VDB Asks... Jill Godmilow

Emily Eddy

Jill Godmilow has earned a substantial reputation as a film director whose work varies in form from documentary to speculative historical fiction to recreation. Her work includes Antonia: a Portrait of the Woman (1974), co-directed with folk singer Judy Collins, which was the first independently produced American documentary to enjoy extensive theatrical exhibition in the United States, and was broadcast in eleven foreign countries. Among other honors, it received an Academy Award nomination, and the Independent New York Film Critics Award for Best Documentary. Other work includes Far from Poland (1984), Waiting for the Moon (1987), Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1995), a cinematic translation of the late performance artist Ron Vawter’s extraordinary solo theater piece, as well as What Farocki Taught (1998), and Lear ’87 Archive (Condensed) (2002). Godmilow teaches filmmaking and critical courses at the University of Notre Dame.
1. Can you tell us something about your background? 
Born in 1943 to middle-class parents and raised in suburban Philadelphia where my sister and I were the only Jews in the school. Sports got me through, (field hockey, tennis and basketball) and protected me from the banal “teen” culture all around. Also, Girls Scouts camp, every summer, where without being able to name it, the terrific camp counselors likely were gay, with names like “Joe”, “Sam”, “Mike” etc.  Of course we fell in love with them, and didn’t know why – but these were the first women I met who seemed to operate outside the insistent culture of friendship rings, going steady, bobby socks, Elvis worship, and all the rest. My father was a dentist and my mother worked for the Philadelphia Board of Education, their representative in Juvenile Court. A friend’s father, a Quaker, led me and his son to a protest against HUAC, the House on Un-American Activities Committee, which was trying to ferret out Communists here there and everywhere... probably my first profound political experience.
Then another – my mother sick of watching her daughters spend most of the summer hanging out at the local pool, worrying about their tummies and whether vertical stripes disguised them better than horizontal ones, discovered the American Friends Service Committee and got each of us sisters into summer “work camps”. My sister spent a month in Great Barrington, MA building a grease pit where mental patients could learn a trade. I spent the summer before college in Lilbourn, Missouri, putting tin roofs on black and white sharecroppers houses, hanging out in gospel churches, and having long conversations with the other “campers,” most of them kids from progressive New York high schools, who had already read Sartre, been to Paris, been psychoanalyzed and had picketed Woolworths lunch counters. I wanted to be them. That summer I also read James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Thirty years later I realized it had greatly influenced my understanding of what a documentary could and should not be. By college, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I had ditched my polished penny loafers and matching sweater sets, discovered Army-Navy stores, and become a combination politico/hippy/activist, doing civil rights work, and then anti-war work.
2. What inspired you to become an artist?  To use video? 
It didn’t happen that way – no desire to become anything, even now. I just wanted to do everything differently from my parents – anything to avoid marrying a dentist and living in a suburban home cooking three meals a day. If I could have majored in outer space or Icelandic melodrama, I would have. At college, in 1961, the word on the progressive street was to avoid majoring in anything that would lead to a “career”. I already loved Chekhov, Turgenev and Dostoevsky, so I majored in Russian Language and Literature, with a minor in Physical Anthropology. I remember my delight in being able to determine the sex of a humerus (upper arm bone) by checking for muscle striations produced by women buttoning their blouses in their backs. Men buttoned their shirts in front and thus had no such markings on their humerus bones.)
As head of SNCC my senior year, I was arrested outside a Krogers supermarket while collecting food to send down south to civil rights workers. Mugshot and finger-printed, then a day in jail being bullied by sergeants who were annoyed with having to book a girl during the big football game that Saturday. And so the political saga began.
3. Did you have formal art training/schooling?
No. There were no film schools when I was in college and soon after I was making films (16mm) in the learn-by-doing mode. Like so many others, Godard’s Breathless was the key. Joaquin, my Puerto-Rican boyfriend, and I walked out of the theater and said to each other, almost simultaneously, “Let’s make a film.” We don’t need Rock Hudson or Doris Day, we don’t need glamor, we don’t need expensive sets, we can shoot in the streets, hand held, and so we did. We made La Nueva Vida in Spanish, a silly romantic adventure which we managed to “sell” to a Mexican distributor, who took the negatives and never sent us a dime. I edited it and made every mistake in the book, but somehow, at the end, there was a film. 
Everything, that is every film, that followed evolved from the politics of the time, most often from feminism. Judy Collins had met me once, but when the piano player in her band suggested she make a film about Antonia Brico, her piano teacher back in Denver where she had grown up, she looked me up, and three days later I brought a small crew to Antonia’s home, we filmed four sequences, went back three more times, and the rest is history. The Academy Award nomination put me on the map, and then the other films just came to me, from friends and strangers. For a long time, the funding was there, piece by piece, from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), the New York State Council on the Arts, from foundations, etc.
4. How do you balance life and art?  Are you able to make a living through creating art? 
No, I never made a living off my films, but got production grant after grant and that sustained me, along with thrift stores, cheap rent, willing (unpaid) collaborators, and the like. I remember walking almost every day an extra six blocks to get something Xeroxed for 6 cents a page instead of 7. I never saw it as a handicap, but as street-smart filmmaking. Also, most of my years I’ve lived in New York City, where, until recently, art was everywhere; poetry readings, downtown theatre, galleries, and film, film, film. Not sure if it’s accurate, but I am always saying that there are a hundred screens in New York City. That has sustained me.
When I was almost 50, I got a package from the NEA which contained my recent, unread application for production monies and a personal, handwritten note from the program director apologizing for the fact that they would no longer be funding film production. I looked out the window – the bag ladies were filling up the streets. I didn’t want to be bag lady, didn’t think I could sustain myself that way. What to do? I had done some teaching over the years – a semester here, a semester there – and liked it a lot. Someone told me about the Chronicle of Higher Education which lists all academic jobs in all fields. I applied for any and all of them that included the word “film” or “video”. I got a few offers but took the one from the University of Notre Dame. I thought I would probably soon die in South Bend, Indiana, but I had wonderful colleagues there, was only an hour and a half’s drive to Chicago, and I managed to spend four months a year back in my New York loft. During the 20 years I taught at Notre Dame, I got a few more films made to boot, not to mention health insurance and a retirement plan. So the retirement monies, plus Social Security and Medicare, are enough for a pleasant, modest life here in New York City. 
5. What influences or motivates you in the world?
Politics, most recently the Vietnam War, again. I’m a member of Veterans for Peace and Full Disclosure, an organization that publishes excellent articles that counter the mythologies of that war, most lately, the Burns/Novick 18-hour PBS series which tells more lies and contains more omissions than can be imagined. Recently I co-authored a full-page ad that will run in Variety just before the voting starts for the Emmys. It begins, “Ken Burn’s & Lynn Novick’s 10-part, PBS documentary, The Vietnam War, lacks the courage of honest truth-telling and should not be honored with an Emmy. To fully communicate the terrible reality and continuing legacy of the American war in Vietnam, one must have the courage to admit that the U.S. rained incredible violence on the Vietnamese people for no defensible cause, as it sought to replace France as the dominant power in Southeast Asia”. And on it goes, to “In this war-torn world, what is desperately needed and what Burns and Novick fail to convey is an honest rendering of that war to help the American people to avoid yet even more catastrophic wars. The Emmy Award is a powerful recognition of truth in art. Crowned with an Emmy, this defective history of the Vietnam era will become required viewing for generations of young Americans – a seductive, but false, interpretation of events.” 
6. What artists or movements are you following right now? 
I’m watching wonderful 35mm prints of Bresson films at the Anthology. For the 50th time, A Man Escaped produced a peculiar religious sensation in me. Then there was the excellent Winter’s Brothers by the Icelandic director, Hlynur Palma, and Hong Sangsoo’s The Day After, which I went back the next day and watched again.
7. What was the last exhibition you saw?
I liked very much An Incomplete History of Protest at the Whitney Museum, and also, this past May, a superb exhibition of 18th Century prints at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, What Is Enlightenment? 200 Years of the Print Room of the University of Warsaw Library.  
8. What has been the best screening experience of your work?
When I showed Roy Cohn/Jack Smith at the Berlin Film Festival in 1995, I got the greatest review ever, from Gianni Rondolino in La Stampa. I was very moved by what he wrote. I’m tempted to quote it here, but alas...
9. What are you working on right now?
I’m finishing a book called Useful Film: A Manifesto for Radical Post-Realist Cinema. In brief, it provides a scathing critique of documentary-as-we-do-it (or know-it) as a vehicle for educated middle-class viewers to experience a kind of momentary compassionate and caring citizenship. In Part Two, I promote many alternate strategies, which I call anti-docs or post-realist films – that is non-fiction films not dependent on what I call “the pedigree of the real”, instead practicing ideas though unique strategies of telling and engaging. Of course, the first film I saw in this mode was Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire, about the development of Napalm B at the Dow Chemical plant in Midland, Michigan. He made it in 1969. I saw it 22 years later, in 1991, and was floored by its economy and use of non-actors to demonstrate the language of corporate relationships to develop this instrument of terror. Farocki’s film had never been distributed in the U.S. and I urgently wanted everyone to see it. I had an idea to remake it – to make a perfect replica of it n English, and in color (to avoid the sense of the “historical”). I wanted to recirculate Farocki’s film as a model of “useful” non-fiction cinema. Farocki gave me permission to replicate it, and so I did. It gets around somehow.
10. How do you start a piece?  How do you know when a work is complete?
I start making a film when I get an idea about how to make something – how to make something in a new way – something impossible without a new strategy.
Recently, a friend, a high school teacher, and I were talking and he said, there are three things high school teachers say are impossible to teach: Reconstruction (a disaster, after the Civil War), Westward Expansion (the decimation of native populations) and the Vietnam War. And I said, that makes sense. I will make a 40-minute classroom film about that Vietnam war for high school kids and tell the truth. I got off the phone and wrote the first two paragraphs, then, not wanting to spend four years looking for funding, I thought, I  can make it with still photographs – no war footage, no excitement, no injured GI’s, no quivering Vietnamese peasants... just long holds on great photos (and there are plenty of them) and narration. So when I finish the Useful Film book, I will begin.
11. What are you currently reading? Watching?
Reading There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, and trying to keep up with the weekly New Yorker and Harper’s magazines. Then there’s the astonishing new film by Douglas Gordon and Jonas Mekas I Had Nowhere to Go, based on Mekas’ published diaries of his years in DP camps after the war, and then his arrival and long confusion in New York’s Lower East Side. See it, but only in a theater.
12.  Room for final thoughts: None – I’ve probably written too much already.