Filmmaker finds truth in freedom


New York filmmaker Pola Rapaport has been making films nearly 20 years. "That's more than half my life," she says.

But success comes slowly to the independent filmmaker. It is with "Broken Meat," her latest film and her longest at 50 minutes, that Rapaport has found her greatest recognition to date.

The film, a black and white documentary on the life of nihilist poet and social misfit Alan Granville, captured the critics' award at the Leningrad International Film Festival earlier this year and won awards last year at festivals in Amsterdam and Oberhausen.

The hip, sometimes humorous film that takes one through the trenches of New York City and into the mind of Granville, is one of two works that will open a four-week Baltimore Film Forum series on women filmmakers this evening at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Women in Film: Pioneers and Premieres" will run through Aug. 2 and will include works ranging from a 1912 short by Alice Guy-Blache, who gets credit for being the world's first female director, to several Baltimore premieres.

Rapaport's "Broken Meat" takes its name from a poem by Granville, who has survived alcohol and cocaine addiction, poverty, homelessness and psychotic episodes to publish five collections of poetry. Today he lives on New York's Lower East Side. "Broken Meat" has been described as a montage of the manic meanderings of the poet, rather than as a chronologic or otherwise organized documentation.

Rapaport herself has described it as "a film about the indomitability of spirit." In a telephone interview from New York, she said she sees the film as "very stylized, almost surrealistic" and "very manipulated" in the editing.

"We didn't chase around after a person, but set up moments instead, in order to give it a feeling that would transcend straight documentation."

"She's done a great job. It's a really accessible film," says Julia Pelosi, an independent film programmer who helped organize the Baltimore Film Forum series. "For a film about a person who is very marginalized and for a seamy side of New York, she's managed to make a film that anybody can get into and enjoy. The poet's spirit really comes through."

Rapaport, 35, has been making films in one way or another since she was 16 and a student at Hunter College High School in New York. After graduation she went on to earn a bachelor's degree from New York University's Institute of Film and Television where she produced several short subjects, experimenting with genre, style and content.

Her last two short films -- "Joanna's Jobs" and "Tooth and Mask" -- were broadcast on public television's "Independent Focus," a New York-based program that features the work of independent filmmakers. Her earlier work has been shown at festivals, museums and cinematheques from California to Berlin.

When not writing and directing her own films, Rapaport works as a free-lance film and sound editor. As such, she has contributed to several documentaries, most recently one for Columbia Artists Management about Italian conductor Claudio Abbado that will be shown on public television in this country and on European stations.

"Broken Meat" won praise at the Sundance Film Festival in Par City, Utah, in January, spreading Rapaport's name across this ,, country, and after the critics chose it as their favorite in Leningrad, that "made a difference in Europe," she says. Now the film is being sold to German and Australian television.

But international acceptance doesn't necessarily make movie-making easier on the pocketbook. Rapaport had to put "Broken Meat" on hold six months during the editing stage to earn more money and to develop funding to complete the film, which originally was conceived as a 10-minute piece.

The film, which she estimates cost about $40,000 to make, was supported by grants from Art Matters Inc. early in the filming and later by the Jerome Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts for completion and distribution. Rapaport and cinematographer Wolfgang Held also were assisted by a group of volunteers who donated time in sound recording, production and photography.

"As an art form, film is really expensive," Rapaport says. "And once the film is made, then you have to promote it," a difficult task today when films that seem to get the largest audience are the ones that are heavily publicized by big production companies even before they're released.

"The public doesn't have an opportunity to see a film without a big force behind it," she says. "And yet in some ways I think it's better to do it on your own.

"Some independent films have come along and used to their advantage the fact that they had little money," she says, citing Spike Lee's first commercial success, "She's Gotta Have It."

"I think they had to incorporate that lack of money into the conceptualization of the film. They were able to make the most of what they had. They really had to think out what they were shooting in a concise way."

Similarly, in her 1983 film "The Walls Have the Floor," she used natural lighting exclusively to avoid the cost of lighting and a crew to handle it. "It actually added to the look of the film," she says. "Sometimes it works for you."

While most of her films to date have been documentaries, her next effort, "Blind Light," will be a narrative feature based on the autobiographical novel by Axel Munthe, "The Story of San Michele," about an obsessive search for light and beauty.

Whatever the genre, though, Rapaport will continue to give her actors room to, as she puts it, "slip in and out of character." In "Broken Meat," for instance, she decided to include in the film phone messages from Granville -- messages to her saying that he wanted her to stop directing him, messages that were sometimes recorded during a cocaine binge.

"I like to give the actors the freedom to live in front of the camera," she explains. "That's one way to get at the truth of the subject."

'Women in Film'

"Women in Film: Pioneers and Premieres" opens tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art with the showing of Pola Rapaport's "Broken Meat" and Su Friedrich's "Sink or Swim." Rapaport will give an informal talk on her film after the screening.

The Baltimore Film Forum series, which is co-sponsored by Women in Film and Video of Maryland, continues through Aug. 2, with most screenings Thursday and Friday evenings. General admission is $5; $4 for seniors, students and Film Forum members. All shows begin at 8 p.m.

Following is a schedule of films:

Tonight: "Broken Meat" and "Sink or Swim," both USA, 1991.

July 12: "The Bigamist," by Ida Lupino, USA, 1953.

July 18: "Maedchen in Uniform," by Leontine Sagan, 1931, Germany.

July 19: Animation Pioneers, 1933-69, featuring works of Lotte Reiniger, Claire Parker, Mary Ellen Bute, Lillian Friedman and others. Guest appearance by critic and writer Cecile Starr.

July 20: "Muriel," France, 1963. The Alain Resnais film is shown as a tribute to the late actress Delphine Seyrig.

July 25: An international selection of short films from Jane Campion and others, 1988-90.

July 26: "Privilege," by Yvonne Rainer, USA, 1990.

Aug. 1: "From the Pole to the Equator," by Angela Ricci-Lucci, Italy, 1987; and "The Girl in the Armchair," by Alice Guy-Blache, France, 1912.

Aug. 2: "Song of the Exile," by Ann Hui, Hong Kong, 1990.

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