Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

Michael Fox October 19, 2011

Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.

Everything changed, and nothing changed, when Bay Area documentary filmmakers Allie Light and Irving Saraf won the gold statuette for Best Documentary Feature on that March night in 1992. From that moment forward, their names would be preceded in practically every circumstance and situation by the honorific “Academy Award-winning.” And yet the unpretentious, unassuming couple would be unaffected by the top-of-the-world success of their beautifully crafted crowd-pleaser, In the Shadow of the Stars.

Now a cynic, or a realist, might point out that an Oscar doesn’t come with a magic password for raising money for the next documentary, let alone the one after that. But Saraf and Light’s continued adherence to a filmmaking approach, and ethos, was never dictated by external conditions but by who they were and what they stood for.

Their extensive oeuvre is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders. They have displayed an extraordinary sensitivity to the plight of women in America, in particular, from unsung artists to mistreated patients to incarcerated murderers. Their candid and moving follow-up to In the Shadow of the Stars, Dialogues with Madwomen, received a national Emmy Award. For their skill behind the camera and in the editing suite, their uncompromising moral and ethical standards, and their myriad contributions to the Bay Area filmmaking community, Allie Light and Irving Saraf are honored in the 2011 class of Presents Essential SF tributees.

Saraf was born in Poland before the war—a factor in his empathy for the suffering and striving of others, no doubt—and raised and educated in Israel. He earned his B.A. in Motion Pictures from UCLA, and immediately went to work as a cinematographer, editor and producer of television documentaries.

“At the beginning of the ’60s, and that’s already when I was working so I can talk from my own experience, a real explosion happened,” Saraf recalled at a 1992 town meeting on the hot topic of “Truth in Documentary” sponsored by Film Arts Foundation. “Portable equipment arrived and I can remember when I unpacked my first portable camera, pulled it out of the case right on location, started shooting and just went crazy. Because it allowed you to film things as they happened, and conveniently in the ’60s, a lot of things happened.”

A prolific filmmaker with more than 150 credits, Saraf made his mark early on with the Emmy-nominated Poland, Changing World (1965) and USA Poetry (1966), a series of 12 half-hour films about modern poets made with Richard Moore and Philip Greene for NET (the precursor to PBS). After relocating to the Bay Area, Saraf founded and led KQED’s film unit. He subsequently went to work for Saul Zaentz, producing several narrative films and supervising postproduction on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Light and Saraf teamed up in the 1970s, producing five half-hour films on folk artists between 1977 and 1983. Grandma’s Bottle Village: The Art of Tressa Prisbrey (1982) is perhaps the best loved and best remembered of the “Visions of Paradise” series, which also includes Possum Trot: The Art of Calvin Black, The Monument of Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, Hundred and Two Mature: The Art of Harry Lieberman and The Angel that Stands by Me: Minnie Evans’ Paintings.

The filmmaking team’s first long-form collaboration, Mitsuye and Nellie (1981), expanded on their affection for artists to encompass a social issue. The one-hour doc illuminates the immigrant experience through the poetry of Japanese American Mitsuye Yamada and Chinese American Nellie Wong.

“When docs first began, years ago, they were scripted,” Light noted in a 1995 interview with Gary Morris for Bright Lights Film Journal. “[Robert] Flaherty's films were made from scripts. Then when cinema verité came along, people were just fascinated with capturing what was there, and they forgot about the interior world. That doesn't get realized through cinema verité.”

Indeed, Light’s work across various fields has been singularly focused on bringing the interior world to light. She has taught film and women’s studies at San Francisco State University, City College and Laney College. Her extensive writing includes a book of poems, The Glittering Cave, and an anthology of work by other women, Poetry From Violence.

Light and Saraf’s talent for piercing the veil of silence reached new heights with In the Shadow of the Stars (1991). Packed with the ambitions, insecurities and outsize personalities of 11 members of the San Francisco Opera chorus, the film could be said to comply with the hoary documentary admonition to give voice to the voiceless—even if these world-class sopranos, tenors and baritones are anything but shy.

The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called In the Shadow of the Stars a work of “enormous wit, intelligence and compassion.” From a filmmaking standpoint, its exquisite craftsmanship set a standard for behind-the-scenes documentaries that has rarely been exceeded in the ensuing 20 years. (Its artful construction and graceful transitions are even more apparent, and appreciated, in the reality TV era).

In retrospect, the Academy Award had the effect of encouraging Light and Saraf to take even greater risks than the usual ones associated with feature-length docs. In Dialogues with Madwomen (1994), seven women confide their torturous experiences with various types of mental illness and numerous members of the medical establishment. Directed by Light and produced, shot and edited by Saraf, this harrowing film challenged audiences to confront one of society’s most taboo subjects.

Light bravely set the tone by including herself among the seven who tell their stories on camera. “I was always so afraid that someone would ask me [where I was when JFK was shot],” she says on the Women Make Movies website, “and I would have to say I was in a mental institution.”

Dialogues with Madwomen was a deeply personal undertaking, and a stunningly courageous one. It was rewarded with the Freedom of Expression Award at Sundance and a national broadcast on “POV,” as well as an Emmy Award.

“In the ’50s, any woman who was articulate and spoke out could be labeled mad,” Light explained to Bright Lights. “I wanted to show that women think as well as feel, and that what you so often get when you listen to a woman's story is a feeling. But behind it is the ability to analyze and figure out what happened and why, and what to do about it.”

The filmmakers continued to explore their fascination with the complicated and unacknowledged lives of American women with a trio of unflinching documentaries:Rachel’s Daughters: Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer (1997), which aired on HBO; Blind Spot: Murder by Women (2000), co-directed with Julia Hilder; and The Sermons of Sister Jane: Believing the Unbelievable (2007), co-directed with Carol Monpere.

If you think it’s obsessive and unnecessary to include their key collaborators, you don’t realize how diligent Light and Saraf are about giving and sharing credit. Their dedication to the next generation of local filmmakers, reflected in Saraf’s many years of teaching film production at S.F. State, essentially had no limits, according to Gail Silva, the longtime director of the fondly remembered Film Arts Foundation and an advisor and consultant to independent filmmakers.

“One thing that shouldn't be overlooked is the fact that this terrific duo have mentored hundreds, if not a thousand-plus, filmmakers over the years,” Silva declared. “Allie and Irving always extended themselves to aspiring storytellers as well as the professional film community, offering generous amounts of advice, encouragement and incisive, bold critiques. The Bay Area would be a cinematic wasteland if not for the likes of Allie and Irving.”

The qualities that define Saraf and Light—compassion, integrity, tolerance, encouragement—naturally inform every frame of their most recent film, Empress Hotel (2009). This gritty portrait of a residential hotel in the Tenderloin for formerly homeless people dealing with addiction, alcoholism and mental illness is, like all their films, simultaneously non-judgmental and unblinking.

“You can never really tell the complete truth in a documentary film,” Light said at that 1992 forum. “You can try very hard but you fight with [the] subject’s interpretation of what his or her life is. And maybe every person has the right to present him or herself to the camera the way they see their own lives. Maybe the dreams, the fantasies, the desires we all have are a part of the fabric of our lives, and those dreams and fantasies are as much true of us as the truth, whatever that is.”

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