By Kevin B. Lee and Keith Uhlich
John Gianvito spent much of the '90s burning through credit cards to produce and direct The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, a multi-layered critique of the First Iraq War. Though mostly neglected upon its release, in hindsight it is one of the most relevant films to describe the political and psychic traumas of this decade. Financially and emotionally exhausted by the endeavor, Gianvito planned a more modest follow-up, a short film inspired by Howard Zinn's populist study A People's History of the United States. That project evolved into Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, an hour-long feature guided by a deceptively simple premise: a chronological tour of the gravesites of victims of social oppression as well as the activists who stood up for their rights.
The steady procession of historical narrative (as told by the tombstones), graced by a soundtrack consisting of the ambient surroundings, transforms vérité documentary into a hypnotic aesthetic that combines a meditation on nature, remembrances of past heroic struggles to better the lives of others, and a stirring call to carry their legacy into the present. These three themes permeate the following interview with Gianvito, conducted by Kevin B. Lee and Keith Uhlich at the film's 2007 Toronto Film Festival premiere.
What were the origins of Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind?
Prior to Profit Motive, I had finished my third 16mm feature, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, that took me more or less six years from realization to completion. It was a project that was focused on the experience of the first Persian Gulf War. At the time, I didn't know for sure that there would be a second one, though in essence that first war never did cease. The interval between was more or less a constant state of seige upon Iraq. Emerging from that project, I found myself even more undone by the realities of U.S. actions on the world. So, knowing what any film takes out of you, I was trying to find a subject that I could devote a chunk of my life to that contained within it some seeds of hopefulness.
I went back to re-reading large sections of a favorite book, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Howard is someone I know slightly. He had been very kind to me about Mad Songs. So as I read this, somewhere along the way, the impulse emerged to simply want to give something back to this monumental examination of our nation's history. For those who don't know the book, it tells the story of the United States from Columbus onward, but from the point of view of those who were typically omitted from standard texts: Native Americans, African Americans, women in general, labor leaders, anarchists, and people who collectively tried to make this a more just and egalitarian nation.
The thought was that the title of the film would be "A Poem for Howard Zinn." I imagined it as a 10 to 15 minute short, something I could do easily on my own without a huge crew, without getting the 13 credit cards I needed to make my previous film. Little by little, the project evolved, and it ended up entailing three summers of driving around the United States in search of traces of our progressive past, predominantly in cemeteries, but also in sites where certain struggles [and] certain massacres happened, where there remain some indicators identifying that place.
Of all the possible approaches to cinematically interpreting the book, how did you settle upon the idea of visiting gravesites?
I wish I remembered when that idea first came to me. I suspect it had something to do with living in Boston, where one is surrounded by the tourist trade marking New England's historic past. Directly across the street from the office where I teach, there's a very old cemetery, [the Central Burying Ground, established in 1756]. A few blocks away is the site of the Boston Massacre as well as the memorial, both of which I filmed for the project. From the beginning, I was thinking that this is a very odd idea and I wondered if it was going to work. What could be more static than filming a headstone? People might say, "Why did you make this as a film? Couldn’t you make this as a photo book?"
And then I thought, if it's just people's names and dates, is that going to be so interesting to people? I certainly didn't know that I would find all these other ingredients, including various texts that end up being on the stones, gifts or gestures that had been left along the side of the sites, and all the other things you experience over the course of the film. It became a kind of unfolding puzzle slowly revealing what my film would be.
As I began encountering the reality that individuals of great import often resided in remote and poorly kept sites, or found that other people had also made pilgrimages and left tokens of their esteem, or that there would be interesting quotes here and there, or took note of the curious dynamics between the present-day location and its historical past, little by little the allure of all this pulled me in and I began to think that this might work. I began to jettison other visual elements I had been developing, although I always had it in my head that there would be this element of the wind in the trees, some potency between the stillness of these sites and the sequences of the trees on an aural level alone.
In other interviews, you've alluded to having a pantheistic viewpoint, something shared by Andrei Tarkovsky, about whom you've written a book. When you visit a site, how does that perspective play in terms of filming your environment?
I don't know if you've heard of the Japanese dance movement called butoh. One of its founding performers was a dancer named Kazuo Ohno, an amazing performer who danced well into his 80s. He used to dance in women's clothes and gave some of the most amazing performances I've ever seen. A friend of mine once had him as a guest at an outdoor dinner party and people asked him if, after dinner, he might do an improvisation. He obliged and everyone was awestruck with how perfect his improvisation was. There wasn't a single misstep. Everything fell into this perfect embrace. A woman came up afterwards, said how marvelous it was and asked him how it was possible. Without hesitation he said, "Well, it's easy. I'm surrounded by the dead."
I feel surrounded by the dead. A number of the closest people in my life have passed. I have received communications from them many times, and I myself communicate to them many times. That's on the most personal level. If you extend that to wherever you travel, you start to ponder the layers of history and past life that share the spaces we travel through, which makes me think of the quote that I open Mad Songswith, by Cesare Pevese: "Everywhere there is a pool of blood that we step into without knowing it."
The fact is that, by and large, we often don't think about these strata of history. In Europe, people do more so because they have more respect for those histories. In Rome, old buildings are always kept. Even if they're not habitable anymore, they're respected enough that they're not destroyed.
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