Friday, May 29, 2009

"How to Fight, a portrait of Joyce Watson."

Eight or nine years ago, my friend Linda took me to the Jewish Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts because a friend of hers was showing a film about immigrants who became chicken farmers. A short was shown with it that was called something like "The Collector of Bleeker Street." Actually, it was nominated for an academy award in the documentary short category.
I fell in love with this compelling film which looked deceptively simple, just following a guy with below-modernate mental abilities, a gregarious nature and a generous heart, who lived in the Greenwich Village, was friendly with many neighbors and was supplied with  meals by an elderly relative. It was a long story, packed into a relatively short space, about this guy's parents (whose graves he visited), the need to find social services for him once he was no longer being cared for by family, the way folks in the neighborhood gathered to plan how to help him, the intervention of Jewish Neighborhood Services (or some such organization), his acquisition of a girlfriend and so on. It was fast-paced, absolutely endearing and showed the best of collective care and oversight. He was also an interesting, lively guy with numerous foibles who collected for various causes including a local Church.
I sat in the audience, entranced, thinking "I could do that."
I started out in photography because of obsession. I only know what my mother looked like through a few snapshots taken before I was twelve, when she died. But, had I not been pushed by this inner drive to record the daily life of my daughter, and had I been capable of consciously wanting to become an artist, I certainly would have worked in documentary video. I like stories, the complexity, the details, the backs and forths, the deceptions and revelations.
Now I know how naive I was to think 'I could do that' about "The Collector..." since it involved film, hundreds of hours of film, a professional editor and director and god knows how many grants. It was a very expensive labor of love. But the voice of the devil told me that I could do something, should do something in video....and then put the image of Joyce Watson who I've known for well over thirty years into my mind as the perfect subject.
This immigrant from Guyana went to Curacao and then to London before settling in a small superintendent's apartment on 11th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village where she raised her two children. She was a teacher's aid, a teacher, catered (lliterally, not figuratively), babysat and art modeled once she gave up being a dental hygenist because the hours interferred too much with her children.
I met her because she was taking care of children after school, after she'd finished teaching. When I picked up my daughter, we'd sit on her couch, talking. and she'd tell me stories of what she'd done that day, who she'd met, what adventures she'd had. Often she'd say, "Someday I'm going to write a book about all I've seen." That phrase, stuck in the back of my mind for so many years, presented itself when the devil told me I needed to make a video. Oh, yes, I could transmit some of Joyce's stories....
Not having done much video since I taught at MIT and fooled around a bit in the Film Section, I asked a colleague at UMass if she wanted to work with me on this project, bought a camera and we started. It was far more difficult that I imagined. And it took six or so years and hiring an editor to finish it.
I wanted to cover the difficulty a black, relatively uneducated woman had earning a living. Racism. Being a single parent. Joyce's belief that fine educations would provide opportunities for her children that she never had. Problems she and her children were facing as she aged and became more frail. Skirmishes with the landlord. And her inevitable annoyance at her childrens' attempts to help her remain in the apartment. I wanted to make sense of all these big ticket ideas through the vehicle of this beautiful woman with smooth dark skin, white hair, a lilting voice and a firey temper.
My experience as a documentary photographer took me only so far and not far enough. But after a lot of time, considerable heartache, many ups and downs and a huge amount of money, the video was done and I could send it out.
I did. Sort of. I picked some festivals that looked plausible from Out of the Box and sent "How to Fight, a portrait of Joyce Watson" into the world. Maybe five times. Without any fancy case-cover and with handwritten notes on the front of the DVD. And no one showed it.
After a year, I realized that I needed a better presentation so I bought a printer that writes on DVD's. Unfortunately doesn't come with a program for the MAC. I let that problem sit unsolved for six or so months. Finally I asked T.J. Hellmann, the young guy who designed the perfect website for me, if he could design the covers. Not only did he do that, but he came over and spent four hours figuring out how to download a workable program to create and print on the DVD's. Today. May 29th, 2009.
Soon I'll figure out a few festivals to mail the new incarnation of "How to Fight" to. And, maybe, it will fight its way through the thousands and thousands of other documentary videos and find an audience. I hope it does.


  1. Good luck getting "How to Fight" out there. I want to see it!

  2. thanks for this! i loved seeing Jezebel, perched there, keeping an eye on things and in fact, seeing her helped me pull together some fuzzy thoughts, as you'll read in Rock, Paper, Scissors. Dont take this badly, but there are some typos in your post, notably the fact that you have knocked the "m" off your mother.

  3. Oh, tell me about mistakes, please..Please...
    and mother is certainly an important one...
    Jezebel was sitting on the Photosmart printer so she had to move. But Bacall discovered her on the other printer. That printer is Bacall's territory and she was quite cranky to find her perched on it. I had to recuse Jezebel...