'Rebel Citizen' Haskell Wexler receives a documentary tribute at the New York Film Festival

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In Pamela Yates’ Rebel Citizen, which will premiere at the New York Film Festival next week, the filmmaker interviews 90-year-old cinematographer Haskell Wexler about his non-fiction work. Yates (Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, 2011) met him in the early 1980s, just after the release of her second documentary, When Mountains Tremble (1983), about the travails of indigenous Guatemalans. Wexler had already won his two Oscars (as DP on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966, and Bound for Glory, 1976) and made half a dozen feature-length documentaries on a wide range of social and political issues, including one about the Weather Underground.

In an e-mail exchange, Yates recalls her first assignment from Wexler: to get footage of “contras” for a narrative film he planned to write and direct. She traveled over 100 miles with the counter-revolutionaries, from Honduras to Nicaragua, but the footage ultimately ended up in Nicaragua: Report from the Front (1983), a documentary Yates co-produced (with Deborah Shaffer). During that journey, the filmmakers uncovered evidence that the U.S. was funding the contras’ mission to destabilize Nicaragua, where the Sandinista revolutionaries had recently ousted President Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the last of in a long line of despots. Wexler made his own documentary with Saul Landau, Target Nicaragua: Inside a Secret War (1983), and then asked Yates to head the sound department on the narrative film Latino (1986), about a Green Beret of Chicano ancestry who is in Nicaragua to train contra forces. “We spent six months together in Nicaragua,” she says, “filming a fiction movie about events that were unfolding in reality before our eyes.”

In Rebel Citizen, the two friends and human rights filmmakers discuss many of Wexler’s documentaries, which were largely funded by money he earned as a Hollywood DP. It opens on a close-up of Wexler gazing directly into the camera; he addresses the audience, Yates effectively relinquishing her dominant gaze as filmmaker. Wexler speaks of a documentary filmmaker’s obligation to “seek the truth.” Yates continues to maintain the most objective stance possible throughout, questioning from off-camera while Wexler remains in the frame, his documentaries screening in the background. Yates shows several extended clips, including one from The Bus (1963), which Wexler shot as he and others traveled to the Washington, D.C. march in which Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

When asked what drew her to Wexler as a subject, Yates replies: “His fearlessness is contagious, and I also appreciate that he works in fiction and non-fiction, and that similar visual approaches can work for both genres.” In fact, Wexler is best remembered by cineastes of the baby boomer generation as the director of an innovative narrative film, Medium Cool (1969), which seamlessly melded documentary footage of the 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago with the lives of fictional characters directly and indirectly affected by those events. In Rebel Citizen, Wexler discusses production on that movie; like Latino, it is an example of the way in which the noted cinematographer also used fiction films to “seek the truth” and find expression for his progressive views.

At a midpoint in the documentary, Wexler finally gets to the subject emblazoned on his cap, “12 Hours On/12 Hours Off.” It represents a labor issue that remains unresolved in Hollywood. In 1997, 35-year-old assistant cameraman Brent Hershman died when he crashed his car after an 18-hour day on the set of Pleasantville. Wexler’s outrage over the incident inspired his 2006 documentary (co-directed with Lisa Leeman), eight years in the making, Who Needs Sleep? In it, he interviews Hershman’s widow as well as prominent cinematographers and actors, maintaining a collegial tone while advocating for reform. Yates says of her extended conversation with Wexler: “I had delved deeply into Haskell’s documentary films and watched them all again in the weeks leading up to this conversation, so the filming and conversation were spontaneous.”

In Rebel Citizen, Haskell expands upon some well-known incidents in his professional life, among them his sudden and unexplained removal as cinematographer from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Like many Americans prominent in the civil-rights and anti-war movements during that era, Wexler was under investigation by the FBI. The DP suspects that a producer fired him after getting a call from that agency. The following year, Wexler and his co-filmmakers on Underground (1976), Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson, received subpoenas from the FBI for their footage, but these were eventually withdrawn, the artists winning the legal case by claiming First Amendment rights.

In Rebel Citizen, Wexler credits Jack Nicholson and others for their support during that case. Interestingly, Bill Butler, who replaced Wexler on Cuckoo’s Nest, once said that Nicholson would only take direction from him, because he refused to speak with director Milos Forman during the entire production. Yates admits to being surprised at Wexler’s suspicions and other aspects of his private and professional life revealed in the course of the film. “I really hadn’t known how deeply patriotic he is, believing that being the best citizen he can be involves critiquing his own government though his filmic artistry,” she writes. She refers here to Wexler’s admission that he was deeply hurt by criticism of his documentary work as unpatriotic. “That was my inspiration for naming the film Rebel Citizen,” Yates explains, “and my trying to capture this spirit.”