By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant
Dr. Paul Stekler, Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film and the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on September 19th, beginning with a short overview of what brought him to politics, and more specifically, what brought him to making documentaries like Getting Back to Abnormal (2013). Dr. Stekler credited his family for his lifelong interest in politics, stemming back to conversations with his grandfather on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first job working for a Republican congressman, among other things. Stekler has worked in a variety of political contexts since then, from the George McGovern campaign in 1972 to working with pollsters from The New York Times. His family spanned both sides of the aisle–his father, a Republican, helped him to get his first campaign work, while his mother is a lifelong Democrat. Stekler earned a doctorate degree in Government from Harvard University, and after working in academia as a political scientist for a number of years, he found his calling as a full-time filmmaker with a focus on politics.
Stekler showed the Fellows a series of clips from an NEH-funded film he made in 2000, titled George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire. The film allowed him, he explained, a new context in which to apply his political knowledge and background, but the challenge was presenting this information in a narrative appropriate to a broader audience. George Wallace, for Stekler, represented a transition point for American politics, and a documentary presented a unique opportunity to bring his conversations within academia into the mainstream.
Participants asked Stekler about his methods, from how he finds his subjects and characters to his methods for mapping the trajectory of a documentary film. Stekler emphasized narrative fundamentals, such as conflict, but he also noted the importance of finding an accessible subject–someone who would not only be open with the filmmaker, but who would be compelling to watch on the screen. Though crafting a story is of the utmost importance, Stekler explained that as a documentarian he seeks to balance storycraft, accuracy of representation, and visual interest. Several Fellows pondered what exactly could be told best in the context of documentaries and other projects for public audiences, and what academic and discipline-specific projects offers alongside more popular works. Participants agreed that although some work can be translated into popular projects, teaching also offers a venue for transmitting one’s research to the public.
Participants also raised questions about Stekler’s development as a documentarian. Much of his knowledge about filmmaking, and more generally, narrative, Stekler said, was learned through collaboration with other creatives. Stekler credited the producer of Eyes on the Prize, one of his first films, for teaching him some of the fundamental aspects of filmmaking–mainly, that the goal was to keep the audience watching. Overall, he admitted, he learned much of what he now knows about story from experience.
The conversation turned more specifically to Getting Back to Abnormal, and the variety of New Orleans documentaries that had been made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Having lived in New Orleans himself, Stekler explained he had found many documentaries of post-Katrina New Orleans lacking what he identified as the city’s true character. Stekler told the group that he and his collaborators wanted to tell the story of whether or not New Orleans had changed, capturing something of what he saw to be New Orleans’ contradictory nature. Stekler shared that at the Controversy & Conversation screening of the film the week before at the Austin Public Library, he had the chance to rewatch it with a number of engaged audience members. During the discussion he led, a member of the audience asked what the film would look like if he had made it in 2019. Although Stekler felt that his connections to the city have grown more distant, making him “not the right person” to make a present-day version of the film, he believes that the sway between the joys and sorrows of the city are unlikely to have changed.
Looking towards the future, Stekler stated he was working to raise funds for a film on the McDonald Observatory and astronomy–moving from the politics of the city to the stars.
See Dr. Stekler’s career reel here.