‘Rebel Citizen’: NYFF Review

Pamela Yates’ documentary profile of the Oscar-winning cinematographer and director concentrates on his political and socially conscious films.

Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, a two-time Academy Award winner, has credits dating back more than half a century which include In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bound for Glory, Mulholland Falls and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But you won’t hear much about those films in Pamela Yates‘ documentary about her longtime collaborator and mentor. Rather, as its title suggests, Rebel Citizen concentrates on Wexler’s politically themed work, particularly documentaries, that have long marked him as one of Hollywood’s most socially conscious activists. Having recently received its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, the piece is a natural for specialized film fests and eventual cable exposure.

“I deeply appreciate the honor” of being the subject of this documentary, declares the then 90-year-old Wexler at the outset. The film is essentially an extended interview with the cinematographer/director, incorporating film clips from his most impassioned and significant projects.

The Bottom Line

<p>A fascinating appraisal of <span data-scaytid=”49″ word=”Wexler’s”><span data-scayt_word=”Wexler’s” data-scaytid=”2″>Wexler’s</span></span> important work.</p>

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These include such vintage documentaries as The Bus (1963), shot during a bus journey undertaken by Wexler and others to Washington, D.C. for the civil rights march in which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech; Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971), in which Brazilian exiles recount stories of oppression and torture during the military regime; Introduction to the Enemy (1974) shot during the height of the Vietnam War and featuring Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden; and Target: Nicaragua (1983), about the CIA-sponsored covert war against the Sandinista government.

Much attention is paid to his landmark directorial effort Medium Cool (1969), shot during the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, which Wexler describes as being “80% stolen from Godard“; and Underground (1976), about the radical Weather Underground group and co-directed by Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson.

“They had final cut,” says Wexler about the Weather Underground, which was a condition that he and fellow directors readily agreed to.

It was his work on this and other politically charged films that caused Wexler to be fired from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest without explanation, which he says was the result of FBI inquiries about him.

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The film’s most emotional moment occurs when Yates asks her subject if he considers himself a patriotic American, followed by Wexler tearing up while answering in the affirmative.

The passage of time and advanced age have done little to dampen Wexler’s energy and convictions. In the last decade he’s continued to make social advocacy features and shorts, including Who Needs Sleep? (2006), exposing the dangers of the excessive hours required of workers on Hollywood films, and Four Days in Chicago (2013), about the Occupy Chicago movement. As Rebel Citizen makes abundantly and movingly clear, Haskell Wexler is not going down without a fight.

Production: Skylight Pictures

Director: Pamela Yates

Producer: Paco de Onis

Editors: Daniela I. Quiroz, Peter Kinoy

Not rated, 76 min.