On Wednesday night, August 21, at 7 p.m., if you are in the vicinity of Brooklyn, New York, you would be wise to scoot over to BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music/Peter J. Sharp Building) for a rare opportunity to see the new 35mm print struck by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) of the Oscar nominated documentary, A Time for Burning, and to meet and greet the film’s legendary director, Bill Jersey. Hailed as “the best Civil Rights film ever made,” A Time for Burning will be followed by a Q&A with Bill who is anxious to introduce the film to a new generation of filmgoers.
Last year, I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend Bill for a profile, Brush with Greatness, published in Edge magazine (for the full article about his life and career as a filmmaker and as a prolific painter as well, including photos of his paintings, click on the link http://www.edgemagonline.com/home15.htm). To underscore the importance and timeliness of A Time for Burning, especially in the aftermath of the recent Trayvon Martin debacle, I’ve excerpted my piece below.
From Brush with Greatness, a profile of Bill Jersey, by Judith Trojan
How do you segue from a gig as Art Director of the 1958 sci-fi potboiler, The Blob, to become one of the pioneers of the cinema vérité movement? If your name is Bill Jersey, you grab your camera, prop it on your shoulder and never look back. The legendary documentary filmmaker—now a robust 86 and a fixture in the Lambertville, NJ, arts community—laughs that his Fundamentalist upbringing on Long Island hardly predicted his future stature as a cinematic trailblazer. In fact, Jersey never saw a film until he ran off to join the Navy. He was 17.
“The first film I saw was on the USS Arkansas, a battleship that I went on to the South Pacific,” recalled Jersey from his home office along the banks of the Delaware River. “I enlisted in the Navy to get away from home. It was my escape.”
The G.I. Bill helped bankroll his undergraduate studies in art. “Studying art in college was the only thing I could do that was acceptable to my parents,” he said. “I couldn’t go to the movies, dance, drink, smoke, swear or play cards.” After graduation, he put his paint box in mothballs and tested the waters at Good News Productions, a religious film company in Valley Forge, PA.
“I told them I didn’t know anything about film,” said Jersey. “They hired me anyway, and I learned how to be an art director. I also realized how little I knew.” So he headed West to graduate film school at the University of Southern California. Graduating in 1956, he dipped his toe in the B-movie drama pool as Art Director of The Blob, Manhunt in the Jungle and 4D Man. But he was primed for documentaries.
“There was something about wanting to connect to people in the real world and finding them much more interesting than working with actors with a script,” he said. “If you really care about people, they will know it, and they will open themselves up to you. And that’s what makes a good documentary.”
In 1960, Jersey launched Quest Productions and began attaching his own vision to a slate of industrial films for corporate giants Western Electric, Exxon and Johnson & Johnson. He won his first Emmy Award in 1963 for directing Manhattan Battleground for NBC-TV’s DuPont Show of the Week. Ever the maverick, Jersey never felt compelled to toe the company line.
“I don’t do ‘promotional’ films,” he emphasized. “I found you have to really try to understand the company better than they do. I try to give them what they need, even though frequently they would not describe their needs that way. The only way is by taking the big risk, the hero’s journey, to look at things honestly.”
Jersey got a chance to kick-start that journey when he filmed A Time for Burning in 1965. Commissioned by Lutheran Film Associates, the cinema vérité Civil Rights documentary records the failed mission of young Lutheran Pastor Bill Youngdahl to integrate a large, all white church in Omaha. A Time for Burning tracks the crises of conscience and faith that arose when the minister encouraged his white congregation to engage with black congregants from a neighboring Lutheran church. Despite his gentle, faith-based approach, Pastor Youngdahl’s impact on Omaha’s Lutheran community proved to be, as Jersey predicted, incendiary.
“The Lutherans wanted a film about the church and race,” he recalled. “So I found a minister who had an integrated church in New Jersey and was being called to a big all-white church in Omaha. I knew he’d want to integrate it, and that there could be some tension. I met with the minister, who said, ‘You can do a film here, there’s no problem.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s what you think.’
“Look,” added Jersey, “the church didn’t need a film about a minister getting kicked out of his church. They needed a film about how wonderful the church was, and how Jesus was going to be loving to everybody.”
Unencumbered by a script, narrator, captions, timelines or media stars and filmed with a minimal crew, A Time for Burning became a benchmark Civil Rights documentary that subsequently received critical acclaim, an airing on most PBS stations nationwide, and an Oscar nomination. It thrust Jersey to the forefront of the cinema vérité movement where he has remained for almost 50 years, producing and directing independent documentaries on such hot button issues as racism, criminal justice, gang violence, AIDS, Communism and integration.
“For me, cinema vérité means letting the truth drive the story,” explained Jersey. “I don’t set out to prove anything—as many documentarians do. The difference between me and others is that I believe in being a participant observer. I explore options with my participants in the belief that our encounters will open them up to seeing more of themselves—not to see themselves as I see them. It’s a tricky business; but in my view, it’s an essential part of being a documentarian.”
A Time for Burning continues to be a staple in film schools where Jersey is a sought after guest lecturer. In 2004, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the prestigious National Film Registry.
Despite his résumé of more than 100 films, Bill Jersey—with typical self-effacement—claims to have lost count of the awards and honors he’s received. In the mix are names like Emmy, Oscar, Peabody, DuPont Columbia, Christopher, Gabriel, Cindy and Cine Golden Eagle. He continues in the winners’ circle, most recently garnering a Peabody Award for Eames: The Architect and the Painter. The documentary profile of visionaries Charles and Ray Eames had a healthy theatrical release in late 2011 prior to debuting on PBS as part of the American Masters series in 2012.—Judith Trojan
Note: For those of you who can’t make it to Brooklyn on Wednesday night for your 35mm fix, you can find A Time for Burning and Eames: The Architect and the Painter on DVD, Netflix et al and online (Burning).