Jill Godmilow interviewed by Ray Privett of Facets

While "independent filmmaker" has become a term used by major film companies and publicity firms with very little discretion, Jill Godmilow remains the real thing. Working outside the system in the way she wants to on projects that she thinks are important for more than thirty years, Jill Godmilow has been one of America's leading independent filmmakers, directing such projects as the Academy Award nominated documentary about the first woman to conduct a major symphony orchestra - Antonia, A Portrait of the Woman, the community-based documentary about Serbian folk musicians - The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago (1978), the experimental documentary about the Solidarity Movement - Far From Poland (1984), the unconventional fiction about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas - Waiting for the Moon (1987), and the experimental theatre adaptations Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1995) and What's Underground About Marshmallows? (1996). A native of Pennsylvania, Godmilow started her filmmaking career as an editor and director in New York City in the late 60s. Today she teaches film at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. She has been both a Guggenheim Fellow and a Rockefeller Fellow, has had recent works included in the Whitney Biennial, and has had a recent retrospective in New York City.

> How did you get involved with filmmaking?

I had a Puerto Rican boyfriend, Joaquin Mercado, who was a painter. The French New Wave films were just appearing in New York theatres, and after Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies, they made filmmaking look like something a person, as opposed to some machine, could do. You just had to run around the streets of Paris or New York with your black and white film and shoot some kind of wacky story. Joaquin came to me one day and said, let's make a film. I, being middle-class and educated, said, impossible! You need millions of dollars and you have to know something. And he, being Puerto Rican, working class, and never having finished high school, didn't know enough to be frightened. Joaquin went to the library and took home a book called something like How to Make a Movie. So we made a feature film in Spanish for about two thousand dollars. It was called La Nueva Vida and we made it in Spanish because we knew what was in the Spanish theatres in New York City, and thus also in Florida, Texas, and California, and that basically it was Mexican product, with beautiful blondes, handsome dark men, and musical numbers in Caribbean nightclubs. We thought we would make every mistake in the book, but that whatever we made, flawed as it might be, it would be so new and fresh that we had a chance to get it distributed.

Of course we had run out of money in the process of editing. One of us had to go find somewhere to work that wouldn't cost us anything. I loved the editing the most so I was the one who went to try to get a job where I could work at night on my own film. That's how I became an editor, and ended up cutting TV commercials, afternoon specials for television, etc., for three years. This was from 1966 through 1968. Eventually I came to know that this editing was the end of living, that if I made one more Ben-Gay commercial, my soul would dry up and blow away. I didn't know much, but I knew that it was death. So I dropped out and joined up with a lot of ex-New Yorkers who had already made the move to San Francisco, and went out there in 1969 to become part of a film collective, Grand Central Station. We were in San Francisco, but we were all from the East Coast. The idea of the collective was that we would all learn all film skills. I, the editor, would teach the cameraman how to edit, and he would teach me how to shoot, and everyone could do everything and anything and we would operate without hierarchies. San Francisco was the obvious place to do that. It was a very bad idea in terms of filmmaking, but it was part of the attraction.

> Your film Far From Poland (1984) presented a lot of interesting problems. The film came out of your being in Poland when the Solidarity strikes began?

In 1980 the Gdansk shipyard's 80,000 workers went on strike and then organized the national Solidarity Trade Union. Soon the whole country was paralyzed. I wanted to start shooting a film about Solidarity immediately, but in those days, during the Cold War, you got a visa to go to a Warsaw Bloc country for about three weeks, and you couldn't just stay on a few more days. We had to go home, although I very badly wanted to stay and start filming the strikes in Gdansk. Back in New York, I didn't think for a second that I wouldn't be able to get back into Poland. I was very successful in raising money from American foundations, especially American Polish foundations, and was ready to go back to start shooting within a month or so. But my visa application was rejected by the Polish government. I couldn't believe it. I tried to pull strings through the State Department and other things but to no avail.

A close friend, the composer Michael Sahl, didn't accept the notion that I couldn't make a film about Poland because I couldn't go to Poland. He urged me to keep thinking about it. He said, just start shooting, and something will come. I don't think I would have had the courage to stay with it if he hadn't got me started. It took me about a month to push my way through the mind problem of imagining how to make a documentary about something that I couldn't shoot. It was a kind of existential dilemma. But I did start to shoot, on tape. I was afraid to shoot film and run out of money. I shot Solidarity support rallies in New York, and interviews with various people who knew something about Solidarity. I pulled in a couple of collaborators; my boyfriend, the videomaker Mark Magill, and an anarchist friend of mine who spoke Polish. He started collecting and translating Solidarity documents coming out of Poland. Poles hadn't been able to speak freely for thirty-some years, since the end of the War. Just being able to speak in public, without caging it to get by censors, was very important. After the Polish government caved in to Solidarity's demands, there was this tremendous and necessary outpouring of words and stories.

The first document to move me was this interview with Anna Walentynovich, and for many reasons I thought it would be worth re-producing it by way of re-enactment. In some way, Anna's life history, as she related it, mirrored the essential experience of post-War Poland. When the war ended, she was a starving, orphaned peasant girl who wanted to kill herself because she could not see how she could have a life. Somehow she had found her way to the Gdansk shipyards, trained as a welder, and eventually became a super-quota worker. Years later, when she got fired for speaking up to the management while trying to protect fellow workers from corruption, eighty thousand workers went out on strike to save her job.

Just then I met an actress, Ruth Maleczech, who I thought could play Walentynowich. I saw Ruth perform in a Mabou Mines production of Dead End Kids, a play about medieval alchemists and contemporary nuclear scientists. Ruth performed Madame Curie's diary in a French-Polish accent with her hands inside some kind of glass vitrine, as if she was moving radium around. It was one of the most stunning performances I've seen in my life. I had just read this text by Walentynovich, and I said, yes, Ruth can perform it in a way that is real, and not just some kind of phony history. I shot the re-enactment with her on tape first, and it was very successful. I started to look for other texts to film and I started trying to figure out how they would all go together to make a film. And eventually the re-enactments I used were of Walentynovich, the government censor K-62, and this Polish miner whose lines are a composite of a lot of Polish miners from a volatile meeting in Silesia in 1981.

> But you did get some footage from Poland?

I did buy some from a German guy who was running around Poland in 1980, interviewing workers with a half-inch video camera. And I got some through friends who connected me with the Solidarity Film Agency, who shot some terrible footage for me that I did include in the film, mostly to call attention to its inadequacy. But the most interesting thing about the film is the various solutions to this problem: if the film is not pedigreed as documentary because it was shot by you in Poland, then what should that film include and when is enough? There are no limits, boundaries, or rules for a non-fiction film that doesn't take its legitimacy from "real location footage." What else should go in there that needs to be told about the situation in Poland? Polish jokes? Yes. The problems of making the film? Yes. My fights with my boyfriend? Yes. A letter I got from a Pole who hasn't eaten scrambled eggs for a long, long time? Yes. Yes. Yes.

> The film creates a sort of dual structure in that there is the story, but also there is the story around the story. They are both there in the film, and they are both important to understanding what is going on with the film. Often the discrepancy between these two levels challenges certain truth claims and their possibilities. You increasingly went in this direction in the future?

Yes, I kept on that course. In my recent film What Farocki Taught, finally I just stick myself in there and say what I'm doing and why on camera straight to the audience. There I am, on the film set, and I say this is what we're doing and why and thank you and goodnight. In some ways What Farocki Taught is the end of a movement that starts with Far From Poland.

> It's one of your core positions that documentaries cannot tell the truth?

Yes, especially when they claim to accurately represent something. I think documentaries can and should use reality to propose ideas, and change relationships between the audience and the subject. But description as truth? No. In Far From Poland, no matter how much stuff I put in it, even if it were a ten-hour film including everything smart I ever heard about Poland that would help explain Solidarity, with historians giving lectures and so on, I could never adequately represent the Solidarity movement.

> There is this woman, Anna, who was one of the reasons everyone went on strike. You make a claim about it and it's true.

Yes, but if you remember, at the most heroic moment in Anna's story, when thousands of people came together in the shipyard because the strike was won, and they brought her back and put her on top of the steam shovel so all could see her, and gave her flowers. At that moment, in voice over, I told this other story about how stubborn and difficult Anna was to work with.

> You're still saying something valid about where this movement came from in Poland.

Yes, there is all kinds of information about her. But is that the "truth"? No.

> There are small truths, but not a big truth about everything about Solidarity.

There is no "big truth." And yes, if there was, I would argue that it's not a truth that anyone can use.

> Well, these little truths are plausible, empirically verifiable and conceptually valid.

Yes, but they're ideologically corrupt.

> How?

Well, for instance: Anna is a very serious Catholic, as many Poles are: a true believer. When she tells her story, it becomes a story of worker politics mixed up with spiritual faith. She claims that her Saints protected her and got her to the next place she needed to go, and that's why she was never afraid. So there is this necessary "truth" in the film that Catholicism had a lot to do with Solidarity's fervor, but it is not true to let Anna's story stand for the story of Solidarity's workers, because for some of those who participated, Catholic Saints had nothing to do with it. So you shouldn't use Anna's telling of her own story as if it's Solidarity's story.

> But it tells us something about the Solidarity movement.

Yeah, but it's inadequate to account for the radical activity of the Polish workers in 1980. And what does her story produce in its audience if it isn't complicated by other information and context? What does it mean to ask middle-class Americans, who have no workplace problems of their own, to sit down and watch Anna Walentynovich come to political consciousness, become courageous, lead a strike, and become a national heroine? To me, the question of what the truth is can't be answered until you have dealt with what transaction will be made between that truth and the audience. The truth is not in the facts, it's in audience consciousness. To produce the Solidarity Movement only through this peasant woman's tale is to produce false consciousness, even though the facts aren't wrong; that is, the facts as she knows and tells them, certainly they are not lies. But to show only Anna's story, I would argue, is to produce false consciousness, because the tale of how political change happens becomes a story about a heroic woman. The Anna-only film can't produce political action. It produces only a satisfying tale.

> If your major goal is to explain the Solidarity movement, or something about the Solidarity movement, she and these stories about her are useful for this because she played a crucial role in where it came from.

The major goal, if you ask me, if you invite people to come to the cinema, to park their car, pay their money, and sit in the dark while you speak to them in some way, is to produce consciousness. But if my film had stopped with Anna, if I had said, okay, I do know how to make a film about Solidarity without Lech Walesa, I've found this incredible text and this incredible actress who can perform it in a very interesting way, and that is my film, this is not to have done anything but to produce a classic and false sense of how history happens. To tell Anna's story without meeting the other characters in the film is not to understand anything. To produce Anna's story and not to present the fact that President Reagan was exploiting the risk of the Soviet army marching into Poland in order to get a huge military budget through the U.S. Congress is not to use Poland well.

> So for you, in a way, truth is a question of authenticity and larger context.

I'm not so interested in authenticity. I'd say the context is the main thing: the context that makes us, the audience, a player in the story. It's about how complicated things are, so complicated in fact that no film, even if it were ten hours long, could ever adequately produce Poland. Even my hundred and ten minute film is inadequate to tell that story. The Anna story by itself only produces respect, awe, and the experience of compassion for its audience. Reagan was busting PATCO, the air traffic controllers union as he was applauding the Polish Solidarity labor movement, and the American middle class is sitting in the cinema falling in love with Anna Walentynovich? Something is wrong with that.

> So you try to produce a kind of knowing skepticism about how the subject relates to the people at the cinema.

Right. What's important to me is to make sure I haven't used history, in this case heroic history, to just entertain middle-class people. The middle-class is the great buffer between the have-nots and the money, and as long as it is satisfied with itself, nothing changes. You keep the middle class content, with new video games and new cars, and not too much unemployment, affordable gas, and nice documentaries about "other peoples' struggles."

> You attempt to challenge that by problematizing truth claims through a dual structure in film style and film culture.

Yeah. To adapt something Engels said, to produce a cinema that always shows the gap between what could be and what is. If you just use the cinema to describe the world, that produces nothing except a false sense of enlightenment and engagement, that is, a feeling that you're not so singularly self-involved, that you are active towards the world.

This is an excerpt of a longer interview with Jill Godmillow about her life and work that was made during the Facets Cinematheque in late 2000. The interview can be read online in its entirety on the Facets website.