Robert Kramer and John Douglas interviewed

“Reclaiming our past,
reclaiming our beginning“

by G. Roy Levin

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 6-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

My interview with Robert Kramer and John Douglas took place at the Cannes Film Festival, May 17, 1975. We talked about their film, MILESTONES, which was shown there as part of the Critics’ Fortnight series.

Robert Kramer, born in 1940, was one of the founders of Newsreel and has made six films: FALN, a documentary about American imperialism in Venezuela, 1966; IN THE COUNTRY, 1966, THE EDGE, 1968, and ICE, 1970, three features about the growth of the New Left; PEOPLE'S WAR, a documentary made in Vietnam at the invitation of the North Vietnamese with Douglas and Norman Fruchter, 1969; and MILESTONES, with Douglas, 1975. In 1970, he and Douglas were part of a political collective in Putney, Vermont. At present Kramer lives in California where he is completing a new film on Portugal and Angola.

John Douglas, born in 1938, was a civil rights worker for SNCC in the South in the 1960’s and was one of the early members of newsreel. He has made four films: STRIKE CITY, a documentary about a group of black farmers in Mississippi, 1966; SUMMER 68, a documentary about radical Movement activity in the U.S. culminating in the Chicago 68 Convention, 1968; PEOPLE'S WAR, with Kramer and Fruchter, 1969; and MILESTONES, with Kramer, 1975. At present Douglas lives in New York City.

MILESTONES was written and directed by Kramer and Douglas; produced by Barbara and David Stone; shot by Douglas; lighting by Philip Spinelli; sound by Spinelli and Jane Schwartz; research and sound editing by Marilyn Mulford. It’s in l6 mm color; 195 minutes long.


LEVIN: What first gave you the idea for MILESTONES? It seems it was a film that grew organically.”

DOUGLAS: It came after four or five years when we hadn't made any films at all. After working in Vermont, we got to a place where we had to look at our own lives in terms of what we were going to do. Filmmaking was something that we had been really close to and was something that we could rely on in a certain way, given the confusion of that time. We'd lived and worked together for a long time. We'd worked on PEOPLE'S WAR together with Newsreel, and that in certain ways, had been this really strong and clear period of time for us. We tried to bring together different aspects of the past period we had initially felt to be really clear and strong, and show how lives had grown through that period of time. We wanted to piece together those different parts of our lives in a way that seemed to represent a growth and development in a whole different aspect of political work.

LEVIN: Are you saying that you wanted the film to explore what had happened to you and your friends, and people like yourselves, during that period of not making films?

KRAMER: Well, yes, if you want to say that we make films out of our lives. It’s like one of the characteristics of how we end up defining filmmaking for ourselves, which is that the scope of the film is the scope of our concerns. It’s not like a product. We mine what we're living through. And that’s been true for the other films and documentaries we've made—that they're basically concerned with whatever our experience was at that time. A lot of people say that the 70s is like a time of falling away from political militancy. There’s a sense in which that’s true—if the emphasis is put on the word militant, and a strong, sustained confrontation with the powers that be.

But there’s another sense in which that’s not true, because we came to a dead end, and it seemed as though we couldn't continue to be militant in that same way. That’s to say we didn't have the stamina. We didn't have even a perspective that could carry us through. What certainly began for us was a period of time which represented a falling away from day-to-day political work as we had defined it before.

We traveled a lot, and got a better sense of what was going on around us everyday. At the same time we began to reclaim our personal history. As we got a better sense of what was going on around us every day, that was reflected in all the traveling in the film. Personally, it was the first time I had spent a lot of time traveling in the United States.

LEVIN: When you first started going around the country visiting, were you shooting?

KRAMER: No. We were just traveling, going to Glacier, stuff like that. We're really talking about this whole period when we basically stopped doing anything and weren't making a movie. We were finding ways to live, doing what we had to do to live; but we were traveling a lot, bumming around. And it wasn't always together—it was in different combinations of people. And part of that process was the splitting up of our collective and just getting out.

The second thing is the claiming of our personal histories in terms of our families. In a lot of ways—earlier—we had to find our political life in a way that cut us off, say from our parents, from our own earlier experiences which we had denied. It seemed that militant politics back then had rejected all that. And so for me anyway, it was really important to reclaim my past, and to think about the different kinds of importance that culture had, that poetry had for me—the really striking discoveries, for example, of how important the Beat Poets had been, how important Ginsberg had been for me personally. It’s just that none of it fit in with our politics at the height of our activity. Then suddenly discovering that the importance of these things was way beyond the limits of the politics and culture that I had been a part of was really crucial ... and the relationship to my parents and.. even the relationship to what had been good in my education, which I had thought about only in negative terms. A lot of that is reflected in the film in the sense of families, of people trying to find ways to get back into contact with their parents—and with each other—and to explore that past.

DOUGLAS: I was rejecting my son, who was a year old at that point, and so there was a period of time that I lived with him. That was like eight or nine months of trying to piece together what hat relationship was about, because prior to hat there was no way for me to deal with that at all. There was no way to even prepare for that reality.

RAMER: And I had been rejecting a very deep and important relationship that I had been unwilling to wrestle with in a new way. I had just been ignoring completely my sort of complete isolation.
Then the third thing is reclaiming our beginning—which is a process that’s really only beginning to pick up now—beginning to reclaim our history in America, in the sense that there is an American history of opposition to imperialism that’s much deeper and broader than we knew.

A concrete example is the Communist Party, which I have no special love for, but which I had no knowledge about at all during the 60s—it’s just that there were very heroic periods in the party’s history. And that’s a history shared by zany, many other groups which had a strong and militant resistance that preceded ours—and we had arrogantly felt that we were the first ones who had said, “This is fucking shit.” But now to begin to understand that we're the children of that past and there were things for us to learn from that. The reflection of that in the movie is, say, the old woman at the beginning, that immigrant history. So the film emerges out of that period.

I was in New York doing mostly aikido, which is sort of like tai chi, and we didn't have any plans, but finally we generated this script. The script doesn't have a story. It builds up from all the fragments of the things we've been doing.

DOUGLAS: It came out of people, ideas, situations that we wanted to see in the movie, people that we had lived with, had been close to.

KRAMER: Our method of working was basically we kept a file over a period of six months in which every time there was an image or a bit of dialogue or a thought or a character that appeared, we'd just put the bit of paper into the folder and never even bother to look at it. Then one day I sat down and sent John a 50-page packet, which was nothing more than these images in an arbitrary order determined in an hour by throwing them on three different piles. Then we didn't do anything for another few months, just talked about it all, and made a few more notes. Then, at a crack, we sat down and tried to do a thing some kind of film could come out of.

How much is script and how much is verite? It’s hard to give percentages—but you could say that overwhelmingly the film is scripted. But the film is not cinema verite, is not a documentary, in that sense. Scenes like the old woman in the beginning aren't scripted, but we asked all the questions and we sometimes told her what we wanted her to say. And we shot enough footage so we could basically compose her. The historical footage around her doesn't relate to her at all—I mean it’s not from her life. In fact it’s a free mixture of some photographs from her life with material from the immigrant past.

LEVIN: Okay. The cost of the film, where the money is from, the distribution of the film, what’s going to happen with that, and why and how is the film at Cannes and why are the two of you at Cannes. To take a few questions at one time.

DOUGLAS: David and Barbara Stone, whom we had worked with in Newsreel, they found $30,000 from London—where they live now. That was like a whole chunk to start making a movie with. The film finally cost maybe twice that much.

KRAMER: About the distribution—there are a lot of problems with that; the length, the content, the style. The best that we could hope for in distribution is that the film would open in New York, get good reviews there and then go to perhaps eight other major cities in the kind of theatre that could support that kind of film, and stay in those theatres for a while and do well; and then have a broad university and community distribution. Unless there was something really surprising, that’s what we could hope for. The way the system is set up now, it’s still based on this high regard for Europe, so in order to get into a New York theatre and make some kind of a deal, we basically have to have same kind of credentials for the film—unless we had a lot of money to buy a house, which we don't.

So you come to Europe. That’s one of the traditional underground film strategies, and it’s the one our distributor knows best anyway and is best suited for us. So the way it’s working is real simple: Cannes is the most important festival—it’s a total marketplace, and at the same time there’s a high degree of critic’s attention. So here we are in Cannes, and the film will open in Paris in the fall. But the most important things are the reviews that come out of Cannes and the possibility that it will go into something like the New York Film Festival—which we don't know about yet—and then right from there into a New York theatre. [MILESTONES was subsequently in the New York Film Festival—GRL]

So that’s the reason the film is in Cannes. And the reason we're in Cannes is our pact with the film. Basically it’s a personal favor to Barbara and David (Stone). It’s been very interesting, because we've had a very privileged existence as filmmakers: we've been in a position where we haven't had to raise the money that much ourselves; we've been lucky to have producers, distributors who have supported us down the line, and we haven't had much relationship with the whole machinery that makes the film industry run. So though I feel that it’s terrible here—it’s almost unredeemed at any level—it’s been very important to be here. At one point it was explained to us that our being here was like another 50,000 admissions in Paris.

DOUGLAS: It’s part of the reality of getting a film distributed on this level, which we haven't taken on in that way in the past.

KRAMER: Another thing that’s sort of related to that: one of the characteristics of the people in the film is that they're not actually connected to society, or to the economic base of society in a clearly definable way. They have jobs and everything else, but they have an almost lumpen lifestyle in which they drift. In a sense that’s true for us as filmmakers in that we haven't had any relationship either to the financing or the distribution of these films, although we did in the case of Newsreel. Now the other step is that we don't have a relationship to the world of filmmakers. I don't know many. filmmakers, John doesn't know many. In the last five years we have not talked to filmmakers. And one of the things that’s come up here is the question of what is our responsibility as filmmakers.

DOUGLAS: Each of us tried to talk with filmmakers before we left the country, because in our past experiences we had been connected to a political group of filmmakers, and the work on this film has been in incredible isolation.

LEVIN: One of the things implicit in what you've been saying is that before, when you made films. for Newsreel, there was an alternate distribution system, and now, in effect, what you've done is gone over to a commercial distribution system. What do you see in the implications of that switch?

KRAMER: It’s not quite the case, because Newsreel was actually supported by commercial distribution. From the very start, Barbara and David Stone had the knowledge to place Newsreel films in theatres in these eight cities, to move them in universities. It’s not strictly like a commercial distribution, but it’s definitely in the l6mm market—and also in Europe. So the hidden financing of Newsreel was the ability to actually move the films commercially. And we therefore were able to spend all our time on non-commercial distribution, on what you could call political distribution.

Can we make films that will really say what we want to say, and can they really go into theatres, and can we do even better than MILESTONES? I mean, hasn't MILESTONES raised the question for us of still holding back, the obscurity of the form, that there seem to be ways to open that material to other people in another film? The problem, very simply, for me, is that if we're going to be filmmakers and we do films all the time, somehow we can solve those problems. But if films serve the function of coming up every three or four years as a way of assessing all the material that we've lived through, and sorting it out in that way, we won't be able to do it.

LEVIN: Have you made any decisions about future plans, about whether you're going to be fulltime filmmakers or whether you're going to go on being politically involved people who sometimes make films?

KRAMER: We don't have any real plans. What is clear is that it would be terrific if we were invited to the Republic of South Vietnam now, and we were able either to assist them, or ourselves make a film, say in a small village, which actually documented in some detail the incredible upheaval of people actually being able to take power into their own hands, it would be such an amazing film to make and it would be such a joy to be any part of something like that. But that’s like out there, and the reality of it is that we don't have any plans—or that I don't have any plans.

DOUGLAS: At this point I feel we really want to find some way to continue to work on films for some period of time. That was part of the commitment to work on this film—which I don't see as an isolated film—but tine to really explore that as a commitment. No so much in terms of my making films, but really trying to see how we can continue to work on films, and to find a group of people to work on films that need to be made at this point.

LEVIN: The earlier films were propaganda films, they wanted to make a point, to say that America did this, that or the other thing, as in Vietnam, and that this was bad news. The political purpose in that sense is not clear in this film, MILESTONES, and presumably you're still interested in those same political problems, and in that same political way of dealing with life and making films. So, in what way do you see MILESTONES as being politically relevant?

KRAMER: The way into it in this case is somehow through people’s lives, through people’s lived experiences in the attempt to expose the choices that we've made and what they mean within the context of America right now. That’s important political work. Now there are a lot of different questions. One of them is like the particular class of the people involved: basically déclassé middle class people. I mean they're for the most part white In white America, and the choice to focus on them is again a choice to say that we're going to make a film about the reality that we know. If we claimed the film was a political declaration, then we'd be in a lot of trouble, because we haven't filled out the whole spectrum.

DOUGLAS: I think it’s interesting that when we finished MILESTONES that the Vietnamese were victorious, simultaneously; it’s coincidence. I feel that we're now pushed into a whole new space, that we were pushed into a whole new space a couple of years ago in relationship to like seeing how we could identify and work clearly politically.

But the trouble spots were our lives, our reality and our relationship to the society. And I think that in a lot of ways that that’s one thing the film really, really makes clear—the real isolation, the incredible inability to be clear about what those choices should be; but at the same time talk about the real problems that people have to deal with and solve in their own lives. In other words, it was the first time that we had been able to deal with that, and not just in our film, but even in our own lives on a certain level. So I think of the film as valuable, as honest to the extent that it opens up some of the real and deeper problems of our lives.

LEVIN: It also relates to what you said at the conference after the showing of the film the other night, that when you made films for Newsreel, you made films within a political structure, and that now you have no political structure, and you're making films simply as private persons who have to make personal decisions as to the film. Isn't that problem in making the film in effect one of the problems presented in the film?

DOUGLAS: That’s right.

KRAMER: But it’s all one piece, sc that basically, dependent on the mood we were in, if you ask what’s the political significance of the film, we might say, we make no claims for its political significance because the space that it grew out of was the space in which that was the basic question—what is the political significance of our lives? And that’s the guilt that basically everyone in the film experiences at one level or another.

DOUGLAS: The openness of the dialogue in the film, the dialogue between two people, constantly, could be almost a dialogue between the two filmmakers because of their isolation.

KRAMER: And the clear politics that grew out of the 70’s couldn't be carried forward because of our own limitations. It’s the responsibility of revolutionaries to claim all the good things in the world, in the revolution, not to make lives that rule it out, not to say, you can't have beautiful films, for example. You can have beautiful films and be a revolutionary. It was an error of Newsreel to believe that to proletarianize was to uglify.

There’s a wonderful thing in a book on Cuba, an argument very early in the revolution because America had withdrawn all of the glass producing materials, about what should Cuban glass look like. The first thing they came up with were all kinds of pissy yellow, and it was one position in the Central Committee—it became a Central Committee issue—that that was fine because there were a lot of other things that had to be done. But Che took the position that revolution is not about ugliness and they carried on through—it was a specific technological problem—until they had finally produced a kind of glass that didn't turn everything into this milky, unappetizing sort of thing.

LEVIN: In the late 60’s and early 70’s there seemed to be a clear crisis situation, and there seemed to be something to focus on, work toward, and it seemed as if people were really moving forward, changing things. But that focus seems to be lost now, dispersed. In a sense a lot of that movement and the ideas have been co-opted, right? And our politics don't seem to be anywhere near as clear as they were. What a lot of people seen to have ended up with is a personal life style. It’s not meant as a reproach, but I don't see that the film deals with that.

KRAMER: I don't agree with that. It seems to me that in a certain sense there is far more crisis in America than ever before, that imperialism has entered its final crisis, and that we're going to be called upon to carry out much clearer tasks now. The second thing is that I think we have a better politics now than we ever had before, that we're at the beginning of a really rich anti-imperialist politics. And I think that elements of that politics are in the film. What’s missing in the film is the specific struggle against the state, and it’s absolutely true that that’s a failure of the film—there’s no question about it.

I guess it’s not there because it took the making of the film to realize what had fallen out of our lives—and one of the sections is all about that. But I think it’s still wrong to think that the film doesn't address that, because what the film describes is the situation where people choose not to make that fight. It’s a small investigation about a large group of people in the United States who have been a very important force over the last fifteen years.

And I think that one of the things that the film also reflects is a real attempt to change the idea of who our friends and enemies are—and that really has to be a foundation of our politics. That’s why you really need a creative Marxism-Leninism. You need a scientific tool, the beginning of some kind of mechanism for actually being able to dissect a situation so you can figure out in some objective way who you should be working with and who you shouldn't be working with. And the answer becomes that you should be basically working with almost everybody and hating very few people.

After so many years of struggle, the revolutionary government comes into Saigon and declares amnesty for everybody except for a very, very few. That’s really a tremendous lesson. It’s not just about forgiveness or humility, it’s about science, an understanding that people can change.