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Whitney discusses ‘A Life in Film’

Apr 5, 2013
by Tom Iacuzio, '06

Helen Whitney has spent a lifetime examining people and subjects from all walks of life. The acclaimed writer, producer and director visited Flagler College in November to present “A Life in Film; Spiritual Landscapes,” a retrospective of the last 40 years of her life and work as part of the College’s “Ideas and Images” series.

In her career, Whitney has had features air on PBS, HBO, NBC and ABC. She has been nominated for an Oscar and has won a George Foster Peabody Award; an Edward R. Murrow Award for distinguished journalism; an Emmy Award; and awards from The Writer’s Guild of America, The Director’s Guild of America, The Hamptons International Film Festival and The San Francisco International Film Festival.

We had a chance to catch up with Ms. Whitney to talk about her films and her advice to students.

First off, welcome to Flagler. How are you enjoying your time here?

As always, I’ve come back. This is my fourth visit; I hope to teach a course here maybe next year or the year after. I love it here. It’s a small community. People know each other and care about each other. People come up to me on the street and want to continue the conversation from the lectures. I’ve met so many interesting professors and students.

You were here as part of the College’s “Ideas and Images” series, tell me a little about “A Life in Film: Spiritual Landscapes.”

Well the largest arc of the whole four lectures really was my life in film. The lectures represent in part what this life has been like and then underneath that is an exploration of the themes I have pursued in my documentaries. They range from Mormons to monks, presidential candidates to the mentally ill, lots of outsiders, on the fringe of society. Film subjects are all over the place but there are these reoccurring themes that are not exactly spiritual but existential, always asking the big question.

What was that initial step of getting into the documentarian life like for you?

I loved graduate school. The world of books was a very important part of my life. But I really felt this need to experience life more viscerally and put flesh on these ideas and film gave me that chance. It was in many ways, as rigorous an education as graduate school. You have to master complicated ideas, if you’re making documentaries, it’s talking to experts, working and thinking quickly. But you’re also developing these other human skills that travel with you all your life. You’re really taken out of your comfortable zone. I’m very enthusiastic about this as a life choice but I would add that you have to have a very high tolerance for living a bit on the edge financially.

One of your most well received features was the two-hour PBS special, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” Tell us about it.

It really looks at the horrific landscape of 9/11 and the spiritual aftershocks that came in its wake. How was faith challenged or deepened? Lost or found? You’re in those smoking ruins talking to those people who escaped the fire, escaped the buildings and the relatives of those who died and survived. We talk to men and women throughout the world and how they responded to this horrific event. It looks at those big questions of good and evil and faith and doubt and also on the darkness at the heart of religion. That event opened a lot of people to the fact that this was done in the name of god. And they weren’t the first. Jews and Christians have done this throughout history. Muslims were just the latest to use their religion to do terrible things.

It is such a controversial topic and such a hard topic to handle. How was it to tackle filming the documentary?

It was arguably the hardest of all my subjects because there was so much pain and grief and mourning around and I worried whether it was too soon to be talking to these people who had lost people and nearly lost their own lives. And I had a terrible timeline; I had to talk to hundreds of people before I could choose the people in my final film. It’s very hard to do something like this and have proper detachment when you’re right in the midst of it. I lived right next to Ground Zero. I couldn’t get back into my house without a passport. I looked out on those buildings. I still look out on the absence of them. There was just so much emotion and people quarreling about who was to blame and America’s role and foreign policy. But most importantly, it was the pain and loss of this and having to get up every day, as I did, with the smell of burnt steel and human flesh throughout the city. So to create a film, with all this, that wasn’t exploitative but said something was a real challenge.

Beyond the stories that you tell in your films, how has what you’ve covered in your career shaped your own life?

First of all anyone who is going into all these lives and landscapes is appropriately humbled. There’s just this variety of human experience that you aren’t aware of until you experience it. I have a much richer understanding of humanity and greater empathy towards others.

You’ve come in contact with many students in your time here. What is the one thing you’d like to make sure you pass on to them?

With all the reservations I had about the documentary life, it’s six and a half days of work a week. You have to give your heart and soul to it. But putting that to the side, this life offers you an opportunity to become more richly human, a kinder, and more caring and empathic person. Not that you can’t do that in other ways but there’s nothing quite like getting out there and putting your preconceptions to the side. That’s always a good human skill to take with you on the journey of life.

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