Q & A: Geoff Pingree, Emmy Award Winner

CUA’s Geoff Pingree, assistant professor of English and director of the university’s burgeoning Media Studies program, won the Emmy Award for "Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Research." He served as research director for the film A Paraylzing Fear: Polio in America.

Professor Pingree talks about winning the Emmy Award, his passion for film and sharing his enthusiasm for literature, film and life with CUA students. His upcoming documentary, Apocrypha, follows CUA students performing medieval plays.

Public affairs intern Tamara Weaver interviewed Professor Pingree.

What was it like to win the Emmy?

As falsely modest as this may sound, the Emmy was a genuine surprise, something I never expected, never aspired to, never prepared for. I hadn't associated the Emmy as an award with the kind of work I did on the polio film. I invested a lot of time and hard work in that film, but I never made the connection, so when the producer called to tell me that I had been nominated, it was the first time I had even thought about an Emmy and my own work as having any relation.

When I actually went to New York and recieved the Emmy, again, I was surprised, but also very happy. The film had been nominated for three Emmys (for musical score and for editing) and had not won either of the first two, so I wasn't sure I had much luck on my side.

What sparked your desire to make documentary films?

Let me say first that I love language, love using it to chase the nuances of a thought, a feeling, a moment. I love reading literature.

It's not clear to me that I have a great talent for filmmaking. At this point in my life, for example, I still have much greater confidence in my ability as a writer. But I like film's challenge. And I am drawn powerfully visual images as well. I've wanted to tell stories for as long as I can remember, and film may be the most complex, provocative medium I've used.

Like many children, when I was small I adored stories. But my fascination with narrative often had as much to do with the teller and the telling as with the tale itself. So while I loved hearing my dad tell stories about the heroic collie Lad, for example, I found myself wondering things like what these fables meant to him and how he had constructed them to be so compelling. No doubt this keen attraction to the sources and shapes of stories helped stir my lifelong desire to examine styles of perception and expression. The first Christmas present I ever really wanted was a small, reel-to-reel tape recorder; I was enchanted by the idea of recording voices and sounds and comparing them to their original sources, to the "real" thing.

I was also curious about ways of seeing. As a fourth-grader, I spent long hours after school learning how to shoot, develop and print photographs; it intrigued me that I could change the look of the prints simply by adjusting the amount of time I left the film in the developer or kept the photographic paper under the enlarger. And when I was twelve, I convinced my parents to loan me the money, in exchange for my next two birthday and Christmas presents, for a Super 8 camera and projector I had seen in a Sears catalogue. In the years that followed, I began to tell stories on film, usually variations on current Hollywood movies –East Side Story, The Class of '74 and so on, relying on my mother's costume box for wardrobe and on family, friends, neighbors and pets to fill my cast lists.

Jump ahead many years, and I've been through graduate school, where I first studied literature, then literary theory, and then film studies. Now I want to teach and think, but I'm hungry for some real, practical application of my knowledge –I want to make something. So I move to Washington and start working at PBS and getting instruction and experience in film production.

As a genre, documentary became important to me rather late in this process. I never thought of it as a form I would pursue and, in truth, I never used to watch many documentaries.

Documentary has become important to me for both political and artistic reasons, and as my sense of what a story is has matured. It took me a while to realize that stories are not necessarily fantasies, out there, far removed from our actual lives, but instead can be part of everyday experience. I think that, unavoidably, we experience our lives in narrative terms – we can't help but make sense of or understand our lives, except as stories. We impose a shape on our experience, and so maybe choosing documentary as a form to explore was for me a way to confront more honestly this tendency.

What are you working on now?

Currently I'm trying to finish Apocrypha, a film that has an intimate relationship with this university. The film is predicated on the idea that religion is struggle, that to really inhabit a belief in any meaningful way you must first wrestle with it. At a simple plot level, the film is about a group of 12 actors from the (CUA) drama department who in the summer of 1982 traveled to Toronto to take part in a remarkable production. Working with theater companies from all over the world, they staged – for the first time in 400 years – the complete York Cycle of medieval mystery plays.

The film follows these actors, examines their experience of performing this play, and is my attempt to explore how people shape their own beliefs. At the time of their production in the Middle Ages, the York Cycle plays gave common people the chance to engage publicly with the sacred. Each year on Corpus Christi Day, the town’s guilds — its girdlers and nailers, bakers and weavers — mounted on wagons that traversed the streets of York from sun-up to sundown an elaborate, mobile production that re-enacted 47 key stories from the Bible. By transforming their town into a stage, and by performing the stories of Creation, Christ’s Passion, and Doomsday, York’s artisans and their audience interpreted biblical texts in light of their own lives. The plays functioned as a uniquely interactive form of liturgical art, one that exalted the divine while simultaneously translating the great traditions of the Christian faith into a language accessible and relevant to members of every level of medieval English society.

So the film traces the experiences of these 12 decidedly modern young actors as they audition for, rehearse, and finally perform the Slaughter of Innocents (a play in the York Cycle) in Toronto. I wanted the film to be more than simply the story of a historic theatrical production. Conceived as a meditation on how these students formulate and understand their own sense of the sacred, the film uses the re-enactment of the medieval plays as a lens through which to examine the ways in which art can provoke and support spiritual quest.

To that end, Apocrypha weaves footage that depicts the performance in all its stages with probing interviews that ask the actors to reflect not only on the experience of performing a religious play, but on the role of art in their lives, on their religious beliefs, and on their relationship with God. Poised on the brink of adulthood, some find themselves questioning for the first time beliefs they had always accepted. Some describe a growing sense of alienation from the Church, while others express the joy and sustenance they find in their faith. For a few, the play itself provides a certain revelation. And for all the actors, participation in the York Cycle production offers a unique, often poignant opportunity to reflect on their own beliefs.

What or who inspires you as a filmmaker?

Among filmmakers, there are many I admire, but Atom Egoyan comes to mind. His films are always tremendously rich and deep, and they look very carefully at the inner layers of characters' lives. They also confront difficult things in ways that remind me how hard – and liberating– it is to be genuinely honest.

I don't have a single favorite director, but Egoyan, Scorcese, Eric Roehmer, Woody Allen, Hal Hartley, Jane Campion, Ross Spears and Basilio Martin Patino are a few who inspire me. At a practical level, Nina Seavey, my partner at The Documentary Center at George Washington University, has taught me the most about filmmaking.

How have you incorporated your experience of documentary filmmaking into the classroom?

When I teach I often use examples from documentary work I've seen or been involved with. My experience as a filmmaker has really influenced my way of thinking about how to learn film, or how to learn at all. I really believe that you understand things best by doing them.

This belief has, by the way, greatly influenced my way of thinking about the Program in Media Studies as well. In my mind, the program must stand on the idea that to understand the media one must study it both from both a critical and a creative perspective. If for nothing else, I want the Program in Media Studies at Catholic to be known for this dual approach. Students who apply here should know that they're going to get a solid education in how to think critically about the media, how carefully to read media texts (whether they be photographs, films, television programs, advertisements, or novels), but also that they're going to have the opportunity to turn the table, so to speak, and understand how to compose or produce or make media texts as well.

What is the most important documentary you've ever seen? What documentary has influenced you the most?

The documentary films made in response to the Holocaust have had an impact on me, especially Night and Fog and Shoah. This is partly because they're excellent films, technically and aesthetically, but more because they confront problems that are important to me. In very different ways, they try to represent something that is unrepresentable. I've always been very interested in works that confront the limits of representation.

Nobody's Business, by Alan Berliner, is a documentary film that influenced the way I think about how film can function in the exploration and construction of an individual self or identity. Berliner sets out to make a film about his father, who does not want to be filmed, and so there's this obvious dramatic tension – will he talk on camera or not? But beneath this is Berliner's exploration of his own life through the struggle with his father. It's a great film about how family members define themselves and each other through an unavoidable and ongoing struggle for identity.

Last I'll mention Human Remains, a film I often show in classes here. This documentary by Jay Rosenblatt, a San Francisco therapist and filmmaker I met a couple of years ago, is a brilliant examination of the public and private legacies of tyrants, and how these legacies are mediated. The film looks at Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Mao, but in a very unconventional way.

View a clip from Apocrypha