Hoop Dreams producer Frederick Marx gets personal at the Vancity Theatre
Frederick Marx was one of the driving forces behind the stunning Hoop Dreams—a documentary declared by Roger Ebert to be the best film of the ‘90s. The rest of Marx’s career has been no less impressive.
On Saturday, he comes to the Vancity Theatre to present Hoop Dreams, followed the next day by a trio of shorts that includes House of UnAmerican Activities; an early film that delves into the story of Marx’s father, who was blacklisted by HUAC, and who died when his son was only nine years-old.
Marx appears as part of a larger, five-day program of recent documentaries examining politics and protest in the U.S. called Reality Check. Among the films scheduled are the brand new blood vessel-busters Kivalina v. Exxon and You’ve Been Trumped.
We had a brief chat with the filmmaker not long before he boarded his plane to Vancouver:
Georgia Straight: With Hoop Dreams, what are you most commonly asked about?
Frederick Marx: Probably the single greatest question is, ‘Where are they now? What are the young men and their families doing now?’ So I bring people up to speed on that. To me the most devastating part of that answer is the sad truth that Arthur Agee’s father as been shot and killed, and William Gates’ older brother Curtis has been shot and killed. And these two deaths are just two more in what is an overwhelming statistic of the likelihood that African-American U.S. males will not reach the age of 50. That’s the bad news. There’s certainly good news with what’s happened with Arthur and William both, but it’s very sobering.
GS: It seems to me that we’re in a sort of golden age for political documentaries, largely because things are so bad. Do you see this, too?
FM: About a year and a half ago I wrote a blog on what I saw to be the state of documentary filmmaking in the U.S., and the good news is that, yes, there are all these wonderful docs that are being made, and for a period of time—I think it’s already tailing off in the last few years, significantly—they were given enormous play on the broader stages of commercial life. But the source of all of this is in the abdication of the corporate news media to cover these stories in any meaningful fashion. And frankly, the documentary successes of the last 10-12 years are just simply filling a vacuum. And now, instead of seeing a good in-depth documentary on your local PBS station, you have to pay to see the news and good news commentary in the cinema.
GS: Who are some of the filmmakers and movies that influenced you the most?
FM: One was Dušan Makavejev, the Serbian filmmaker from Belgrade. His most famous film, I believe, is WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and these were films that in a sense tried to combine some of the best of East and West, and Serbia was the perfect place to make those films because they were sitting at the crossroads, and so they combined some of the best ideas of socialism with some of the best ideas of capitalism, and he tried to make these very interesting hybrids. He comes to mind. There was another documentary that nobody knows, that I love; it was called Waiting for Fidel, and it’s a story about a team of three; a Canadian producer, director, and an American sociologist-political historian who went down to Cuba, and they tried to get an interview with Fidel. And they never got the interview. So the film becomes a story about the three different political-social perspectives that each of them brings to the discussion of the meaning of the Cuban revolution. And it’s just a fascinating film, and it’s a perfect case in point of how your deepest held intentions, as long as you willingly abandon them, you can make something perhaps even better.
GS: Tell me about House of UnAmerican Activities
FM: I think I was about 18 when I was sitting with my girlfriend in my living room going through an old family photo album, and for the first time in my life discovered that both my parents had been American communists. My father was actually called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the summer of 1956, in Philadelphia, and publicly excoriated. He was actually blacklisted as a waiter. He worked for a downtown hotel and he was fired subsequently, and he couldn’t get any more jobs as a waiter. Because he couldn’t do this blue collar work anymore—which, at the time, the Communist Party was telling him he needed to do—he actually was able to go back to what his real love was, and get a Phd, and become a professor and a proper intellectual, which is in fact what he was born to be. So the film, that’s where it really started, and it was only in my mid-20s that I started this project, and it really began as an in-depth, personal look at the man I never knew, as well as this political history of my family that I never knew.
GS: And tell me, what have we learned since the McCarthy era?
FM: Well, looking around, I have to say, ‘Not much,’ at least in the United States. It’s interesting because what prompted the original vision for the film was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was just elected president, he said publicly that he thought the House Un-American Activities Committee was a good thing, and that perhaps we should bring it back for a rerun. And it started me thinking, ‘What the hell? Who actually knows what this was and what it meant?’ And that’s what actually started the long process of making the film. And to look around now, it’s 30 years later, and the discussions that exist on the American political landscape—if anything it’s almost worse. It’s bad enough to have these witch hunting congressional committees, but it’s even worse to think that all you have to do is basically cast aspersions about somebody in the public media, and then the media does the rest. They drag them through the mud and then you’re tried and convicted by public opinion before you’ve even had a day’s hearing. It’s discouraging.
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