John de Graaf is a Documentary Filmmaker and an Activist. I met John back in the eighties when his work seemed to be shown on PBS constantly. John is one of those filmmakers who works hard and sticks to his beliefs. His documentaries are insightful and conversations with him are always rewarding.
His films include; AFFLUENZA, Running Out of Time, Fields of Plenty, On Natures Terms, Silent Killer and Mother of the Year: Ruth Youngdahl Nelson’s Fight against the Nuclear Arms Race
I haven’t seen John in a year or two, our schedules never seem to connect so I had to do this interview via email.
Now, on to the interview.
KB: You and I have been at this for a while. What’s your background in film/video?
JDG: I started in 1977 when I made a short documentary for Twin Cities Public Television. It won a big award from PBS—it was a bad film but about a great character so people forgave the filmmaker. I’ve been doing this since then, though less lately. I have produced forty documentaries at last count, about 15 for national PBS.
KB: How did you get in to documentaries?
JDG: Just by doing the first film I mention above. It was my idea and I was the writer/ director. My colleague Jim Mulligan, who did the shooting and editing had all the skills. I got into documentaries because I was a political activist and I am doing fewer of them now because I am a political activist again—life is strange.
KB: Was there a time on any of your films when you thought, “uh-oh, I could really be in trouble here?”
JDG: Was there ever a time when I didn’t? You have a feeling like that with almost every film—at least I do. But the biggest trouble is always raising the money.
KB: You have made a lot of films for PBS, or films that aired on PBS, has PBS changed over the years? Is it more difficult getting things aired?
JDG: Oh, yes, much harder. During the Bush era I didn’t get much on. I think if I’d made my big PBS hit AFFLUENZA then, it never would have aired. Instead I made it in 97 and it got four core PBS broadcasts and 10 million total viewers and became something of a cult classic. It’s still shown and still sells like hotcakes.
KB: Your films have always been available through traditional distribution companies; with schools being a big market do you see changes in the way your films are being distributed?
JDG: Yes, you have to have a lot more Web support, shorter versions help. DVDs need to be chapterized. You need more promotion to cut through the huge mass of films coming out. My main distributor is Bullfrog Films, the largest environmental media distributor in the country and they are wonderful. Very committed to the causes, very willing to work hard to promote the films.
KB: What changes are you seeing with the business these days?
JDG: As above. I just think you have to make shorter films. I think the big mistake with younger filmmakers is that their goal in life seems to be to get longer. They all want to make the two-hour feature, which shows at a few festivals and an art theater or two and ends up in the ozone. Make small films that activists can use—like the fabulous STORY OF STUFF. I love making ten-minute films that get people involved with causes. That’s most of the film stuff I do now. My next to most recent film, WHAT’S THE ECONOMY FOR, ANYWAY? is 39 minutes, but in 13 Acts that can be used separately. It’s like STORY OF STUFF, a comedy monologue with a strong message. Kind of like Al Gore meets Steven Colbert, though neither as wonky or as funny.
KB: You are the Executive Director of Taking Back Your Time, what is that all about?
JDG: Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org) grew out of my work on the films AFFLUENZA and RUNNING OUT OF TIME. It’s an effort to take on the overwork and rampant busyness in American society, to challenge consumerism, to promote sustainability and to challenge the expansion of the market into all aspects of our lives. We promote paid vacations for all Americans, paid sick leave, paid family leave, shorter working hours, part-time parity, etc. We are now working with the great organization Sustainable Seattle (www.sustainableseattle.org) on the most exciting project of my life, the Seattle Area Happiness Initiative. I urge everyone to check it out on Sustainable Seattle’s web site. It’s another effort to question our consumer crazy, workaholic nation in the name of happiness, what Tom Jefferson said it was all about. And it is going great guns.
KB: Is there a single film that was a huge influence on you? Why?
JDG: In terms of a documentary, HEARTS AND MINDS by Peter Davis. Its portrayal of the Vietnam War was brilliant, showing just how flimsy the US excuses for the war were and how much tragedy it caused. I cried for hours afterwards and I was even more determined to challenge that illegal immoral war. SICKO is great though I don’t like every Moore film. I loved EVERYTHING’S COOL about Global Warming. For dramatic films my favorite is THE MILGRO BEANFIELD WAR (what an upper for an activist!) and the Melissa Gilbert TV film CHOICES OF THE HEART about Jean Donovan, the young Catholic activist murdered by the Right wing in El Salvador. I cried during that one too and I’m not that sentimental a guy. Recently, I thought FAIR GAME was powerful. What an indictment of Bush/Cheney et al!
KB: Where can I buy copies of your films?
JDG: From Bullfrog (http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/) but as an individual you don’t have to pay the sticker price—just call them and ask for the home video price or where else you might get the film in home video. AFFLUENZA is on Netflix free viewing.
KB: One other question, I heard that you punched out Ken Burns in a bar one night, what was that all about? (Just trying to start some rumors…)
JDG: Oh, yes, that’s true, but I mistook him for Newt Gingrich. I apologized profusely. Seriously, I love Ken Burns—his films are excellent and he’s a good guy!
KB: Thanks man.