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Interview: Deborah Ellis

Deborah Ellis

"When he spoke out against war he was speaking from the point of view of a person who had gone through it," says professor and documentary filmmaker Deborah Ellis of her subject, the late historian Howard Zinn. (Photo: Rajan Chawla)

With the recent death of renowned historian, activist and author Howard Zinn, 87, it seemed a fitting moment for UVM Today to check in with Deborah Ellis, assistant professor of film and television studies, and maker of the documentary on Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. The film, narrated by Matt Damon, was short-listed for a 2005 Academy Award nomination and is now available in wide release.

In the documentary, Ellis (with partner Denis Mueller), weaves interviews with Zinn and his fellow friends and activists like Noam Chomsky with archival footage to capture the essence of the bombardier pilot turned anti-war protestor, labor-organizer, academic rebel, author of A People's History of the United States, telling America's story from the perspective of the powerless.

Ellis shares more about the man and the extraordinary experience of telling his story:

UVM Today: What inspired you to make this film?

DEBORAH ELLIS: I was a history major in college so I had a long-time interest in how history is made. I read Zinn's Politics of History and it was the first time that I was introduced to the idea that history is actually written from a point of view. I went many years and never thought about any of that, went to grad school and became a filmmaker, was working on issues of social justice, using video as an activist tool...

It's just one of those wild things you do sometimes when you're brand new. Denis called up Howard Zinn and expected to find this rough, harsh man -- here he was writing all this angry stuff -- and instead what he got was...'Sure.' It took us seven, eight years to make because it was done with very little money, in between jobs. After 9/11 there were other filmmakers who were approaching him and so one thing I'll always treasure is that Zinn allowed us to finish it. He had a trust in us and was kind enough not to let other better-known filmmakers pick it up. That was a generous move by him. It speaks to who he is.

Zinn was well into his 70s when you started the film. What was your impression of him? He apparently was going strong up until he died.

He was just one of those guys who was constantly in motion. I think one of my strongest observations when I first got to know him was how genuine he was with students when he was doing speaking engagements. He really spent time with them. I remember once going to a midnight party in a student apartment. Even at that age, he was willing to have kids sit down in a big circle around his feet and talk to them and have a beer -- beer and pizza at midnight. It was one of those struggles -- do we bring the camera out or not? We didn't. I think given the nature of the film, it was better to just be there that night.

How did he respond to your work?

Zinn was extremely supportive of us throughout. We had our first screening here in Burlington before it was picked up by a distributor, and he and his wife were here, it was the first time they had seen it completely finished. He had given us feedback along the way, but he never had control over what we put in or didn't.

When he finally saw the finished piece there was a part that he said didn't happen, and it's always struck me about how history is told and how history is remembered. It's a point where Tom Hayden talks about him singing "America the Beautiful" to a group of North Vietnamese, and he said, 'I don't think I would have done that,' and I just said, 'Well, that's what Tom said and we left it in,' and I remember his wife saying to me, 'It works in the film, don't worry.' And then by the morning Howard said, 'Well, if I had done that how do you think I would have sung it?' So I don't think he even knew. But that's how that moment will be remembered.

How does it feel that you got to be the one to make this influential film?

I feel both lucky and really honored. I can still watch and be happy with it. That feels good. It's a film that doesn't break any great cinematic traditions or anything, and that was one of the complaints that we got: here's a guy who's (upturning) history and you did this traditional, conservative portrait of him. But what we learned from him and took to heart when we were making that film is the power of storytelling. He had really figured out how to tell his life story and to connect his story to points in history.

The fact that he spoke from a position of experience gave him incredible authority so that when he spoke out against war he was speaking from the point of view of a person who had gone through it. When he spoke about civil rights he spoke about it from the point of view of a person who had engaged in some of the most profound moments of that struggle.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote last week that he always wondered why Zinn was considered a radical, that he was an unbelievably decent man fighting injustice. What's your perception?

He was a person who so profoundly connected his own personal experience as he watched the world. He was very connected to the underdog and telling the underdog's story. Is that radical? Some people think it is. He never fit the stereotype of an arm-raising radical -- that wasn't him. I think his words were extremely radical in a sense but the way that he presented them was not. He had a great sense of humor, and he loved life.

Herbert also said we paid Zinn short shrift. Do you agree with that? How much attention has the film gotten?

He always laughed because A People's History, was never reviewed by (academics). It was probably the best-selling most influential history book to have been written in the last quarter of a century and it was not going to be recognized by the mainstream. Our film on the other hand, for an independent documentary, was extremely successful -- a little offbeat extremely low-budget film. And I think it's because it told a good story.

The irony is here you have this radical dealing with anti-capitalism and the day after he died the distributors are calling to talk about getting a new version out right away, pulling new outtakes, making a new cover. But I think the film has a long life and that's nice.

You've said 9/11 gave your film a third act. What do you mean?

We had gone through the story of his life -- him talking about war, about civil rights, about justice and we get to the final point and we see the buildings burning. I think people really needed his voice, a rational voice in response to 9/11, to explain where we were in history. It gave us that third act. He talks about what will happen if we go to war, and he says what we're going to lose is the soul of America. Right now I look at that and think how prescient that was.

And you know films are narratives and that was a poignant moment to wrap the end of his story around. And he didn't ever say give up hope. He made you understand that individual acts are important. When we feel drowned (by events), he makes it very clear that every small thing you do is important.

See a clip from the film:

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