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Documentary Man

By TOM MEEK  |  December 9, 2009

So, in your vast body of work, how did you pick the subject matter for, let's say,Domestic Violence (2001)?
I try to make as many films as I can about different aspects of contemporary life. What interests me is to have a group of thematically linked documentaries about contemporary life. So that in a sense, I'm making one long movie, that is now about 80 or 90 hours long, that covers as many different aspects of life during the time while I am alive. For Domestic Violence specifically, I met someone up in Maine (during a screening of 1980's Model) who asked me if I would ever be interested in making a film about domestic violence and I said, 'Sure.' But I hadn't really pursued it, because I thought it would be hard to get permission, and she said, 'I can get you permission.' So I said great and I went down to Tampa where she organized a lunch for me with the chief judge, the chief of police, the chief of the state police, the heads of the Legal Aid Society, the Prosecutor's Office and the woman who ran the shelter. So she got together all the relevant players, and I explained to them what I wanted to do, and they said, 'Ok.'

I think I got permission in Tampa, because while domestic violence was a problem in Tampa, the relevant municipal agencies decided they were going to do something about it and organized themselves to confront the problem. They felt that a film would record their efforts and show the way to others what might be possible, so I just fell into it. I was lucky to have been introduced to them.

So what was the genesis for the movieMeat (1976)?
I wanted to do a movie about food production, and originally thought about doing it on a cattle ranch, and I went out to Colorado and visited a cattle ranch and someone took me to a meat packing plant and I thought, that would be interesting, so I did that. So much of this is chance. Not only the choice of the subject matter, but the whole making of the movie. It's a question of what you're lucky enough to stumble across and then you have to recognize what you've got.

You seem to have access to your subject like you're a fly on the wall. Do you work hard to achieve that?
It's rare that anyone ever looks at the camera, and it's rare that anybody turns me down. The worst thing you can say is 'don't look at me' and 'don't look at the camera,' because that is when people start to look at the camera. Why people agree, I don't know, but almost everybody does. It is very rare they turn me down. I don't know if it has anything to do with how I present myself. I try to present myself in a nonthreatening way and I try to demystify the filmmaking process, so if anyone wants to see how the camera or the tape deck work, I explain it to them. But that's not the explanation. It's a little part of the explanation. When it's a closed environment like the ballet companies everyone knows in advance, but for Welfare (1975), for example, I only met with the social workers in advance. The only time I saw the clients was they came to the center and I usually had to get their permission after the sequence was shot.

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