The People’s Cinematographer
The Progressive, 1 April 1998
I first met Haskell Wexler in 1969. He had recently finished directing Medium Cool, a film that exposed the brutality of Chicago cops during the 1968 Democratic convention. Paramount had refused to release Medium Cool for almost a year after he had finished editing it, even though he had won an Oscar for filming Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The executives asked him to tone down the police-brutality scenes. Haskell wouldn’t do it. The Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an X rating, ostensibly because it had a nude scene. Haskell maintains to this day that the X stood for unacceptable political content.
Haskell’s cinematographic successes with commercial films did not adequately prepare him to confront the real power of the motion-picture industry bosses, with their close links to political elites. He had been D.O.P. (director of photography) for the successful In the Heat of the Night. Subsequently, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he filmed American Graffiti, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Coming Home and Bound for Glory, which won him another Oscar.
In 1996, the film industry recognized his genius and gave Haskell the Motion Picture Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He is ranked as one of the world’s greatest cinematographers. But the acclaim has not diluted his politics. “We have a responsibility to show the public the kinds of truths that they don’t see on the TV news or the Hollywood film,” he says.
At the time he received the Lifetime Achievement Award, he was videotaping bus riders in Los Angeles to dramatize the ordeal of getting from the ghetto to downtown L.A. by public transit. It will be his third bus documentary. The first was The Bus, a 1963 film about freedom riders. The second, some twenty years later, was about a bus full of people making a cross-country trip for peace and disarmament. The documentary about the Bus Riders Union of Los Angeles will tell the story of an organizing group that has dramatized how the city government neglects the poor.
Hollywood did not always embrace Haskell. During the McCarthy era, he couldn’t find work in the industry. “I filmed football games for TV,” he says. “They gave me two ten-minute rolls of film to cover a whole game. ‘But games last sixty minutes,’ I told the producer. ‘Only film touchdowns and completed passes,’ he said.”
Wexler had other enemies. The FBI called him “potentially dangerous because of background, emotional instability, or activity in groups engaged in activities inimical to the United States,” according to a 1974 memo signed by FBI Director Clarence Kelley.
Haskell Wexler was born in Chicago in 1922 to a well-to-do family. In 1934, at age twelve, he used the family’s 16mm Bell and Howell camera to film scenes in Italy, where his family had gone on vacation. Haskell’s first film shows his brothers and parents intercut with fascist youth wearing Mussolini uniforms. In 1941, he dropped out of the University of California-Berkeley and joined the Merchant Marine. He was decorated for bravery after he rescued some of his crew members when his ship was torpedoed in shark-infested waters off the coast of South Africa. After the war, Haskell picked up the 16mm camera and did shorts about a union camp for disabled children. In 1948, with Carl Marzani, he made a campaign short for Henry Wallace, who was running for President on the Progressive Party ticket.
In the early 1950s, Haskell made films for the United Electrical Workers Union. But he also lent a hand to Herbert Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten, who directed Salt of the Earth, now legendary, a movie about a miners’ strike in New Mexico. “No regular lab would process the film,” Haskell says. “The union and the government worked together to suppress anything that might have a red tint. So we smuggled it into a Chicago lab, where we knew people, and we developed and printed it ourselves.”
In 1969, this tall, thin, and perfectly conditioned man greeted me warmly when I brought him Fidel, the portrait film of Cuba’s leader I had made. Haskell screened it and liked it. When I told him I was taking it to the American Graduate School for International Management at Thunderbird University in Scottsdale, Arizona, he said he’d come along. Thunderbird had a reputation for training students to work for the CIA and giant corporations abroad. After the first screening of Fidel on television, I had received threats to castrate or kill me. Haskell was concerned for my safety.
As we entered the campus, I noticed a figure, hanging in effigy.
“That’s you,” Haskell gasped as he read the name tag on the figure.
“This is going to be lots of fun,” I told him.
“You want me to ring L.A. for some real bodyguards?” he asked.
I survived the evening.
For the next twenty-eight years, Haskell has been my on-and-off film partner and my permanent friend. We filmed Salvador Allende in Chile in 1971. We filmed Brazil: Report on Torture the same year. We made a movie called Land of My Birth, a campaign film for Michael Manley in Jamaica in 1976. We traveled together in Nicaragua to make the film Target Nicaragua, which documented the havoc the contras were wreaking in the 1980s. And in 1995, we set out for the jungles of Chiapas to film the Zapatistas and Samuel Ruiz, the progressive bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas.
Haskell, by then in his early Seventies, trekked through the jungle villages in the blazing heat, carrying the Aaton camera, searching for angles and good light in which to film the Tseltal villagers. The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising in Chiapas came to life because of the images of this remarkable people’s cinematographer.
In February 1971, Haskell and I arrived in Santiago, Chile, to meet with Allende. We hoped the president of Chile would explain to the U.S. public how he planned to achieve basic socialist reforms. We filmed him in the garden of his home. Dignified and reserved, the physician-cum-president shook our hands and calmly answered our questions for thirty minutes. Haskell instinctively zoomed in and pulled back at the right moments, even though he didn’t understand a word of Spanish. Even in this short conversation, Allende’s personality and program came through. This doctor who had served a quarter of a century in Chile’s parliament intended to bring socialism through law. He scoffed at the CIA’s destabilization effort.
During our stay in Chile, the vice minister of agriculture, David Baytelman, drove us from Santiago to Puerto Saavedra, some 500 miles to the south. Along the way, he would point to the land on either side of the road and explain how “the old system misused the soil.” Then we saw a plane spraying crops. Haskell, a ‘premature environmentalist,’ asked what was in the spray.
“DDT,” said Baytelman.
He cut us off.
“We know how dangerous it is,” he said. “But the next least expensive pesticide is six times the amount. This is the dilemma of all Third World countries. We have lost the art of growing organically, and we cannot afford the safer insecticides. So our choice comes down to risk poison, or face starvation.”
Although rumors of CIA activities in Chile abounded, and much news was coming out of Chile, none of the networks had interviewed Allende. They nevertheless rejected our documentary without looking at it.
We had better luck reaching the TV audience with a film about our friend Paul Jacobs. As a print reporter. Paul had revealed a series of lies perpetrated by the Atomic Energy Commission about the effects of low-level radiation on human health. Contrary to the AEC’s claim that the tests left only minimal radiation in surrounding areas and that they posed no danger to public health, Paul discovered the opposite: the levels at the test site were far higher than the AEC reported, and cancer was spreading in epidemic proportions through the fallout-drenched areas.
By 1978, Paul himself had been diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer. His doctors believed that in the course of his nosing around the test sites, Paul had inhaled a particle of plutonium, which had lodged itself in his lung and provoked his tumor.
Paul felt particularly ill the day Jack Willis, who co-made the film with Haskell and me, arrived. Haskell lit our motel room as if it were a set. He replaced the motel light bulbs with number-two photo flood bulbs to soften the death lines in Paul’s face. Paul talked about Elmer, a tough cowboy he had met who had taken a hit of fallout and gotten a terrible cancer.
In the middle of this story, Paul dropped his trousers and injected morphine into his thigh. Haskell followed the movement as if it had been scripted and then raised the camera to Paul’s face as he said: “Now I know exactly how Elmer felt, because I have that pain now and I have to relieve it with morphine.”
The film, Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang, which appeared on all the PBS stations, won an Emmy and a George Polk Award, and played on TV and in theaters around the world. It was used as a message from environmentalists to the promoters of nuclear energy.
In November 1982, Haskell Wexler and I caught the glare from sniper scopes on the Honduran side of the border. But Haskell, clutching his camera like an infant on his lap, was less concerned about his own safety than that the dust, pouring into the jeep, could seep into the camera and damage the film.
At each border village, we filmed in the sun and got chilling testimony from widows and orphans, who had witnessed squads of contras enter their village and kidnap, torture, and murder townspeople.
At night, we stayed in a safe house, a small hut somewhere near Somatillo. Shortly after arriving there, Haskell asked me directions to the bathroom.
“You wanna wash or pee?” I asked.
“Both,” he snapped.
“Well, that means a trip to the wash bucket and then one to the outhouse,” I said.
“I’m too damned old to do this shit anymore,” he muttered, as he wandered off to perform his evening ablutions.
We finished Target Nicaragua in early 1983, before the prestige press had reported that the CIA had engineered a covert war against Nicaragua. But PBS didn’t air the show until The New York Times and Washington Post had run their own stories formally revealing the CIA’s $19 million effort. Only a third of the public TV stations ran it.
“Who are they keeping this a secret from?” Haskell asked. “Every Nicaraguan knows the CIA is waging a war. Only the American public remains in the dark.”
A year later, Haskell returned to Nicaragua to write and direct Latino, hoping that it would expose the contra atrocities to a mass public. Latino finally debuted but fared little better than Target. The distribution company pulled it from the theaters after it received less than great reviews and poor box-office ratings.
Unable to stop the war with his art, Haskell continued to actively oppose it as a lecturer and a demonstrator. He even used the most conventional means of protest, writing letters to his Senators and Representatives and to the Los Angeles Times.
This summer, after he finishes his bus documentary, Haskell plans to shoot Limbo, another film directed by John Sayles. He had previously done photography on Matewan and The Secret of Roan Innish. And as vice president of a motion-picture-industry union local, he has initiated a campaign to stop the brutal overtime conditions that have prevailed since the industry was founded.
Wexler is still shooting films, and still protesting injustice. And his impassioned letters to the editor on many social themes can still be found in the Los Angeles Times.
© Saul Landau/ The Progressive
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