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11.15.03 San Francisco thoughts

San Francisco, Bay Bridge 7:30 AM

I am back in San Francisco, at a fancy downtown hotel -- the Renaissance Parc 55. Jim is getting a lifetime achievement award from the Gerontology Section of the American Public Health Association, a wonderful honor for him.

Our hotel is pretend glitzy. High prices, but not even a mini-bar in the room and a charge of $10/day for high-speed internet access. Hmmph. We were out here in October for the United Nations Film Festival and stayed down at Stanford, where the Stanford Terrace Inn spoiled me with its complementary Internet access -- I figured every hotel in the region must be so enlightened.

Oh well... that means I should use my little computer not for surfing the web and pretending it's productive but for creative work.

I dreamed last night that my literary agent called to say she'd given my novel a second thought and want to try once more to get it published. That darn novel! It consumed so much of my life. I believe it really is worth getting published somehow. The venue -- Pakistan and the Muslim parts of China -- is so relevant now. Maybe if I convert the smuggled Chinese art treasures to Iraqi art treasures... maybe it's worth self-publishing to get it behind me.

I can't complain, though. That novel and its predecessors made me learn a lot about writing, developing characters, and structuring scenes. Learning is never lost.


My 2-minute movie, The Valentine 1955, was chosen for screening at the United Nations Association Film Festival, Oct 21-25. It was such a thrill to be chosen that Maria and I decided to make a junket of it, bringing Jim and her buddy Scott along with us.

Upon arrival, the first thrill was simply to be accepted as a "filmmaker" -- the big red badge. Almost immediately, the festival publicist introduced me to a producer from San Jose public television, who made arrangements to meet us on Sunday to be interviewed for their program "Video i."

I have to be truthful and say that I've never actually attended a film festival, even though it always sounded like a cool thing to do. The UNAFF, with its theme of "Universal Respect" was a documentary festival and many of the filmmakers attended. Once I began to hear these filmmakers speak and, of course, saw their products, I was humbled to be in their company.

For The Valentine 1955, I sat in my room, wrote the memoir, recorded it, then developed some animations and a little music to go along with it. I thought the process was an exercise in agony: creating 3500 frames of story out of nothing but a memory and a group portrait of my First Communion class. How heroic.

Then I started hearing from my fellow UNAFF artists -- documentarians, all of them. In contrast to me, they were people who aggressively took on the world to get their story. One team went to Niger to film men as they returned slaves to families; another filmed child labor being practiced in seven nations; and another interviewed all the factions in the Colombian drug trade. They followed lives with no idea where these lives would take them: 4 women in a special NY prison program that had allowed them to keep their babies; a young Guatemalan woman in search of her family, which had been broken up by civil war; a man who was trying to make reparations for the damage of agent orange in Vietnam.

Few of the projects had any decent financial backing -- getting the money to keep the project going was always part of the story.

I wonder about the courage and the obsession it takes to complete such films. It takes a certain amount of obsession to write a novel and a certain amount of belief in your story and your ability to tell that story. But to take a team of people with you into harm's way, inserting yourselves into other people's lives, begging for funding along the way. Gosh.

This train of thought makes me think about my work -- not my seedling filmmaker work, but the agency work I still collect a salary for. Over the years I've been involved in projects that are risky and revolutionary -- trying to buck the way New York State pays for services for troubled youth, trying to change the way social workers deal with families of these same youth. Passion can turn into bitter rage and futile tantrums. Obsession is not always single-minded -- it grows tentacles that push out in a dozen new directions. Good intentions become clouded and corrupt. Wonderful, high profile projects melt into irrelevance and there is little to show for all the investment.

Okay, okay. Changing systems is not the same as making a movie about people trying to change systems. Maybe making documentaries would actually be easier than making social change.

So why does it scare me? Why do I think it would take courage I don't have? Maybe because it feels so public, so exposed, so lacking in the kind of institutional sponsorship that allows process and effort to substitute for outcomes. In the film business, you either finish it or you fail. If you finish it, you have a nice product to show. Look what I did. It can't be reversed. Like a high school diploma, it can't be taken away, even if all the critics and all the audience members hate it. If you don't finish the film, you are not only a failure, you aren't even a filmmaker.

The above is all bullshit.

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