Preservation Case Studies

Intro to MIAP
Profs. Besser and Harris

Aimée Castenell
Lindsay Herron
Kara Van Malssen

Losing It
by Sharon Greytak

The filmmaker:
Sharon Greytak is a New York-based filmmaker.  She began her career in the art department at CalArts, where she studied as a painter and made abstract paintings, always talking about them in a very narrative way.  From there she began working in mixed media drawings and abstract mark-making before eventually moving on to filmmaking.  She seems to have come at film from a perspective of exploring the distanced relationship between the subject and the viewer.  When asked why she decided to move into the film arena, she said, “[She] thought film would reach a wider audience than work in a gallery.” (Cinemad Magazine #7)  

The film:
Losing It is the title of her most recent film.  It is a cross-cultural documentary, filmed on four continents, that explores the lives of people with physical disabilities and the ways those disabilities are understood in other places and cultures.  In the film, Greytak travels to Siberia; Hong Kong; São Paolo, Brazil; Vicenza, Italy; and her own home, New York.  

A disabled person herself, Greytak offers a unique perspective into the lives of the disabled people she meets and a sincere understanding of the challenges they must all face on a daily basis.  In Russia, Greytak interviews a man and a woman with cerebral palsy, both of whom struggle for independence, opportunity, and education in a country where wheelchairs and other resources are scarce. In Hong Kong, Edith, who had a stroke in her 40s, re-evaluates her priorities in life when she can no longer participate in Hong Kong’s hectic lifestyle.  She explores the role disabled persons play in society and discovers avenues of rehabilitation and recovery.  In Brazil, a man and woman speak openly about the ways in which their disability informs every aspect of their lives, from economic conditions to religious ideas and the expectations of society.  An Italian artist with a rare blood disorder contrasts his life before being altered by his crippling disease with total isolation he now feels.  Finally, a post-polio American woman of Italian heritage discusses her lifelong struggle with prejudice based not only on her disability but also on her marriage to an African-American man. While each subject’s story is different, they all experience isolation and invisibility within their own cultures.  Greytak uses her personal experiences to create a story highlighting the vulnerability and resilience of her subjects.  

Greytak’s intentions were for the film to reach a wide audience, not one specific group.  Looking at the range of venues at which the film has been screened, she feels it has succeeded. These include the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center; MoMA's Gramercy Theater; The Egyptian Theater and other local theaters in Los Angeles; the Double Take Documentary Film Festival (now called Full Frame), where it received a prize; and the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.  In addition, special screenings were held in Hong Kong and Siberia.   Greytak reports that the film was very well received by all audiences.

Process and Retention:
In 1997, Greytak began the initial stages of preproduction by working on proposals and fundraising. When she first started working on this project, she knew she wanted to go to Russia, and she was very interested in going to Asia.  She contacted social organizations and organizations for people with disabilities, but the most valuable support came from arts organizations and word of mouth. She visited her first stop, Russia, in 1998, before e-mail was pervasive, and she still retains copies of the faxes she sent.

Preproduction for this film was fairly unrelenting; upon returning to New York from one country, Greytak would begin securing funds for the next. As a result, she has on file two 10-minute VHS screener tapes used to solicit funds from arts organizations. The first has New York footage only, and it was sent to ArtsLink and CEC International Partners to obtain funds for the Russia trip. The second tape has footage from Russia and New York; with it she secured funds for postproduction from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Soros Documentary Fund. Greytak has copies of these tapes in her home, labeled under the working title for this film, The Resilient Spirit.  In addition, she has on file copies of her project proposal and synopsis, as well as the questions she prepared for each country.   

Though she would have preferred to shoot on film, this was impossible due to the need for portability when traveling.  The film was shot on DVC Pro, with the diegetic sound being recorded directly onto the tape.  She interviewed people she thought would offer a wide perspective—and who would express it candidly. The voiceover narration in Losing It reflects her thoughts as she searches for something intangible and difficult to elucidate. In Hong Kong, for example, she recorded several interviews with people who “toed the party line”; that is, they spoke of wheelchair basketball teams instead of the obvious segmentation in Hong Kong society between the abled and disabled.  Although interviews such as these did not make the final cut, she does have this footage on file on DVC Pro master tapes and a Beta SP safety master.

In Russia, meanwhile, Greytak and her small crew were detained at the Moscow airport for unknown reasons. Greytak narrates this unnerving experience in the film, her voiceover accompanying still photographs taken by her assistant, Katie Duffin. Separated from their video equipment, Greytak asked Duffin to take photographs with her 35 mm camera. Duffin also photographed the rest of the production process, and these images, along with the airport stills, are safely stowed in a photo album in Greytak’s apartment.

Other photos appear in the film, nicely complementing the Russia still photos. First, Greytak’s narration accompanies pictures from her own childhood—photos Greytak had previously wanted to destroy, but later conceded were perfect for setting up the film from a personal point of view. These still exist in Greytak’s apartment. In addition, the film includes photos of Marino, the interview subject in Italy.  Filmed images of the photos were shot on location in Italy, and the originals remain with Marino.

Greytak shot on DVC Pro, but because the camera she used did not have Firewire, she had to transfer the DV Pro tapes to Beta SP for editing on Avid.   All in all, approximately 25 hours of footage were pared down to a 90-minute final cut.

For the narration and music, separate DAT tapes were created, which remain unedited in Greytak’s home. Greytak was very enthusiastic about her collaboration with composer Wes York for the original music in the film.  The two artists worked very closely together to create the right mood for the piece, and she expressed disappointment that this process itself was not documented. Because many of her interview subjects spoke in a foreign language, Greytak has hard copy transcripts of the text in multiple languages and their English translations, as well as a tape with subtitles that is kept with the master copies. The film was finally completed in 2000. Finished copies were created on Beta for festival screenings, and Greytak made a 16mm copy for a screening at the Walter Reade Theater, which at the time couldn’t screen Beta tapes. The transfer to film gave the documentary a “moody” feel that was bluer, darker, and had more contrast. It provides an additional preservation and viewing format, one with which Greytak is quite satisfied. These materials are labeled and safely stored in her apartment.

This film would not exist without the enormous amount of assistance provided by others. After the initial trip to Russia, Greytak hired a research assistant to help choose shooting locations, create contacts, and arrange interviews. It was this research assistant who met Edith, whom we see interviewed in Hong Kong, through an internet chat room for disabled people.  Edith was a huge help in arranging meetings for Greytak, and her strong English conversation abilities meant that a translator was not necessary.  In other countries a cameraperson and a production manager, who often doubled as a translator, accompanied Greytak.  During post-production, two editors and an assistant editor assisted her.

Losing It provides unique insight into the lives of disabled people in vastly different cultures, making it very valuable to those who have an interest in the subject but cannot travel to those places themselves.  It has a wide range of educational uses as well.  Both the film and the ancillary materials that still exist may be quite useful to students and other artists who are learning about the process of creating such a film.  A saved fax or letter may one day give a feel for this time in history, making those items valuable artifacts. The film, itself, could prove useful to history students in the future, illustrating the primitive ways in which modern society deals with disabled individuals and hinting at potential tensions surrounding mixed race couples. Film studies students writing about the film or filmmaker will find the unused footage extremely useful, demonstrating Greytak’s style and helping to pinpoint what she was looking for in interview subjects, while the production notes and other written materials give insight into the director’s thought processes and intentions.

Preservation Issues:
Because the materials that remain from the film do not require much storage space, Greytak is currently keeping everything in her home.  These materials are labeled by title, either working or final.  Though this is convenient for her to access items without going through the hassle of traveling to an off-site storage area, it is somewhat risky.  
Greytak is very aware of the potential dangers of any media storage, so she has taken the precaution of maintaining copies of her documentary in various formats.  In addition, Greytak is quite satisfied with the 16mm print, so preserving this format is a priority for her.   Her ancillary materials are essential to maintaining the provenance of her work and to understanding the process of creation and production as well as the historical value of the work.  Therefore, we suggest she look into preservation options for the paper objects such as photographs, faxes, letters, transcripts and interview materials that she accumulated during the process of production.

Had we been able to work with Greytak from the beginning of the project, we would have saved all the materials that she has (she didn't throw anything away!, as every piece ultimately has value.  Because the amount of material in total is not overwhelming, this is not a big storage issue.  Overall, the collection is fairly well taken care of, though we do strongly encourage storing her materials in a cool, safe space to help ensure the preservation of the work.

For Contrast: A Brief Look at Sharon Greytak’s Feature Films

In addition to her documentary work, Sharon Greytak has completed two feature films: Hearing Voices (1991) and The Love Lesson (1995). Both received limited theatrical release.

Greytak eschews storyboards and rarely seems to record screen tests, but many other written and recorded materials were generated during the production process. As with her documentary films, Greytak is careful to retain and keep track of these materials. First, scripts for both features are in the script collection at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles. (The scripts are non-circulating.) In addition, Greytak has on file paper copies of the script supervisor’s notes, while the editor’s script with notes “stays with the project.” For each feature, a 35mm print and outtakes are in storage at Iron Mountain, and the negative is at the lab. Greytak has separate DAT tapes for sound and music, and there are many Beta and VHS copies available through her distribution house, Cinema Guild.

A caveat to researchers: Some of the materials described above might be labeled Broken Frames (a working title) instead of Hearing Voices. If possible, peruse the boxes with Sharon Greytak along for decoding!

Caveat #2: Note that the news footage in The Love Lesson is from a stock house, so rights might need to be obtained.