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The ‘Live’ Documentary: Sam Green on “Utopia in Four Movements”

The 'Live' Documentary: Sam Green on "Utopia in Four Movements"

A truly unique endeavor, Sam Green’s ‘live’ documentary “Utopia in Four Movements,” has been making the rounds at the Sundance, True/False, San Francisco, Silverdocs and Seattle Film Festivals over the past year. Green, his film and musician Dave Cerk will be on hand at The Kitchen in New York from October 7 – 9. In anticipation of the event, Green spoke with indieWIRE about the genesis of “Utopia,” and the live aspect of the documentary.

In this “live documentary,” filmmaker Sam Green cues images and narrates in person while musician Dave Cerf performs the soundtrack. From the establishment of a man-made language designed to end war and cultural conflict and the undying optimism of an American exile in Cuba, to the current economic boom in China and the desire to give the remains in mass graves a dignified burial, Green and Cerf sift through the history of the Utopian impulse with audiences and search for insights about the way to build a vision of the future based on humankind’s noblest impulses. [Synopsis courtesy of the film’s website]

San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker Sam Green on what lead him into movies…

I became a documentary filmmaker, I think, just by being curious about the world. I used to get really obsessed with things as a kid – I went through a bunch of years where I was totally into Bigfoot, drawing pictures of Bigfoot, researching Bigfoot. When I was in college, I got into journalism. I went to UC Berkeley to get a masters degree in journalism – I was going to be a newspaper reporter – and while I was there, I took a documentary production class on a whim. The class was taught by the acclaimed filmmaker Marlon Riggs, and after one semester, I was hooked. In the class, I got turned on to a whole world of independent and experimental films I’d never heard of: “Sans Soleil” by Chris Marker, “Salesman” by the Maysles, “Poto and Cabengo” by Jean-Pierre Gorin, as well as the work of Marlon himself. I also found that I loved the process of making documentaries: being engaged in the world, the collaborative nature of the work, the sublime moments that can come in the edit room. After I graduated from Berkeley, I made my first film “The Rainbow Man/John 3:16” and have been doing this ever since.

Green on how “Utopia in Four Movements” came along, and on the film’s live component…

After I finished “The Weather Underground” a few years ago, I wanted to make a film about the Utopian impulse and my feeling that we are living in an anti-Utopian time. I knew I didn’t want to make a film with experts or some kind of stuffy historical survey. Instead, I hoped that by putting together a series of stories that were all about utopia in one way or another, I could create a mediation on a larger series of ideas and themes having to do with history and hope and the imagination. At a certain point, I realized that this film was going to require a lot of voice-over to work, and I’d never liked voice-over films much. So I was stuck. Around this time, someone asked me to do a presentation about the project, and I just spoke about the film and showed images and bits of video while my collaborator Dave Cerf created a live soundtrack. The event was great – the material seemed to work and people had a good time. We did a few similar “presentations” with equally positive responses, and at a certain point we decided, for a number of reasons, that that form – the ‘live documentary’ – was what the film was actually going to be.

I am very aware of the fact that filmmakers today need to either accept that their work is going to be watched on an I-pod or a laptop (while a person is checking email), or they need to do something that cannot be reduced to those formats. I have nothing against the internet or technology. I think the web is a great place for lots of films. But I spend a lot of time making films and hope that the viewing experience will be meaningful. I make movies about ideas, and I want people to take them seriously. In my mind, there is a huge difference in the way people engage with a film when it’s a digital file versus seeing something in a theater. So one of the big draws for me with the live form was just to keep the film in a live theatrical setting – to harness the magic of cinema (you know that feeling when the lights go down) to create a heightened, and ultimately more meaningful, experience.

Documentary filmmaker Sam Green. [Photo courtesy of the filmmaker]

Making a live film was also a response to the fact that it’s extremely difficult to distribute, let alone make any money from, an odd or experimental documentary these days. There is a whole performance and art world that we have been tapping into with this film – screening it at art museums and performance spaces and semi-theatrical venues – and I have to say that there is money there. We have made far more with this film, screening it as a live event, than we ever would have as a traditional film.

Green on the challenges he faced in completing his film, and what he hopes audiences will take away…

I think the biggest challenge with this film was just the form. It’s a unique form. I really hadn’t seen any other films that are like it, so figuring out how to do it, and mustering up the courage to actually put it out there took some doing. Narrating a film in-person is a challenge because I’m actually a shy person.

Our hope is that people will have a good time seeing “Utopia” — that perhaps they will have a heated conversation with a friend after the show, and/or that the images and ideas will linger with them for a few days. I think that there is a certain hunger for live events these days. So much or our experience today is mediated through computers or smart phones, actually seeing something live can be a lovely reminder that the real world still exists. I see “Utopia” as fitting into a wave or movement of other people doing interesting live events at the moment: filmmaker/artist Brent Green has been showing his movies with a live band for several years. In San Francisco, there’s something called Pop-Up Magazine that is phenomenally successful.

Green on films that he considers inspirational…

“Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” was a big reference point; it weaves together several disparate characters/stories to evoke a larger set of themes and question. “The Power of Nightmares” by Adam Curtis was an important example for me that that the essay film can be great. The live version of Guy Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain” was also a big influence in terms of showing me something about the magic of ‘liveness.’ And finally, I saw R Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” Sing-Along, a live event hosted by Henri Mazza, a few years ago, and it was one of the funnest, most engaging cinematic experiences I’d had in several years; it too showed how fantastic live film events can be.

And on future projects…

I am spinning off some of the segments of “Utopia in Four Movements” and making stand-alone short documentaries with them. Regular movies. One of the parts of “Utopia” is about the world’s largest shopping mall in China, and I turned that material into a traditional short film that was on POV last year. I just finished editing all the material I have about the language Esperanto into a 30- minute piece, which I hope to get out into the world next year. Right now I am also shooting film for a documentary I am making about fog in San Francisco.

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