This year’s Festival date and venue have changed: Document Film Festival will now take place from Friday 30 November to Sunday 2 December at the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow’s Merchant City.
We previously announced that the Festival would take place at the CCA in October as usual – however ongoing uncertainty about the venue’s reopening following the lengthy enforced closure caused by the Glasgow School of Art fire in June has made it impossible to proceed with that plan.
We’re delighted to have the support of the Scottish Youth Theatre, who will open their doors to us for a full weekend and allow the majority of our programme to go ahead as planned. It’s an open, friendly and inclusive arts venue in the city centre with impressive and adaptable facilities that will enable the festival to retain its scope and atmosphere. We’re also thankful to our friends at CCA for their support in the past few challenging months and look forward to working with them again in future, and to Creative Scotland and Screen Scotland for their patience and support as we sought a viable solution..
For our 16th edition, we’re hosting three days of film screenings, discussions, lectures and events on human rights issues from around the globe, and on documentary filmmaking as an artform and social practice. As well as striking contemporary features, this year’s festival has a particular focus on archives and archive film, including a strand dedicated to Palestinian identity and the radical women who pioneered New Arab Cinema, the politics and poetics of landscape on film, and a screening and masterclass with renowned artist filmmaker Louis Henderson.
The full programme will be announced in early November. We can’t wait for you to join us and help warm our new home for Document 2018.
The 16th edition of Document Human Rights Film Festival is taking place from 30th November – 2nd December and we’re looking for a team of enthusiastic volunteers.
If you have a passion for documentary film, human rights, and are keen to get hands-on experience in a small, friendly festival environment, get in touch with your CV and tell us a little bit about yourself and why you want to get involved.
Volunteers play a key role at Document, as you’re often the first point of contact for guests and audiences, so we’re looking for reliable, committed and friendly team members. You’ll have the chance to work in Front of House, Hospitality and Tech roles. Please indicate in your email if you have any particular interest in or skills relevant to either of these areas.
You need to be available to work at least 2 shifts over the festival dates. Shifts will be no longer than 6 hours, with regular breaks.
As a volunteer, you will be able to attend all festival events for free (subject to ticket availability). Document will provide snacks and a contribution towards travel expenses.
Document is Scotland’s only dedicated human rights film festival, developing inclusive programmes that are both critically engaging and aesthetically striking. Through screenings, discussions, workshops and performances we look to contribute to a wider awareness and understanding of human rights, to promote equality and to advocate for a nuanced, intersectional analysis of both local and global struggles.
It’s only been a week since Document 2017. Thanks to everyone who makes the festival what it is – all our amazing guests, our wonderful collaborators, our incredible volunteers and, of course, the audience.
A particular thanks to everyone who filled in a feedback form over the festival weekend – we value your feedback very much. If you missed your chance then, we’d still love to know what you thought, good or bad, to help us improve the festival. We’ve set up an online survey that will only take a few minutes to complete. It can be found here.
We have more photographs and discussion of the festival to come, so watch this space. Otherwise, the conversation will continue towards our 2018 festival – starting this week, with our screening of Stranger In Paradise at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, with director Guido Hendrikx in attendance. More details of that here.
Zaynê Akyol’s Gulîstan, Land of Roses is the opening gala film for Document 2017. Akyol’s documentary focuses on the young women of the armed wing of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is also an active guerrilla movement. From their camp hidden away in the mountains, the women lead a nomadic life, undergoing ideological and practical training before being sent out to the front lines. Even as fighting against ISIS intensifies in the Middle East, these women bravely continue their battle against barbarism. Offering a window into this largely unknown world, Gulîstan, Land of Roses exposes the hidden face of this highly mediatized war: the female, feminist face.
Zaynê Akyol gave us this exclusive interview ahead of the Document screening.
There’s often an assumption amongst Western commentators that women in the Middle East are forced into subordinate positions, one that this film triumphantly challenges. Was that your original intention?
I was born in Turkey, but my family is Kurdish, and in the village where I was born, the Kurdish guerrillas used to come pay us visits in the 1980s and 1990s. So the PKK fighters were part of my environment from a very early age. Then, when I immigrated to Canada, I met Gulîstan. She was 15 years older than I, but her story was similar. We were from the same small village in Turkey. Both of us were Kurdish and had the same religion: the Alevi branch of Shi’a Islam. I considered Gulîstan my big sister—she was my role model. Then one day, Gulîstan disappeared from my life and went to enlist in the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla forces. At the time, I really didn’t grasp all the implications of what she was doing, but as time went on, I began to understand the seriousness of it all. In 2000, I learned that she had died. After that, once I had completed my film studies at university, it was natural and necessary for me to make a film about her experience. Or at least to retrace her path through her family, through other women who had fought with the PKK, female guerrillas and her friends from that time. But in 2014, when we went to the autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq to shoot this film, our trip coincided with the first strikes by Daesh (ISIS) in the region. So I witnessed the genesis of the conflict. From that point on, the subject of my film was supposed to be these female guerrillas of the PKK, but I think that the film, in its current form, necessarily reveals a side of Gulîstan as well.
It is also a way for me to showcase women who are the hope of millions of people and to humanise those faces that we see and hear about only fleetingly in the media. I wanted to live with them so that I could really understand their lives as combatants in times of war, in the mountains (where their headquarters is) and in the war zones.
Indeed, this guerrilla group proposes to found a society capable of self-governing, advocating a decentralisation of the power of the State. Very critical of existing systems of governance such as capitalism, it proposes to establish a structure in which the people participate directly in decision-making, with fair representation of minorities and gender parity. A society based on religious pluralism, multiculturalism and respect for the environment, in stark contrast to the jihadists. This new community approach is indeed one of the most progressive in this part of the world, where the two factions—the Muslim fundamentalists and the feminist leftists—are fighting.
You gain a remarkable degree of intimacy with the subjects – how easy was it to gain their trust?
I built up trust with the PKK over several years. After having written the first version of my script in 2010, I went to Europe to meet people who had ties to the Kurdish guerrillas. A year later, I decided to go to the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq to meet with the women fighters and do a demo for my grant applications. That time I was able to stay for only a week, because Iran was attacking the PKK’s positions, which made my work dangerous. But I did meet Sozdar, one of the protagonists in my film, and she and I formed a very tight bond. In 2014, I found her and we saw each other again at a temporary camp in Xakurkê, in the northern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, where she and other female guerrillas were preparing to go fight in Sinjar. I didn’t know any of the other women fighters, but they were very cooperative right away. I never sensed any reluctance—quite the contrary! I think it was also because I am a Kurdish woman and was already very familiar with the PKK and their ideology.
This is also due to the fact that in my directing method, I advocate a personal and immersive approach. I immerse myself entirely in the world of my subjects and I always try to blend into their environment.
In order to realise this documentary, I focused on a small group of individuals, paying particular attention to their imagination and personality, that is to say that my protagonists will have the opportunity to suggest when and how they want to be “pictured”. Having used this method, I realised that their suggestions are often surprising and very revealing. This method of joint creation also makes them more open to my propositions and this further solidifies our bonds of trust. Consequently, they are also fully involved in the creative process of the film, and it enriches the film with certain veracity. This way of proceeding allows me to have an honest approach and allows the fighters to reveal themselves, without a filter or intermediary.
There’s a scene where a woman asserts that a married woman lives a life of slavery, and that she feels freer. Do you think that these women, while their lives are subject to military discipline, are in fact freer?
I don’t know about freer, because that’s a pretty hard question to answer. But I can say that these women fighters feel freer in their actions, because they don’t have to live under the kind of patriarchy that is so omnipresent in the Middle East, influenced by culture and religion. I think that the concept of freedom is more of a philosophical issue, because everyone has their own description.
That’s why I would rather tell you what one of these fighters told me. She said, “In these times, feeling free is almost always an illusion. How can I say that I am free when right beside me, people are being killed, women are being assaulted, and children are being subjected to violence? Real freedom is living in a world where we do everything we can so that these things don’t happen. Otherwise, I’m not free, I’m just someone who is afraid and submissive, who closes her eyes to other people’s suffering. A person who deliberately decides not to see anything or do anything. And none of that has anything to do with freedom.”
There’s been much discourse around men and their fetishisation of guns, yet there’s a lovely scene in the film where the women talk about how much they love their weapons. Any thoughts on that?
Personally, I don’t like weapons—quite the contrary. But I’m in no position to preach to them while I’m living comfortably in Canada. These women fighters live in a region that’s in a constant state of war, and if it weren’t for their weapons, they couldn’t defend themselves against the Turkish army, the Iranian army, or even the Syrian army, much less Daesh (ISIS). Their weapons are what protects their lives. Obviously, in our country where things are pretty secure, I don’t think that weapons are necessary.
One voiceover proclaims, “Where does freedom begin? It begins with the woman… She’s the fundamental source of morality”, before attacking capitalism and its subjugation of the individual. How far would you agree with these statements?
I am not a politician and neither a preacher for any ideology. I am a filmmaker trying to understand a particular situation and to be a subjective observer.
Before viewing the film, the viewer might expect something quite grim, yet the film contains quite lyrical passages where the women are enjoying their comradeship and relative freedoms. Did you expect this on making the film?
I think that this kind of comradeship exists in many communities, whether they are armies or any other kinds of groups. You have to understand that all of these women have given up their former lives to go live as soldiers, and they find and recreate a new family within this circle.
Did your views on the PKK’s aims and actions change through filming them?
There are several reasons why I wanted to make this film. First, I wanted to bring the violence and oppression to light that the Kurdish people have been enduring, to make people aware of this little-known reality, to get them interested in learning more about the situation in Kurdistan. The war against Daesh (Islamic State) is new for the PKK. The PKK exist since 1978 and that its members took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. It was created because the Kurdish people have been living with the denial of their existence for over a century, in addition to being subjected to abuses in the four countries where they live (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria). We must not forget these people once they have gotten rid of Daesh for us. We must also listen to their claims, which are completely legitimate: to be independent within the countries where they live (for the ones who lives in Turkey, Iran and Syria) and the recognition of Kurdistan as a country (for those in Iraq).
I also wanted to show a different side of women in the Middle East. Not the aspect that is often shown, especially in times of war, as the victim: women crying for their children or their husbands, women who are suffering. Instead, I wanted to show strong women: those who don’t give up without a fight, who are no longer victims of the actions of men—most of the time, it is the men who have started the war—those who stand up for their rights and take up arms when necessary. This may seem like a shocking portrait, because we are used to the image of submissive, caring women. In any case, I think that the fighters in the film break many stereotypes, not only about women in general, but also and especially about women in the Middle East.
Making this film changed me and made me think about things on several levels. At first, for me it was about maintaining ties to my Kurdish roots and reflecting on the state of the world at a time when fighting is increasing in the Middle East and the conflicts are becoming more international. Then, as I met these female guerrillas, I had to face myself and my own beliefs. Through contact with these fighters, I became increasingly aware of the grievances and condition of women in the world.
Andrea Luka Zimmerman is a German-born, London-based artist, filmmaker and activist who has become known for her essay films on gentrification, Taskafa, Stories of the Street and Estate, A Reverie. At first glance her new film, Erase and Forget, seems to inhabit a different universe, that of James ‘Bo’ Gritz, the Vietnam vet and alt-right hero who is best known as being the model for Rambo.
However, Zimmerman has been working on this film for more than a decade, and what links all her films is a concern with the deeper structures that create these characters and situations, such as in Taskafa, where a film ostensibly about street dogs in Istanbul becomes a eloquent exploration of the effects of gentrification and social class.
Zimmerman certainly sees a consistency in her work. “With Estate, a Reverie gentrification became the context, but it was on a deeper level about the structures that determine how we are able to live within them (or not), and everyday refusals to accept a prescribed way of being. In this way it is an inquiry into how people negotiate and navigate power. Power is quite slippery and in disguise until one is affected by it, in the case of Estate the prolonged making invisible of a community in the public eye (the rhetoric of sink estates, benefit fraudsters, deprived communities, all these ideas lead to a sense of the abject that can then be ‘fixed’ by either demolition or large-scale displacement like on the Haygate estate), with eventual demolition of the estate. With Erase and Forget I am exploring again questions of power and structural violence, this time through the relationship between covert and secret military operations and Hollywood cinema based on or inspired by them, or even shaping them. So, public and private memory are at the centre of both films, who gets to remember, whose memories are visible, whose voices are heard and why (not).”
Certainly, Bo is a fascinating, complex, but deeply ambiguous character, but Erase and Forget is no mere character study. The Vietnam War was perhaps the biggest trauma to undermine the American national psyche in the twentieth century, as soldiers in the field and protestors at home came to lose faith in their government, and question both its and the media’s motives, effects which are still at play in American society today. Zimmerman explains, “I met him during research into US involvement in Indonesia during the 1960s. I found him at a time in his life where he seemed wanting to go on a journey to find out what he was part of. Initially I didn’t think of making a long film with him, and focused on research for a different film that would show many more people in it, but the more material I found that concerned parts of his history, such as Tudor Gates’ and Patrick King’s rushes to a (never completed) documentary about Khun Sa and the CIA, the Afghan training film, the hundreds of television clips, his presidential campaign, etc, I realised that through this one person I could explore the way in which we in the West, over the last 50 years, went on a journey that we today call post-truth.”
The visual texture of the film is a disorientating montage of verite, archive and Hollywood footage, combined with Bo enacting out aspects of his history, perfectly encapsulating the vertiginous slippage between fact, fantasy and mediated reality that Bo’s life has become. After all, not only was Rambo based on him, but Clint Eastwood and William Shatner financed the mission, where he may or may not have found American prisoners still held in Vietnam.
At first, the viewer believes Bo; as one commentator notes, his experience gives him authority in the field. But as the film progresses, the viewer’s incredulity becomes strained – did he really also inspire the A-Team’s ‘Hannibal’ Smith, and Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz, a film Bo predictably, can’t stand?
Zimmerman concedes that “Bo is an unreliable narrator. When you look at covert operations, those that succeeded we usually never know about, so we can only study their effects. I think the spaces in between official and private memory are where we might find truth. The gestures, the inflections of the voice, the words masking what’s unsaid behind them, and the action movie genre that even the news adopt at certain times speaking about war. Hollywood told its story, and people heard it and felt it. For instance, First Blood is a work of art, it is also very much an anti-war movie. Then the character became another kind of Uberhuman killing machine for the sequel (then the highest on-screen kills at that time). This I think this is another kind of fact, the making of myth, and cinema has a key part in that, which is of course used by governments all over the world, and why there is also direct support to works that are deemed favourable of certain positions. The betrayal of that myth is what is almost impossible to bear. Hollywood has always been part of the making of a truth (ideology), since Pancho Villa, Birth of a Nation etc, it is persuasive and powerful. The news tells us one story, Hollywood another, and Bo is the interlocutor, and in no way more stable. Then there is the devastating archive where he trains Afghan mujahedeen or films drug running with Khun Sa. So instead of finding out ‘what really happened’ we collated these different strands together into one montage to allow the viewer to see the way in which they all have different agendas and tear at each other, and that truth is ultimately something we need to ask for daily and rigorously, and not expecting to be told by one ‘stable’ narrator.”
While Bo enjoys the limelight, playing up to both public attention and Zimmerman’s camera, there’s a dark side to him, and a sense that his covert actions for the government have completely undermined his faith in the American state. His activities here have made him a beacon for the alt-right, as Zimmerman explains. “All of us are part of a system that makes enormous profits out of structural and political violence. Bo is really a witness to the excesses of the military-industrial complex. Given the enormous rise in alt-right activity in the US and elsewhere, it is crucial to understand where such ideologies come from, and how they express themselves over time, both among citizens, and within government and state structures.”
This puts him at odds with his devotion to the military life, where he tried to live up to his father’s memory, and the myth of machismo he attempts to emulate, trotting himself out at gun rallies, and encouraging young recruits to follow a military life. One kills himself the next day; Bo himself eloquently describes his own suicide attempt as, “You shoot yourself in the head, but that’s not where the pain is. The pain is in the heart”.
As Zimmerman notes, this is prefigured in the very first Rambo film. “In the original ending of First Blood, Rambo shoots himself in the heart (which is in my film). That ending was rejected by test audiences and instead Rambo lived on to become the segue to Rambo II, the most violent movie to date then. Sebastian Junger in Tribe writes about how in the US the suicide rate mirrors that of the unemployment rate. The suicide rate among veterans is roughly 22 a day. It is addressed through medicalisation and pathologising, not as a national crisis, which it is.”
While Zimmerman may have begun making the film over a decade ago, it has, if anything, become even more relevant over that time, with the rise of the alt-right, the increasing belief in conspiracy theories, the prevalence of fake news and the spiralling levels of gun violence which continually dominate American news. “Gun culture is a myth that is tightly guarded and protected. And myth is more powerful than reason, so we need to look at the big picture of structural violence, and to have a genuine dialogue around power and privilege. The statistics on mass shootings are shocking, and gun control needs a broader dialogue on why people feel the need to have them. I worked in one of the poorest places in the US to make this film and witnessed a suicide by gun, and it took a couple of hours for the police to arrive. Why are people so against their government – many of these people served in the US army, and many are very poor. Why do we think killing is acceptable at all?
“In this sense I genuinely believe that Erase and Forget provides a useful, personal, and socially relevant framework for understanding the complexity of these issues. Because it focuses on one public figure, someone who embodies all the contradictions of post-war American society, audiences can follow the choices such a character makes, and the ‘lines in the sand’ that each of us is required to draw, beyond which we won’t go, beyond which morality and ethics start to break down.”
Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Erase and Forget producer Ameenah Ayub Allen will join Director of LUX Scotland NicoleYip after the screening for a Q&A and for a SUPERLUX Masterclass on Sunday 22/10 at 12pm.
There are five films in the international jury competition this year at Document. They are Gulîstan, Land of Roses, Normal Autistic Film, Rat Film, Erase and Forget and 69 Minutes of 86 Days. For Document 2017, we are delighted, not to mention honoured to welcome Laura Ager, Frances Higson, Hannah McHaffie, Mona Rai and Dr Kiki Tianqi Yu to sit on our international jury. The jurors will deliberate together before announcing the winner at our closing gala at CCA, Glasgow on Sunday 22nd October. Here’s a little more about each of them…
Laura is an independent researcher and culture worker. As a freelance event organiser and film programmer she organises pop-up screenings in Leeds under the name Film Fringe, she is regional co-ordinator for the Scalarama film festival and programmes documentaries for the Leeds International Film Festival and the Hyde Park Picture House. She recently completed her PhD in festivals presented by UK universities and now teaches cultural theory at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include film, history, cultural studies, knowledge exchange, the politics of the cultural economy and non-hierarchical models of organising.
Frances is currently Project Manager for the FANS Youth Film Festival and Programme Co-ordinator for the Radical Film Network 68 Festival. In previous years Frances has worked extensively as a film maker; she produced the multi-award winning feature films The Magdalene Sisters and Orphans, she has also made several award winning short films and documentaries. A founding member of Camcorder Guerrillas, a film & video collective that produces short documentary toolkits for campaign groups and organisations working with human rights. She also works in film education mentoring young film making talent and teaches Social Screen, a module she designed and developed at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Before Hannah joined the Doc/Fest team full time in 2015, she was programming a community film club in Lancashire for a local arts organisation and attended a variety of film film festival. She is a freelance writer for EventBrite UK and runs her own film site, ReelInsights. After two years as Administrative & Executive Assistant with Sheffield Doc/Fest, she has recently been promoted to Programme Coordinator, working across both the Film and Alternate Realities programmes.
Mona Rai co-founded Document, Scotland’s first human rights film festival, with Paula Larkin in 2003, and coordinated the festival until 2012. Beginning with the intent to counter the aggressive anti-immigrant and Roma narratives in the national press at the time, in the ensuing years Mona oversaw ten successive iterations of the festival and countless screenings, events, panels and collaborations, establishing and growing Document’s international reputation before transitioning to sit on Document’s board as a key guiding force.
Dr Kiki Tianqi YU
Dr Kiki Tianqi YU is a filmmaker, scholar, and film curator. Originally from China, Kiki studied Film and Sociology at the University of Westminster and the University of Cambridge. Having worked in China, she is currently Lecturer in Filmmaking at the University of the West of Scotland. She is the author of ‘My’ Self On Camera: First Person Documentary Practice in an individualising China (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), and the co-editor of China’s iGeneration: Cinema and Moving Image Culture for the 21st Century (2014). Her films include Photographing Shenzhen (2007), Memory of Home (2009), feature documentary China’s van Goghs (IDFA, 2016) – won four international awards, screened at over 15 film festivals. She’s currently producing a 15 years long term production documentary on transgender in China. She curated ‘Memory Talks – series of personal nonfiction films’ in Shanghai 2017.
The international jury prize will be announced at Document 2017’s closing gala, ahead of the screening of 69 Minutes of 86 Days, Sunday 22nd October at 8pm. More details here.
Eldorado XXI is a critical media practice parafiction attempt. Aesthetically similar to the majority of contemporary contemplative cinema the mise‐en-scène is valued allowing the action to unfold in its own rhythm. Drifting organically into non-diegetic orchestrated sequences, the film also lingers on a direct ethnographic cinema fashion approach combining, visual sequences accompanied by off sounds.
The raised question is how can an individual carry his entire family to hell seeking a desired fortune/wishing to break free from poverty? A random lottery promises the awakening of ones oblivion of oneself. An illusion that leads men to self destruction, moved by the same interests, dealt with the same tools and means in contemporaneity as it has been dealt in the ancient times.
The objective and the subjective were displaced, not transformed; the story remained truthful, really truthful instead of fictionally truthful. But the veracity of the story had not stopped being a fiction. The break is not between fiction and reality, but in the new mode of storytelling, which affects both of them. What is opposed to fiction is not the real; it is not the truth; it is the story‐telling function of the poor, in so far as it gives the false the power that makes it into a memory – a legend.
Let us go back to the words of Glenn Gould: “No Man’s Land is the natural land of the imagination.” It is in this non-place where we assemble ourselves to resist to the silence of the universe, in order not to succumb to the pure panic and the threat of dissolution. The silence of the abysses that is strange to us, but to which we do belong, in a piece of us abandoned to the pure possibilities, to the (un)submissive obsessions of any kind, to fear’s inertia, that we are falsely protected by the conventions.
Weekend and day passes for Document 2017 are now on sale! Festival passes can be exchanged for tickets to any screening or event, subject to availability. NB All tickets are free to refugees, asylum seekers, OAPs and those on income support.
The film started out as a cinematic experiment: I wanted to portray three members of an atelier community of artists with different disabilities in an open collaboration. I wanted to dissolve the common power structures between the documentarist and the portrayed subject and chose to assist the artists in presenting themselves and their work in their own words, sounds and images. Without making a film about the socio-politics of participation through art, I wanted to make the film socio-politically, to dismiss conceptual coherence by indulging in the anarchic serenity of the artists, filming in an inclusive and empowering manner, rendering homage without advertising, so that the protagonists wouldn’t be subjected to preconceived aesthetics.
The project originally emerged from my interest in anti-psychiatry and progressive notions of dis/ability, like in the experimental psychiatric clinic La Borde in France under the direction of Jean Oury where Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze developed some of their concepts like “schizoanalysis”, or in the project of the poet Fernand Deligny who lived and worked in a silent community with autistic children in the French mountains.
The atelier community of the three protagonists Horst, Bernhard and Michael is singular in its organization because neither social pedagogy nor art therapy is involved. There is no rigid methodology, just spontaneous manners of interaction. The artists work autonomously and are assisted by other artists upon their own request. Many advantages like compassion and solidarity are much better developed in their community than in the art world of the free market.
Although I knew of several great documentaries both on dis/ability and outsider art, I was missing a cinematographic reflection of the naturalised distinction between the observed, supposedly disabled Other and the observing, allegedly sane and sovereign filmmaker. If inclusion should succeed, supposedly abled people are required to develop an understanding of disability that is neither patronising nor spectacularising, but a different original access to reality. That’s why I tried to integrate different perspectives that would not rule each other out but co-exist in an open conversation. It’s also why we produced the film in a collaborative process, co-wrote and co-filmed together with the protagonists and allowed ourselves to repeatedly drop our preconceived ideas about beauty, film, art and love.
It’s true—some will say that I caused the death of Mayer Vishner. That by telling his story, I gave him permission to take his own life. Others—his doctors and his close friends—tell me that the filming kept him alive, giving him a reason to carry on. Sadly, I believe that both are correct…I extended Mayer’s life while ensuring his death.
I first met Mayer when I was shooting the documentary No Impact Man—the story of a family trying to live in New York City with no environmental impact. Mayer was the only member of the local community garden growing vegetables. In his words, the other gardeners were bourgeois flower growing narcissists. Mayer was a true Greenwich Village character, and to him, everything was political. A lifelong radical, he grew up resenting the 1950s post-war conformity he was born into and then switched his focus to the fight against the draft and the Vietnam War. Mayer wasn’t content to just march—he organised, strategised, and made his home in the activist community. One of the original Yippies, he was mentored by the legends—Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, and Dave Dellinger. But unlike many, Mayer never stopped protesting. He never stopped fighting with the world.
The mantra of Mayer’s youth was “never trust anyone over 30.” When I met him, he was pushing 60 and struggling with a world in which the revolution never came. I proposed a documentary profile and he opened his life to me. As our friendship solidified, it became clear that Mayer was engaged in serious battles with depression and alcohol. It was six months into filming when he confided to me that he was preparing for his “last political act”—his suicide. Suddenly, this was no longer a short documentary profile—it was life and death.
I had never before been faced with the tragedy of a potential suicide victim, and I was in no way equipped to handle it on my own. I went with Mayer to his physician and psychiatrist and witnessed as he tried to make the case for his own death to them. Knowing that he was in the care of professionals was essential to my continuing with the project. But I had become part of the story. We’d become close and I didn’t want him to die, but I also understood that he was in tremendous psychic pain. To force him to live in that pain also seemed cruel. The film he wanted me to make had a sad ending, yet the act of filming was keeping him alive. I was stuck.
I did some research and learned that, although Mayer suffered in his isolation, he was in no way a rare case. The suicide rate for men Mayer’s age has increased almost 50% in the past decade. His generation, the baby boomers, a generation that has had such an impact on the way they’d lived, were now choosing, more and more, to take this unconventional outlook to the way they approached death. As Mayer said: “My suicide is part of a lifelong quest for agency for the species and for myself. And as we grow older, more and more baby boomers will feel the way I do.”
It is my hope that Left on Purpose can serve as a point of departure for discussions of the issues at the heart of the film that are so often spoken about in hushed tones—if at all. How do we care for a loved one who doesn’t want to live? What does it mean to help someone in pain? There are no easy answers, but it is important to ask the questions.
Suicide is a tragedy that is never simple and straightforward. For Mayer, I believe there were a number of factors that came together to make ending his life a viable option. Perhaps the most operative factor was his lifelong depression. As a young man he persevered through the difficult times, aided by a close working relationship with his psychiatrist and the support of the community he found in the anti-war movement. By the mid 1970s, the war ended and Mayer’s therapist died in a car accident, leaving him without the support system on which he had so depended. Unmoored, Mayer began to rely more on self-medicating through drugs and alcohol; providing temporary “anesthesia,” but leading to a cycle of depression and dependence that lasted until his death.
Psychologists have long regarded suicide as being contagious — that is, it is a behaviour that is prone to being copied or imitated. Quite a few people in Mayer’s life made the tragic decision to end their own lives. In the late 1970s Mayer’s friend and legendary troubadour of the anti-war movement, Phil Ochs, succumbed to his mental illness and alcohol addition. More impactful in Mayer’s trajectory perhaps was the well-known photo taken in 1971 of young Mayer sitting between Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman and High Times Magazine founder Tom Forcade. Mayer referred to that photo as “two suicides and a procrastinator,” as both Forcade and Mayer’s close friend and mentor Hoffman took their lives. Hoffman’s first wife, as well as his daughter—both of whom Mayer knew well, also killed themselves. I believe that the suicide of these people he was so close to made his decision a real possibility.
Similarly, I believe that Mayer’s politics, while not the cause of his decision to end his life, were clearly a contributing factor. As stated in Left on Purpose, Mayer looked at everything from a political perspective. Mayer defined himself through his freethinking and his rebelliousness. (There was a time when the Hippies in San Francisco tried to “rebrand” themselves as “freemen.”) The fact that suicide is a taboo of church and state no doubt made it more than a personal act for Mayer and turned it into a statement.
Lastly, Mayer also felt an increasing sense of isolation in this age of ever advancing technology. Thought he did still have friends who cared about him deeply, he felt unequipped to be part of the changing social justice movement that had previously so defined his life but that now relied on digital communication. Mayer prided himself on being an organiser. Greenwich Village was just that—a community of people who met in the park, at the bars, clubs and churches. As the age of email and Twitter advanced, Mayer felt more and more disconnected.