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The Reeler Blog

MoMA Turns Lens on Churchill

Filmmaker and cinematographer Joan Churchill, the subject of a mini-retrospective at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight (Photo: UCLA)

By Rich Zwelling

MoMA's Documentary Fortnight 2008 continues this weekend with the first of two sidebars devoted to Joan Churchill, the pioneer female director/cinematographer who produced a prolific body of work in the 1970s, when both professions were almost exclusively male.

"Each year, we have a special guest," said Bill Sloan, a MoMA programming consultant and co-curator of the Churchill screenings. "And Joan is someone I've admired for many years. She has a humanistic point-of-view that is both refreshing and somewhat unusual for documentary filmmaking."

Originally an English major at UCLA, Churchill switched to film when she took a summer class that exposed her to the burgeoning cinema verité movement that would inform much of her work. After graduating, she worked in editing, due to a lack of opportunity for camerawomen. She continued to help her film school colleagues shoot their work, however, and later served as a camera operator during the Rolling Stones' infamous performance at Altamont in 1969. Her footage appears in Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers' 1970 documentary chronicling the music festival and the tragedy that ended it.

Eventually, director Peter Watkins hired her to shoot Punishment Park, his 1971 drama about Vietnam War draft protestors. The film is one of the four features chosen as part of MoMA's tribute. Its inclusion in a series advertised as exclusively documentary is curious; it's a fictional narrative that was merely shot in the style of (and even mistaken for) genuine documentary, but Sloan told The Reeler he programmed it at the request of Churchill herself. "She asked to include it, because she's proud of her camerawork," he said.

The success of Punishment Park allowed Churchill the chance to direct (with Nick Broomfield) Juvenile Liaisons, her first feature, four years later. The film, also featured this weekend, is a controversial examination of the mistreatment of British youth at the hands of corrupt police officers. Following its completion, it was banned from British television.

The remaining two features further highlight Churchill's diversity. Also co-directed by Broomfield, Soldier Girls (1981) follows a group of female Army recruits through the trials of basic training. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) dissects the 2002 execution of Aileen Wuornos, who killed several men while working as a prostitute in Florida. The film served as inspiration for Patty Jenkins' Monster, which was released the same year and featured Charlize Theron in an Oscar-winning performance as Wuornos.

Churchill also filmed a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in the landmark Pumping Iron (1977) and the Bush-bashing Dixie Chicks in Shut Up and Sing (2006). Excerpts from all three films appear in a 58-minute compilation reel that opens MoMA's series on Friday night. Each feature film will be screened twice, and Churchill will be present at all of the nine screenings for discussion. Visit MoMA's Web site for more program and ticket information.

Posted at February 21, 2008 1:06 PM

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