Documentarian Samuel Pollard finds himself in a unique position heading into this year’s DOC NYC festival. While his documentary Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me makes its New York debut at this year’s festival following a premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s not the only movie Pollard is screening at DOC NYC. He’ll also be unveiling Maynard, a profile of the life of Maynard Jackson, who became the first African-American mayor of any major Southern city when elected mayor of Atlanta in 1973 at the age of 35. These two brilliantly told documentaries rely heavily on audio interviews with the film subjects, as well as immense amounts of archival footage, to bring audiences closer to their iconic lives. I spoke with Sam Pollard ahead of DOC NYC about having two movies in the festival and why he’s attracted to working in the non-fiction format.
You have two screening here are Doc NYC, what is it like as a filmmaker to be balancing these multiple projects at a time?
First of all, I’m very excited to have both of my films screen at Doc NYC. To me, it was a really honor to be asked not only to show the Sammy film, but also the Maynard film. The challenge with trying to work on two films is that you’re juggling, trying to make sure all the things are in place in terms of color correction and mixing, anything.
We had finished the Sammy film in the spring, so there wasn’t much to do. But when we were told were going to be in Doc NYC with the Maynard film we were really up against a deadline because then we had to do the color correct, we had to do the mix.
So I was smart enough to have my cinematographer for Maynard, Henry Adebonojo, go down to Atlanta to do the color correct. Then they sent it to me so I could watch it, and I sent them notes. Same with the mix. I have a good team besides Henry. The two producers, Maynard Jackson III and his wife Wendy Jackson, who’ve been superb producers on this project, and a wonderful editor on this film Jeffrey Cooper, who used to be my assistant when I worked for Spike [Lee].
You’ve done some work in both documentary and narrative filmmaking, what is it that appeals to you about working in non-fiction?
I always say to people the reason I’m so in love with documentary filmmaking, since I started as an editor many, many years ago, the thing I’ve learned in the editing of documentaries is that the editor has a tremendous amount of responsibility to help shape the story, help shape the direction of the film. Because you have no script, you’re working with material that may not seem to have rhyme or reason when you initially watch it. Your challenge as an editor is to make it into a film.
When I learned that process I fell in love with the idea of shaping material that comes out of nowhere – that directors come in with, or producers come in with, and sometimes they have ideas about how it should be put together and sometimes they don’t. But it becomes the editor’s responsibility. I fell in love with it. The wonderful thing about documentary films is when you succeed; you’re ecstatic. When you fail, you feel terrible, but it keeps you going. That’s why I still love it so much.
I’ve also had the good fortune to be able to also edit a lot of feature films in my career, but I always loved going back to documentaries both as an editor and as a director/producer.
Is that your typical approach to documentary, figuring out how to string the elements together through your edit?
Yeah, because the reality is no matter what you do – be it a scripted film or a non-scripted film – it’s really going to come to life in the editing process. You can shoot all this stuff, but when you put it together in the editing process then you realize after 12 weeks, 14 weeks, 16 weeks, sometimes 40 weeks of editing that you have a film. And when you do have a movie that you’re proud of, it’s the best feeling in the world.
You’ve made documentaries about black American and the black experience, but I was wondering if there was something more specific within those stories that drew you to them?
One of the things I learned many years ago when I was a young editor, I was very fortunate to work on a documentary called Chicago Blues with an African-American filmmaker. He made me understand after working with him for six months, spending day after day with him in the editing room, that I had a responsibility as an African-American to tell our stories.
I’ve been very fortunate to tell the stories of African-American people. I’m attracted to telling the stories of people like August Wilson, or Zora Hurston, or Sammy Davis, Jr., or Maynard Jackson because, to me, these are important Americans whose stories sometimes get misplaced or lost. I have a responsibility to make those stories come to life again. Anytime I can shape a film, or get asked to make a film about one of those subjects I grab on to it. I really grab on to it.
Your two documentaries playing at Doc NYC utilize a vast amount of archival footage to tell the stories of their subjects.
As a documentary filmmaker, you work on these films, these two biographies of Maynard Jackson and Sammy Davis, Jr. The wonderful thing about having both those subjects is that they were well documented. There was so much material on Maynard Jackson that we found that we could use when he was campaigning for mayor when he was mayor of the city of Atlanta for three terms.
There’s so much footage of Sammy Davis, Jr. performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Hollywood Palace, All in the Family, performing in England, performing in Italy. There was such a cornucopia of footage from both of these men it was like manna from heaven.
It was exciting just to grab onto this material. Not just video material but audio material. We had Sammy Davis’ audio interviews when he was working on part two of his autobiography. We had audio of Maynard Jackson that was just wonderful to use.
It gives the films this effect of sounding almost like an autobiography at points.
Almost. That’s the point. If you can make it feel like that you feel even better as a documentary filmmaker because now the subjects are telling you their story.
What do you value about a festival like Doc NYC?
It’s a wonderful festival that gives films exposure. And it’s a way also because the documentary community in New York is one in which we all know each other, it’s an opportunity for me to see all my documentary colleagues. To interact. Not only for some of them to come see my films, but I’m going to see their films, too. For me, it’s just a time to get together, break bread, see each other’s films, and critique each others’ work. Doc NYC is a great experience.