Place of birth: Born in Ohio, moved to
When I was young I wanted to…do what I do: music
Filmography as director
American composer and filmmaker Joe Davidow shares his perspective both on home and abroad.
Moving to Helsinki after meeting a Finnish woman whilst studying at the Moscow Conservatory in the late 1970s, American Joe Davidow’s work as a musician and composer soon led him down the path to filmmaking. Initially known for his documentary work that highlighted important issues occurring in his homeland America, his focus turned to creatively filming dance in the early 1990s, and he was bestowed with the prestigious Prix Italia in 1998 for The Man Who Never Was, based on the work of the national poet of Portugal, Fernando Pessoa.
However, his frequent visits back to America over the years have witnessed a great number of social changes there. It was perhaps Davidow’s most striking observation that ended up consuming four years of research, filming and postproduction.
Dreams Deferred: legacy of American apartheid sees him returning to The Bronx, the New York City borough of his childhood, to document the growing distance that exists between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in the African American community. With African Americans making up half of the prison population, yet only 12.5 per cent of the American population, Davidow documents the cycle that sees the poorer members of this community restricted under the weight of mass incarceration, discriminatory drug laws, crime, extended prison sentences and loss of voting rights, and uncovers the reduced opportunities that occur as a direct result of having done time in prison.
Arriving to a Helsinki café early one Monday afternoon, Davidow extends a firm handshake. Taking a seat and ordering a latte from a passing waitress, he is polite yet initially reserved, as he gradually relaxes into the less familiar role of interviewee.
After initially working here as a composer, what eventually drew you towards visual expression?
I was making music for an animated film for Epidem in the early ‘80s when the director suddenly disappeared. I was going back and forth wondering when I was going to get paid. The company said basically that when the TV accepts it – only then will you get the money. Finally they said that if you are in such a hurry to get paid then take the material and edit it yourself. So I did. That was the first time I did anything in cinema.
Your subject matter over the years has been quite broad; from dance performance capture, to AIDS and the plight of the underprivileged in America. Where do you find your subjects? Is there a particular spark that sets you off?
Most of the time I am searching for projects where I can use my own music and stories that I like. On the artistic side, I started working a lot with dance in the ‘80s and ‘90s; I did a lot of work with Jorma Uotinen, who was the artistic director of Finnish National Ballet from 1992-2001. I was also working with the theatre school here. I just liked the expression of dance.
With documentaries I feel like they are social issues that need to be dealt with, this is something that people should know about; a social responsibility.
Why have you returned to the USA as the focus of your documentary work on so many occasions?
Living in Europe you can usually see the misconceptions about the country, and also that the States is in everyone’s face. You know, the wars are basically being started by the US [laughs]. It’s a big, powerful country.
I feel that I know the psychology of the Scandinavians and Europeans, to an extent, as I have been living in Europe for a very long time. I know what the image is that they have of the United States. I feel that when I am doing things about the States that I am doing it in a way that the European public can understand. Talking about my country in a way, here. That’s the stimulus.
Do you seek a desired outcome from the viewer when you are making a documentary?
Not really, I’m not going that far. I don’t look at it as a propaganda tool or anything like that. There are 300 million people in the States. There are many different truths and many different lives. I’m showing one that I know, that’s part of my life. For example, I did four films on HIV. While I’ve never had HIV, the people working in that community are people that I know – people actively supporting human rights.
Where did the idea for Dreams Deferred come from?
I’d been thinking about that for a while. With the racial history in the United States – the role of having many different races and the role of slavery and that kind of thing – it’s very complex.
It’s one thing to read in a newspaper what’s going on in a country, but it’s another thing when you come home. You see what people living there don’t see as they are living there every day. I’ve been seeing this for many years.
So, it’s an idea that I had sitting on my table for a long time: what’s been occurring in the United States after the giant change through the mid-‘60s and ‘70s with the end of segregation laws and the Vietnam war. The African American community went from being a community that was pushing to change the segregation laws, to moving into a very dominant role in the anti-Vietnam War movement. These issues affected the entire country.
Everything started changing to the point where you’d have Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Obama, academics; you definitely saw the change in that direction. In the other direction you saw the whole perspective change toward the poorer community and how they were viewed. In the poorer community, people who before were symbols of a progressive community demanding change suddenly became the symbol of the criminal. Well, not suddenly, but how the fuck did that happen?
When you look at documentary films of the Motown artists from the ‘60s going into the ‘70s, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, you see these really dignified images of the community making progressive demands – to where today the image is the rapper who’s talking about gangster rap.
So I started reading and researching. The more I read it became clearer and clearer. Then I read this book by Michelle Alexander. She put 40 years into perspective. I had already done some filming on a community level, what’s going on in the community areas, and then the structure of the film started coming, especially when I started reading her stuff and when I met her.
Land of the free, home of the brave, but is America still a racist country?
You’re talking about a history of hundreds of years. There are different tendencies. Obviously there’s been a change in the United States as Obama won 53 per cent of the population – which in Europe may not sound like a lot, but in the United States it is. I think he won by nine million votes; won absolutely every community except for white men over the age of 45.
There has been a big change, but that was not the point of the film. The point of the film was dealing with a question of discrimination against a segment of the population that not too many people see, where in a way the change has been for the worse. As one of the guys from the film says, “Nobody sees this because no one from middle class America goes into these areas.”
It’s like the Zen idea: there are many truths. There are many people dealing with that particular truth. It is a truth that many people don’t know about.
So, how to break the cycle of 50 per cent of the male prison population being black in America?
The issues that the documentary is dealing with are being raised in the States at the moment. For two reasons: the black community are no longer not talking about it. They are no longer not talking about crime. They didn't want to talk about prisons. That's what they were being blamed for and they didn't want to add on to it. Now the discrimination of the justice system is being examined. As you can see in the film there are a hell of a lot of African American academics, very, very sharp, brilliant people. They are starting to discuss the issue in this way: Why are African Americans being sentenced to excessively long prison sentences for using crack, the poor man's cocaine - when expensive powder cocaine use gets a 100 times lighter prison sentence for the same amount? And this is just one example.
On the other hand, even right wing politicians are touching it, as so much money now is in the prison system. The question comes: how can we have a system that costs so much? Newt Gingridge [2012 Republican Presidential candidate] was saying something about that the other day: Should we change the drug laws because we are arresting so many people? He obviously in his mind wasn't thinking because we are arresting so many black people or Latinos. In general he was thinking of the cost when the economy is such a big issue in the election.
What kind of feedback did you receive here in Finland after the recent premiere screening of the film?
Everyone was very positive. What I found interesting was when we had the screening there were a bunch of kids in their 20s there. They took it straight to heart. And we realised because of the culture – the hip-hop, the music videos, the lyrics, style of dress and the hat – there seems to be a close identification with that community. I was really interested how so many Finnish kids, and a couple were foreign kids, really were like, ‘What’s going on with our guys, how can that be?’
What are your views on Finnish society? How has the country changed since you moved here?
When I first came, if you were a foreigner, it was 99.9 per cent sure that you had a Finnish wife. It has changed quite a bit. There are a lot more foreigners here and Helsinki is more cosmopolitan.
I live as a Finn here. From the foreigner point of view, well, I sit at my house and I work, you know what I mean. That’s what I do. You could have people here that look foreign who are feeling it everyday because they are in certain positions, whereas I’m more in the house working on my own.
Even after living here for so many years do you still feel like an outsider in Finland?
My role of doing my own projects, music and film – that keeps me on the outside. Things I do, usually have to do with my idea of the United States, or art in general, so I’m not usually touching Finnish themes. I’m not competing with Finnish filmmakers to make stories about Finland. On the other hand I speak Finnish and I’ve lived here for 100 years and I feel like this is my home also.
Is there any social issue that exists here in Finland that you’d like to investigate further?
There was the idea that we would do with four foreign-born film directors. We were thinking about doing something on the school shootings. What is the basis for it, how it ties in internationally. We thought that it might be interesting for Finnish society for outsiders to give their view. I still have that on my desk
How about other issues, for example, the current situation here in Finland with the Romanian beggars, would that be something that sparks your interest?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s a real failure of the European community. If you remember Nokia, they moved from Germany to Romania almost immediately, as Germans have higher salaries. You move over to Romania where they are paying them 400 euros per month. You move the whole factory over there, so they can make a buck on Romania.
But they have no jobs in Romania, they are in a really bad situation right now, especially the Roma population. They don’t have any jobs at all, and they open the EU borders and they come here looking for work. Then you have little old ladies here in the winter, sitting outside when it’s -30.
Finns do have a history of begging. If you go to a Finnish church in many areas you have the wooden statue with the man with his hand out and the hole in his stomach where you give coins, and that’s money that goes to the needy. Finland also has a history of indebted peasants working the land – as in other countries.
After World War II, when all the eastern Karelians came here, the Finns had lost the war, they had no food and suddenly they had all of these people they are supposed to house. The government said to put them in your house. There was a big backlash against that Finnish tribe. There have been problems in Finland, that’s for sure.
These Romanian women who now come to Finland to beg, Finnish society doesn’t know what’s going on with them in their country when they see them sitting in the cold. Of course, it can make them angry – because they don’t understand. And when you don’t understand you get confused, and then you start to get aggravated and irritated. That’s a real failure of the European Union.
In Finland it is on a really small scale – there is a tremendous amount of Bulgarian and Romanian people running to Italy and France, which causes a big backlash in those countries. Thousands looking for work as there’s no work in their own countries. And the local population gets really pissed and the issue can be used by racist reactionary bastards. The right wing can use it. It is a failure of the European community that they set it up so that companies can make money in Eastern Europe, but they didn’t prepare for these problems when they opened up the borders.
Would you be interested then in perhaps exploring this issue further?
Maybe, now that you mentioned it. Obviously I am interested in the issue of the EU now that you’ve asked me, it’s quite clear that you touched a nerve.
Text James O’Sullivan,
photos Tomas Whitehouse.