Issue 189 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The powerful documentary film Hoop Dreams follows the careers of two talented young basketball players from poor neighbourhoods in Chicago. The film's editor, Frederick Marx, talked to Helen Redmond about the making of the film, the movie business and his other work as a filmmaker
Why do you make documentaries instead of feature films?
I'm actually interested in all kinds of film. I started out making experimental films, and then I drifted into making experimental documentaries.
Parallel to that, I had an interest in narrative films. I'm in the process now of trying to get feature film projects together, as well as some other documentaries.
When you made Hoop Dreams, did you set out to make a film about racism in the US?
No, we didn't do that. We had it in mind that a lot of the myths that the traditional media told us about African Americans reaching for the brass ring of National Basketball Association success were probably just that--myths.
We wanted to look at the underlying reality and we figured that at some level racism played into that.
The two prevailing myths are the rags to riches, Horatio Alger story--kids out of the ghetto make millions of dollars, so it's proof that the American system is working.
Or there's the myth of complete exploitation, in which kids are grabbed up by the system of college basketball, used by that system, and then spat out after their four years of eligibility are up--and many of them can't read or write.
So between these two extremes, we thought, there is a lot of reality here that we are not looking at.
The project didn't start out to be about racism--it evolved into that.
How did the making of the film affect the way you thought about poverty and welfare?
It affected it a lot. Talk about myths--myths bordering on outrageous lies that come out of Hollywood... I mean that come out of Washington. That's a telling Freudian slip!
There's a lot of comparison between Hollywood and Washington these days. They're both creating fantasies--the whole nonsense of welfare queens and that kind of crap.
We knew instinctively that they did not exist, but it was really rewarding to have our story roll across those themes, and to have positive figures like Sheila and Emma in the film--such strong figures and so much like other African American, inner city mothers.
They give the lie to all those myths. We're really proud that our story could include it.
What did you think about the reaction to Hoop Dreams in Hollywood?
The fact that the film was the success that it was in Hollywood and that it got that type of attention--with all these Hollywood types wanting to meet with us and talking to us about making films with them--was quite a shock to us.
We really thought that our film would work with audiences if we could get it to them, but we never imagined that the Hollywood community would jump up and say, 'My god, this is tremendous'--that they would really embrace us and the film. So that was a shock--a positive one, obviously.
How do you explain the positive reaction?
I think, from a Hollywood perspective, they're interested in dramatic stories.
At some level, I think a lot of people couldn't care less about any issues that are really embedded in race and class. They're just interested in the fact that Arthur's story is amazing.
He goes from this kid who is sure to end up holding up drug stores on the corner to a kid who is on this winning basketball team that almost takes the state championship.
So, for them, they see it more on a story level and respond to the drama.
What are your thoughts about Hollywood and the film industry in light of the fact that Hoop Dreams was nominated for the best picture and even best documentary?
When it comes to the Academy Awards, the fact is Hollywood is a company town. Somebody said that it's like the end of the year IBM awards that they give to the employee of the year.
They are conditioned to respond to and respect the films that are from that town--and that perform well at the box office.
Our film was a huge success--it's now the highest grossing documentary film that's not a musical.
And we still made only $7.5 million at the box office, which is a batting of an eyelash for a film like Forrest Gump.
Forrest Gump, what a horrible movie.
I haven't seen it.
I met Tom Hanks at the Chicago Film Critics Awards. He said to me. 'Now I gotta tell you right up front, I haven't seen your film', and I said, 'That's okay, I haven't seen yours either.'
Your parents were members of the Communist Party in the US. How did their politics influence yours?
They influenced me a lot. They raised us to be citizens of the world--to respect the role that we played and to not think nationalistically about the world. That influence is still very much with me.
The way I analyse economic and political and social life in this country and elsewhere is still very derivative from socialist theories and principles.
Your father, who was witch hunted and blacklisted for his politics, was the subject of your film, House of Un-American Activities. Do you think witch hunts could happen again in this country?
Absolutely. No question about it. I started making House of Un-American Activities in the spring of 1981 as an emotional response to then president Ronald Reagan, who was saying the House Un-American Activities Committee was really great, let's bring it back. I was appalled by that notion. So the film grew out of that response.
What do you want your films to say about society?
That's a broad question. My films at some level comment on society. There are probably two things that sometimes contradict each other.
One is an analysis of social ills, but that analysis is often a very personal one. Also there's a somewhat romantic prescription for society.
I have a sense of what an idealised society might be like, but at the same time I'm enmeshed in the real life that we all [face] and how deeply that needs to change.
Video available from Feature Film Company £12.95
Jeanne La Pucelle
Dir: Jacques Rivette
Joan of Arc has been claimed as a symbol by groups as different as the French resistance forces and Le Pen's National Front. Of the many films about her, most focus on Joan as a young girl, thrown into inner turmoil by the commands of heavenly voices, or Joan facing trial for heresy and being burnt at the stake. Jacques Rivette's new film is about the years between, where Joan acts on the voices she heard and fights for what she believes in.
Joan fought against the occupying British forces and their king, who had a claim to the throne of France. She took part in lifting the siege of Orleans and persuaded the French king to be crowned in Rheims, to establish his right to the throne.
The film shows how Joan refused to stop fighting against the British, how she was captured by French allies of Britain and sold to the British for trial.
She was imprisoned and treated brutally. When she was forced to wear a dress, British soldiers tried to rape her. When she returned to wearing protective men's clothes, church officials used this as proof of her relapse into heresy. Joan was burnt at the stake in 1430, when she was about 20 years old.
Jaques Rivette's film is an epic, not just because it is about the historical figure of Joan of Arc and is four hours long, but because it touches on grand themes such as heroism and nationalism.
Jeanne La Pucelle is a beautifully crafted film, in which the sights and sounds of 15th century France are lovingly recreated. Rivette's Joan is a heroic figure, accountable only to her own faith and conscience. Her refusal to acknowledge the authority of the church hierarchy and the fact that she wore men's clothes, were seen as an affront to nature and God. It was this which meant that she had to be burnt to vindicate the power of the church--although she was eventually canonised as a saint.
Jacques Rivette believed that only the acting skills of Sandrine Bonnaire, who plays Joan, could make 'the incredible saga of Joan of Arc credible today'. However, Bonnaire's acting cannot overcome the limitation imposed by the way that the film is organised. It is a historical film which concentrates exclusively on Joan and the events she was involved in, without any reference to the wider struggles which lay behind the battles she fought.
The character of Joan, a 19 year old woman who led armies, advised kings and defied the church, could be much more complex and interesting, if the film not only gave us meticulous visual realism but also examined the real nature of the society she inhabited. France in the 15th century was a society torn apart by the Hundred Years War and by terrible famines. The crisis of feudal society strengthened already deeply established beliefs in the earthly power of god and the devil, in prophecy and witchcraft. As this is not developed, it means that Joan's amazing courage and authority, and her very quick fall into disaster, simply happen without real explanation. So, though beautiful to look at, this film is not as stirring or as emotionally engaging as it could have been.