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Today’s guest post is from filmmaker Peter Sillen. His documentary bio-portraits will be screening this week in NYC at the IFC.
The kind of inspiration that makes you want to go out and make a film about someone is tough to pin down. It’s definitely not something you can plan. It’s funny that both Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt and I Am Secretly An Important Man were essentially inspired by albums. In the case of Speed Racer, it was Vic’s, “Little”. For I Am Secretly An Important Man, it was Jesse Bernstein’s record, “Prison.” Arthur Aubrey’s photo on the cover of the Prison CD got my attention. Steve Fisk’s production and sound design was a perfect fit for Jesse’s raspy voice. Many things came together on that record but it was Jesse’s writing that grabbed me most. 20 years later both albums hold up as well as they did the first time I listened to them.
Both of these films began with a letter. With Vic I got pretty lucky with timing. He was about to go into the studio to record his second album “West of Rome”. I basically used those sessions as a way to enter his everyday life. He was this incredible force just oozing with creativity. Every time we’d turn on the camera it just kept getting better and better. We were all pretty young and figuring out what we were doing. The film is sort of a time capsule of that moment.
The film on Jesse started the same way, with a letter to Leslie Fried, Jesse’s widow. She was open to the idea of a film. The only problem was I didn’t have Jesse to film (he died the year before, just shy of his 41st birthday). I Am Secretly An Important Man, is a film that has seen many starts and stops over the 17 years it has taken to make. The long process informed the film a great deal. There are subtle themes that I never could have picked up on when I was 26. Although, I never imagined it would take so long to make, the older I got, the more I became in tune with Jesse and his struggles.
For most documentary filmmakers, I think the idea that everything is constantly changing plays heavy on their work. It certainly does for me. I see a person or a place that somehow to me represents this moment in time were everything comes together (usually against the odds). They’re really the ones that are documenting their experience. I’m just inspired by the work or the situation to try to help capture that moment for others to experience, because as Vic put it, “they’re fleeting moments and they don’t last forever”.
Peter Sillen is a New York based documentary filmmaker. Working mainly in 16mm film, Sillen creates portraits of an array of individuals who live and work outside the stereotypical 9 to 5 environments. With a low-tech approach to documentary film and sensitivity to his subjects and their environment Sillen’s work gives an unobstructed view into the lives of a number of uniquely talented artists and trade workers.Tweet
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