Passion for storytelling fuels documentary filmmaker's work

Documentary film producer/director Llewellyn Smith spoke passionately about his goals to make films that can be utilized in the classroom. Photo by Julie Michener.

Llew Smith believes in the power of stories, and he tells them in the most powerful way he knows how. As an award-winning documentarian, writer and producer, Smith brings the drama and immediacy of film to address issues of equity, race and social consciousness. His series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? explores the connections between racial and economic inequality and health across America. The series runs almost five hours and made its debut on PBS in 2008.

He joined the St. Catherine University Diversity Council's film symposium, "The Power of Film: An Agent for Social Equity and Social Justice," Oct. 5-7. It featured screenings of two films on which Smith shared producer credits and he also gave two lectures: “Documentary as Subversive Narrative” and “Storytelling, Authenticity and Health.”

Minnesota connections
Smith grew up in Boston and came to Minnesota in the early '70s to attend Carleton College in Northfield, where he majored in African American history and spent a year in Nigeria for an independent study.

After working for an insurance company for a year, he went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. He was torn between pursuing an advanced degree in history or going into mass communications. He opted for mass communications after attending a historian’s conference where he was “disappointed with the level of discourse.”

The fields of history and communications had in common both research and storytelling. But Smith was not content with the “just news” focus of the communications program. He was looking for the depth and breadth that true storytelling can afford.

In short order he met Reginald Buckner, a musician at the U, who proposed a jazz film project for television—and with Buckner he created the seven-part tele-course, Jazz: An American Classic, for the university. Months later he signed on as a writer for From Jump Street, A Story of Black Music for WETA in Washington, D.C.

Playwriting leads to first break
Over the next several months, he took odd jobs while he looked for work as a producer. But the storyteller urge kept him writing. During this time he wrote a couple of plays for D.C.’s Howard University. One of them, Sankofa, was produced and attracted the attention of actor Ossie Davis, who starred in it. Sankofa, an African word, whose symbol is a bird, translates “go and retrieve your past.” The play tells how African dance came to America.

Smith said his first real training in long-form documentary came when he joined a film project out of Boston focusing on civil rights. The result was the 1985 award-winning series Eyes on the Prize: American’s Civil Rights Years.

Smith calls this his introduction to long-form documentary. That led to a number of other projects for which Smith worked as a producer at PBS station WGBH-TV in Boston, and eventually he formed the independent film company, Vital Pictures, based in Boston.

Vital Pictures-transforming society
Unnatural Causes was Vital Pictures’ first project—the series originated with California Newsreel—and Smith served as its executive producer. The company’s most recent film, which Smith co-produced and directed, is Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness. The film focuses on the controversial 20th century anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits and his impact on African American identity. It is scheduled to air on PBS’s "Independent Lens" series this season.

Smith said the mission of the company is to lift up those issues where the driving idea has to do with social justice. In the Herskovits film, for example, “we look at how we in academia create knowledge about other people, how we can deny the opportunity for others to speak their truth, and from there, we look at the consequences of those actions,” Smith said.

As a storyteller and a film producer, Smith sees as his mission to illuminate “the powerful, driving ideas that are out there but not usually accessible to the public. By example, he cites the research the production team did for Unnatural Causes.

“The concept of social determinants of health is not new. It’s been around for at least 100 years. But we found only two pieces of research on the subject that were written for a general reader like you and me. Yet in academia, there are at least 600 papers on this subject published every year.

“Most scholars aren’t paid or trained to talk to the public about their work—and that’s where Vital Pictures come in to make that information accessible through stories to a public who hasn’t had the opportunity to see or hear any of it.”

Smith hopes that the work of Vital Pictures can be part of transformation in our society. While they are aired on public television, the final audience for the films, he said, are the schools, the workshops, the organizations that focus on justice and equity, and can initiate the process of transformation.

Advice for up and coming filmmakers
Reflecting on how he became involved in the film documentary industry, he said, “I came up in this business in a different era—about 30 years ago. I entered the field as a writer. I didn’t have any technical skills. I don’t know that you can do that now. The field of media technology is vast, but it’s also accessible. So, if you want to get into this business, one—you should know about the technology, and two—you should know how to write and tell a story.”

With regard to the latter, he said, “creating and building relationships to build trust with your subjects is critical in being able to tell their stories.”

He also recommended reading, watching TV documentaries and films of directors you admire. “Ask yourself why does it work for you, what about it moves you.”

“I learned a lot about my craft watching as an intern or apprentice. You need to do your own research about where those kinds of opportunities are and where the funding is,” Smith said. “Finally, it’s important you have a worldview, a vision of what you want to do, what you want and need to say, and why it is you want to be in this business.

“With the exceptions of Michael Moore and Ken Burns, documentary doesn’t pay, so you’d better have passion for it. You’ve got to be in it for the art and for the passion.”

Arline Datu is a freelance writer and communications consultant living in St. Paul.

By Arline Datu
Oct. 8, 2009

Contact Julie Michener, (651) 690-6521

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