wasn’t always telling me everything he was up to – things he didn’t want me to film or just didn’t think would be that important for the film. So it took some negotiating. The way I typically film, I try to capture people doing what they do without interruption – but for Josh, I also wanted him to talk about his process while he was in the midst of passionately creative work. That was uncomfortable for him, because he’s a doer, he’s not introspective. So there was a bit of tension, because I wanted to understand his motivation, and he could get impatient about that.
The way I would deal with that was by including the two short films he made in the film, and he got complete control of those. I stepped back and became the producer for those instead, and that let me have control of the rest of the film. But Josh was incredibly helpful in the last stages of the film in working with the music of the film. There were little things he disagreed with, and we would discuss things like that, that he would have to live with after the film was shown publicly.
iW: Josh speaks to a wide range of potential audiences – Jewish, gay, hip hop, hipsters, etc – who don’t often always come together in the same place. How has the film connected with these audiences – have there been differences in the reactions from these different groups?
GB: Josh called his last album “Ghetto Blaster” because that’s what his music does – it breaks down musical ghettoes and categories. He works as a cultural archaeologist, finding treasures from the past that have been forgotten, modernizes them, takes them out of the categories they were originally in, and transforms them into something contemporary. This breaks down those categories so that all different kinds of people can enter his work, weaving in and out of traditional categories and genres. I’ve watched the film with a large number of audiences, and the group experience is great – there’s so much laughter and celebration, it seems to transcend usual self-selecting categories.
iW: There’s obviously a lot of music in the film, given the subject. Is there a soundtrack album or a way for audiences to get all the music?
GB: There’s no soundtrack planned, but the DVD will be coming out, which has extra features with additional music. So audiences can get the DVD or go to Socalled’s website to get access to the music he’s creating.