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Hidden in Plain Sight: Media Workers for Social Change, Chapter 11
Maureen Gosling is a documentary filmmaker who worked for many years with Les Blank of Flower Films. On her own she made an award-winning film that deals with a community in the Mexican Isthmus were women play a special role. Among other projects, she is now working on a film about fabric that is hand-dyed by women in Mali and becoming a cultural phenomenon. She edits other people’s films, working out of her office in Berkeley’s Fantasy Records Building, where she is seen in the photo below.
Documentary filmmaker Maureen Gosling was interviewed some years ago for a DVD, packaged with a book designed for teenage girls, called You Can Be a Woman Movie Maker. “The media is very powerful,” Gosling said on camera, “and people are finding it easier to make their own stories now, which I think is great. Because a lot of times as a girl, as a young woman growing up, you wonder if your story is interesting or if you have anything to say. It’s really important to be able to see your own face on television. Because we are affected by what we see on television, it has a big impact. It can make you feel good about yourself, or it can make you feel really bad about yourself. We see the same stories over and over again on television, in the movies. And there’s room for your story. The world needs your story.”
Gosling’s story is a piece of recent American film history. Unlike most of her generation who have made it in the industry, she did not go to film school. She learned sound recording and editing on the job, while working with Les Blank of Flower Films. Blank was her mentor in the most traditional sense: passing on his filmmaking knowledge and his understanding of the world he filmed. How she came to work with Blank is a story of inspiration and persistence.
When Gosling was a kid in the Midwest she loved art, and always said she wanted to be an artist. But as she got older, she became more practical, and considered journalism or social work. At the University of Michigan she ended up with a degree in social anthropology. Meanwhile she had taken an extracurricular interest in movies, especially foreign films.
One day while visiting a friend’s film class, she came upon an ad in a magazine for a visual anthropology conference coming up at Temple University in Philadelphia. It was an “aha!” moment, signaling to her that film and anthropology could come together. She went to the conference. “I felt like I learned more about people and culture in three or four days than I had in two years reading books,” she said. Les Blank was at the event, showing three films about American roots music. “I thought his films were wonderful, so beautiful, and I think they were the only films showing about the United States. All the other films in the festival were from New Guinea and Africa and exotic places.”
“I was a senior, about to graduate. I got my nerve up to talk to Les at a party for about ten minutes I just figured I had to do something, to take advantage of the situation of being at the conference. I didn’t know what that really meant.” She offered to send Blank the reviews of his films when they showed in Ann Arbor, where she was living and studying, at an upcoming festival. Soon they were corresponding. “I was so excited—here was this filmmaker writing me letters! He was 14 years older than me and really worldly and I thought it was so cool.”
Upon graduating, Gosling went to an American Anthropological Association meeting in New York where she hoped to see Blank again. At the meeting Blank actually came and sat by her for quite a while before they recognized each other, having only met before for a few minutes (Blank later joked to her that he was just trying to sit down next to a pretty girl). But they then spent the rest of the weekend together hanging out in New York. “We went to see John and Yoko, in person at the Museum of Modern Art, and we met Harry Smith, who was doing animation at the time, and there were these just wonderful moments—it was such an amazing weekend.”
“At one point during all of this I asked Les if he needed an assistant.” Later he contacted her from California with an affirmative response. Blank’s soundman had moved in with Blank’s ex-wife, and Blank no longer wanted to work with him. Blank had made a plan to go to Louisiana for Mardi Gras, and with Gosling doing sound and encouraging him, he could still pull it off.
When she flew to Hollywood to join him, she said, “Basically, it felt like jumping off a cliff. I went from this totally comfortable life in Ann Arbor where I’d just graduated and I had all these friends, and I was feeling good—into this unknown. Suddenly I was hanging around this guy who was depressed, he wouldn’t talk to me, we were driving off to Louisiana, and I didn’t know anything about how to record sound. I assumed when he said ‘assistant’ he meant he would just show me what to do, and I would help him. Well, that wasn’t the way it was. Suddenly I was a sound recordist. I had to learn how to use a Nagra tape recorder, a totally professional instrument that weighed about 15-20 pounds. It wasn’t that complicated, but because I didn’t even know how to operate a cassette recorder, this was just daunting. What a big responsibility. Plus you had to carry the microphone, and point it in the right direction, and make sure it didn’t overmodulate.” A friend of Blank’s showed Gosling how to work the tape recorder and she was able to go to work. Although she didn’t relish the technical aspect of the work, she realized she was on a new, exciting path and couldn’t turn back to her old life.
The resulting film, Dry Wood and Hot Pepper, was the first of 22 films Gosling would work on with Blank over the next 20 years. The films were favorites in the Bay Area (one of them, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, was sometimes shown in “AromaRound,” which involved cooking garlic in the theater while the movie played). They had enough commercial success to make film after film, largely because Blank did the distribution himself. He had particular success marketing his films to European television.
I asked Gosling why Blank films the subjects he films, mostly the unsung heroes and just plain folks of regional and ethnic music, from French Cajun to Tex-Mex to Polka to rural Blues. Was their music something he felt everyone, not just a small number of people, should be listening to? Did he want them to cross over to the mainstream? Was there some over-arching intellectual viewpoint or goal to his work? She said no, that he just “makes films about anything that inspires him.”
I first made Gosling’s acquaintance in the early 1980s, when I was a clerk at Down Home Music in El Cerrito, California, and my computer was stationed near her 16mm editing machine. She was editing Blank’s films (to this day editing is her main film work, her day job). I was fortunate and got invited to watch some of the rushes of a documentary about the idiosyncratic German filmmaker Werner Herzog making the film Fitzcarraldo, which took place deep in the Amazon jungle. Everyone lay around on pillows in Blank’s office and watched. There was a lot of footage of jungle plants and creatures, of the camp where the crew lived, and of the star of Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski, doing crazy stuff. From what we were watching was to come Burden of Dreams, Blank and Gosling’s most successful film. It would play the Cannes Film Festival, receive a British Academy Award for Best Documentary, and garner Gosling a nomination for an American Cinema Editors Award. The film is out in a Criterion Edition DVD, and in July of this year, the Museum of Modern Art screened it as part of a two-week retrospective of her and Blank’s work.
Herzog and Blank, first introduced at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, had long admired each other’s work. In a short film that worked as a screen test for Burden of Dreams, called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Herzog said to the camera: “Our civilization doesn’t have adequate images, and I think a civilization is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it does not develop an adequate language or adequate images. I see it as a very dramatic situation.” It seemed like Herzog found the images in Blank’s work more than adequate, and he told the right producer that Blank was the only one for the job of documenting the making of his jungle movie.
The area in Peru where they shot was so remote, supplies had to come in by small plane. It was territory where many native peoples still today live in relative isolation from the rest of Peruvian society. The role of native peoples in the making of Fitzcarraldo was a morally complicated aspect of the project. Gosling lived it and observed it. Herzog possesses an eccentric mind, but not one free of Eurocentric thinking. He was at best ambivalent about the Amazon environment. He would at times rail against it. He said he loved it, but “against my better judgment. “
Herzog offered wages to the native extras at a rate that was several times what they would make at their usual jobs, although it was a small amount compared to the wage scale of Herzog’s cast and crew. Most of the native people working on set had never seen a film, much less acted in one. He chose at first to work in a part of the Peruvian Amazon where, unbeknownst to him—not having done his research—the native people, the Aguaruna, were prepared to be confrontational with outsiders who wanted their land, resources, or labor. Gosling and Blank were scared at one point when they had to wait hours with their equipment in a boat while the Indians confronted Herzog in a locked meetinghouse. Herzog emerged unhurt from the encounter, but he eventually backed out of working in the area. The film camp he had constructed was burned to the ground by the natives he had asked to work for him. His blunder was reported in the European and Peruvian press, which relished the story, spicing it up with rumor and exaggeration that in turn worsened the debacle.
Possessing a strong reputation, good financial backing and an indomitable stubbornness, Herzog managed to start over again at another Peruvian film location where the local indigenous tribes, this time the Machiguengas and the Campas, were more amenable to his project. This time he asked them what they most wanted from him, and found out it was help to gain the legal title to their land. Herzog hired lawyers in Lima who were able to assist them. (Gosling noted that later in the 1980s, some of the Campas, back home in their village deep in the rainforest, were pressured into joining the Shining Path guerilla movement. Some of them resisted and were killed, and the Shining Path twice burned down the Catholic church next to their village).
Shooting Fitzcarraldo involved the use of two massive steamships. In the story, Fitzcarraldo, a European rubber planter, wants to make a fortune and bring opera to the jungle. To do so, however, he needs to bring a steamship above some impassable rapids in order to exploit an unclaimed area of the jungle, and to accomplish that he drags the ship over a small mountain from another nearby river, using ropes, pulleys, and the labor of hundreds of Indians. Eventually, while Fitzcarraldo is asleep, the Indians cut the ship loose on the river, ostensibly to pacify the water gods. So it goes down the rapids after all, and is all but destroyed.
Herzog wanted to shoot the steamship being wrecked, to the chagrin of Blank and Gosling. “Some people seek [danger] out,” Gosling said, “but Les was never like that, nor I, really. We made films about musicians and people having fun in their backyards. Sometimes they were not easy situations and sometimes they were gritty, but not like going on a ship down rapids in a river crashing into the rocks.”
Just getting back to the film camp from the tumult of the rapids, already somewhat traumatized, Gosling and the crew learned that a Machiguenga couple had been attacked with arrows (in real life), (the husband with an arrow through his throat), and were being treated by the film camp’s doctor. The river was low, and the man and his wife had gone further upstream to find turtle eggs, trespassing into Amihuaca territory. They were attacked in the night. Gosling was upset. “Many of us had visions of that tribe coming down and attacking the camp. It felt so unreal, like a cowboy movie or something. I couldn’t tell, my own self, what was real, what was my imagination, what was I projecting versus what was really possible … would there be people that would actually come down and attack us? Everybody was freaking out.”
Shortly, some of the natives went upriver with guns to investigate what was going on. They came back five days later, and the conflict had been ended. The camp doctor took care of the two that were hurt, meanwhile, and they soon recovered.
While in the jungle camp, Gosling began to realize that one of the ways to show the “clash of cultures” in the editing of her and Blank’s film was through the choice of music. Herzog listened to classical music; Fitzcarraldo to Caruso; the Peruvians to Huayno music. Thus she recorded with editing in mind. She was happy to tape the music of the native peoples who worked on Fitzcarraldo, knowing it would broaden the representation of who they are. She also recorded the birds and insects of the jungle, which she found to be a veritable symphony.
Tractors did the actual dragging of the ship over the mountain, while native extras appeared to be doing it by ropes and pulleys. When the time came to make the shot, the Brazilian engineer in charge of the project, alarmed, claimed that up to thirty of the extras could be killed if the apparatus broke down, and he quit in protest. A new engineer put safety measures into place, and the shot was in the end done without injury. Gosling and Blank had left by that point, because of numerous delays, feeling they had enough material to make their movie. In the end, they used Herzog’s footage of the dragging to complete their film.
Gosling was acutely aware of a tension created by the fact the film crew was nearly all men. The native people would have been more comfortable if there had been women with the men, Gosling said. “I had a conversation with one of the native guys, who said that usually when a bunch of men come in, it means trouble. It means they’re from oil companies, or they’re settlers, so there’s this automatic defensive stance the native people [take]. If the girlfriend is there or the wife is there, then the women start to talk and get to know each other, so it sort of creates a more familial feeling.” Trying to avoid the inherent risks involved in Peruvian and European film workers pursuing native women, Herzog allowed two female sex workers into the camp. Blank interviewed the prostitutes about their work, footage that went into Burden of Dreams.
Gosling said she always wanted to go back to the Amazon and show the film to those who had participated, in order to learn their understanding of what had happened on the project. Herzog did go back and do that fairly recently, although Gosling had only just heard about it from Blank and didn’t have details.
Gosling made many more films with Blank, but her first major film on her own, released in 2000, was Blossoms of Fire, a cultural profile of the community of Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico, which is conventionally known as one of the world’s few matriarchal societies. Gosling produced, directed and edited the film. Ellen Osborne, a one-time partner who later quit the project, which Gosling finished alone, generated the idea for it. Gosling went to visit Juchitán, for the first time, with Osborne, in 1992. Osborne had photographs she had taken there earlier, which they shared with people there to break the ice and get feedback. They also brought a small consumer video camera to do a little light filming; again, mostly for the purpose of getting to know the people better, although this also resulted in a short film they called A Skirt Full of Butterflies. They were looking for interview subjects—a teacher, a midwife, a market woman—and they found that each woman they met led to further contacts which led them closer to the people they needed for the film. They met a highly capable young local woman there named Susana Vásquez Sánchez who became their field producer, fixer, and translator of Zapotec, the Indian language spoken in Juchitán.
Gosling approached the making of Blossoms of Fire with a great sense of propriety, in contrast to Herzog’s operation in the Amazon, which for Gosling must have been a school of hard knocks. When it came time to bring down a full film crew to Juchitán, she had already made solid connections with local people who felt with good reason that her project was sincere, well meaning and in their interests.
Her efforts were sabotaged, however, by the dirty work of other media. The first Latin American edition of the mass-market women’s magazine Elle came out just before the arrival of her crew, and featured a story about the women of Juchitán. The Mexican author of the piece, who Gosling said, “is not a responsible journalist,” based her writing on other writers’ stories, already only loosely based on the reality of the culture, until the picture that emerged was unrecognizable to the women it purported to be about. Among other things, it proclaimed that they were openly promiscuous, and said the men didn’t work, but stayed home and took care of the kids while the women partied.
“Because we were outsiders,” Gosling said, ”suddenly they associated us with the article, and there were people that started canceling appointments with us. We went in the market and women would turn their heads. It was horrible. The only thing we could think of to turn it into something positive was to realize that this was something that these folks had had to deal with for years: misperceptions by outsiders. We put it in the film. We wanted to make sure that our film was not going to be based on these stories upon stories upon stories. We wanted to hear from the people directly themselves how they feel about their community.”
In Juchitán, as a viewer can see in the film, the term “matriarchy” is controversial. Some accept it, and some reject it. Gosling said she read feminist anthropologists who argue that matriarchy is not just the opposite of patriarchy. The two systems involve different values. Matriarchies are based more on relationships, while patriarchy is based more on hierarchy. Thus matriarchies really aren’t about women dominating men. “But I didn’t get into that in the film,” she said, “I tried to get away from labels and stereotypes.” She wanted to use the words of the women of Juchitán, who would typically say, “In our community, women have presencia.” Gosling said that means “presence,” although “it doesn’t translate well into English because the implication in Spanish is that it is not only ‘presence,’ it is influence, impact.” She said they spoke the word with pride.
Gosling showed her film to people in the community for feedback before making the final cut, and incorporated their feedback. The film then opened in Juchitán, with the many friends she had made there in attendance, and “people loved it.”
A touch of authenticity, and measure of Les Blank’s legacy, is that the music in Blossoms of Fire is not the stereotypical Spanish guitars or generic mariachi you find in so many American films about Mexico, but indigenous music as it is actually played, recorded by Gosling’s crew at events in Juchitán.
Gosling is working on two major films at the time of this writing, one about the storied life and career of Chris Strachwitz, friend of Les Blank and head of Arhoolie Records, and another on women cloth dyers in Mali whose brightly colored hand-dyed creations have become a cultural phenomenon in West Africa and beyond. She also continues editing other people’s films in her office in the Fantasy Records building in Berkeley, where our two interviews were recorded.
Blossoms of Fire won an award at the Havana film festival in Cuba. Gosling went there with her two co-producers, Toni Hanna and Estella Garcia, to present the film. “The specific award was the Coral Award for Best Documentary by a non-Latino director about Latin America. And the funny part was, the film festival is disorganized—at least that’s what it looks like to an outsider. The film was entered by our distributor in Mexico City, and they got the film there late, which meant that it did not get into the catalogue. The jury watched the films before they were projected so, thankfully, they made their decision ahead of time, because if it had been based at all on the film’s popularity, the prize would never have happened.
“I tried to promote the film; it was impossible. I wasted a lot of time, because the film was showing in these tiny fifteen seat video parlors with horrible sound, with horrible projection, while bigger films were showing in theaters where hundreds of people were going. There weren’t that many documentaries, and the only way you could get attention was by being in the catalogue, which we were not, or by getting an announcement in the daily festival newsletter, which I didn’t realize till too late. So, in the end, about seven people came total in three showings. So it was very depressing. But I saw other films, and I did meet some interesting people, including the exiled ex-CIA agent Phillip Agee, who came to one of the screenings. So that was cool.”
Gosling had to return home, but Hanna and Garcia stayed on. Then Gosling got a phone call from Garcia: “Maureen, we won a prize!” Hanna had gotten back into town after a side trip when a cab driver asked her “Where’re you from?” She told him and said, “We have a film in the Festival.” He asked, “What’s the name of your film?” and she said Blossoms of Fire (Ramo de fuego, as it was called in Spanish). He said “Oh! That won a prize, didn’t it?” “What?” she asked, and he replied, “Oh yeah! I saw a clip of it on TV, at the awards ceremony!”
Said Gosling, “Come to find out, the awards ceremony was held in the Charlie Chaplin Theater, which holds 3,000 people. Fidel was there. They gave the awards out. But no one told us we should be there! Some student got our award for us! So Estella ran around Havana trying to find out where the prize was. She got it, and it was this little piece of black coral on a stand, and when she gave it to me, the coral was broken. And I was really upset, but not too upset, because we won the prize. Of course I glued it back together. I think it’s one of our best prizes.”
The Chinese government also awarded Blossoms of Fire an award, which included cash. The award from China had a nice presentation, said Gosling. “You opened the box and it was lined with red silk. The prize inside was a gold ram statuette with a little red sequined necklace. It’s just the most beautiful little thing.”
“I’ve got my ram, from China, and my black coral from Cuba sitting in my living room together—the two Communist countries loved the film!” She laughed and then sighed.