Calling the Tune or Tuning the Call?

The National Endowment for the Humanities and the state humanities councils . . . have been calling the tune for major Public Television documentaries for almost four decades. Heres how it works for us. Because the major source of funding is in the humanities we gear our interests in that direction. Although I may be interested in labor unions, or the Puerto Rican independence movement or the anti-bike path backlash in my little town, I know that there is not adequate money available for those ideas. –Larry Hott

I am loathe to disagree with Larry Hott ["Show Me the Money and Nobody Gets Hurt"] for whom I have enormous respect as a filmmaker, a grant seeker, and all-around mensch, but all three of these topics, including even the anti-bike path backlash, are appropriate subjects for a humanities documentary. NEH and state humanities council funding influences not so much the subject matter of a documentary, as the approach that is used in telling the story. On the whole, I believe this influence is salutary–it makes for a "better" film, richer and more nuanced. But it can also sap a films emotional appeal and dilute its political message, if it has one.

A decade and a half ago ago, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities funded a documentary film about the "Framingham Eight"–eight women who were serving long prison terms at MCI Framingham for killing their abusers. The proposal, entitled "Lethal Defense," was one of the best wed every reviewed. At the heart of the story lay a profound and poignant moral and legal dilemma. Each of the women had indeed committed a murder. But each was herself a victim of repeated and horrific physical abuse, which law enforcement was either unwilling or unable to prevent. The women were driven to murder in desperation and fear for their very lives. Yet they were not allowed to plead self-defense because their lives were not in "imminent danger" at the very moment that they killed their abusers.

The filmmaker proposed to examine this dilemma from a variety of perspectives including interviews with the women, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, judges, members of the juries that convicted the women, often with profound reluctance, and of course the sine qua non of humanities documentaries, scholars in the humanities–historians, ethicists, criminologists, etc.

When I viewed our copy of the completed film, I was dismayed to discover that it consisted entirely of very close up interviews with the eight women. There were no attorneys, no judges, no jurors, and, of course, no humanities scholars. I felt like we’d been hoodwinked, scammed, taken for fools.

In high dudgeon, I called the filmmaker, demanding an explanation. She replied that as they got into the actual making of the film they came to the realization that the eight women’s stories, told in the first person, were so powerful and so compelling, that any overlay of analysis, interpretation, or multiple perspectives would only detract from the story that needed desperately to be told. So she made the artistic decision to drop all the content that, so far as we were concerned, made "Lethal Defense" a humanities project.

There was no doubt in my mind that the Foundation would not have funded a proposal that accurately described the film I had just seen. But the film was made; there was nothing we could do about that. The question that remained was whether we would ask that our name be removed from the credits. I decided that this should be a board decision, and that a screening of the film for the entire board followed by a discussion of all the issues it raised for us, especially the question, "What makes a film project a humanities project?" would be instructive for all of us. It was more instructive than I imagined it could be.

In preparation for the screening, I sent the board the proposal we had funded, copies of my correspondence with the filmmaker, and a list of questions that the situation raised for me. We watched the film together and had a lengthy and vigorous discussion. The conclusion? "Lethal Defense" is an excellent and important humanities film, and whatever there is in our guidelines or review criteria that would prevent us from funding such a film needs to be revised.

Perhaps the most important insights that emerged from our discussion were, first, a distinction between explicit and implicit humanities content and, second, an understanding that audiences are generally perceptive enough not to have to be told how to think about what they are watching.

This is not to say that any film can be a humanities film. Humanities films, good ones anyway, require thoughtful and sensitive and talented filmmakers (and writers) who have meaningful stories to tell. Good humanities films provoke us to think about things that are of fundamental importance, and help us to think about these matters in new and interesting ways. Good humanities films raise questions rather than answer them. Good humanities films make connections – between the present and the past, between our experiences and the experiences of others, between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

A few months after our board discussion, "Lethal Defense," released under the title "Defending Our Lives", won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject Documentary (1994). The filmmaker is Margaret Lazarus, and she taught us as much as the Framingham Eight.

Author: David Tebaldi

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