Preservation Case Studies
Intro to MIAP
Profs. Besser and Harris
Kara Van Malssen
by Sharon Greytak
Sharon Greytak is a New York-based filmmaker. She began her career
in the art department at CalArts, where she studied as a painter and made
abstract paintings, always talking about them in a very narrative way.
From there she began working in mixed media drawings and abstract mark-making
before eventually moving on to filmmaking. She seems to have come
at film from a perspective of exploring the distanced relationship between
the subject and the viewer. When asked why she decided to move into
the film arena, she said, “[She] thought film would reach a wider audience
than work in a gallery.” (Cinemad Magazine #7)
Losing It is the title of her most recent film. It is a cross-cultural
documentary, filmed on four continents, that explores the lives of people
with physical disabilities and the ways those disabilities are understood
in other places and cultures. In the film, Greytak travels to Siberia;
Hong Kong; São Paolo, Brazil; Vicenza, Italy; and her own home, New
A disabled person herself, Greytak offers a unique perspective into the
lives of the disabled people she meets and a sincere understanding of the
challenges they must all face on a daily basis. In Russia, Greytak interviews
a man and a woman with cerebral palsy, both of whom struggle for independence,
opportunity, and education in a country where wheelchairs and other resources
are scarce. In Hong Kong, Edith, who had a stroke in her 40s, re-evaluates
her priorities in life when she can no longer participate in Hong Kong’s
hectic lifestyle. She explores the role disabled persons play in society
and discovers avenues of rehabilitation and recovery. In Brazil, a
man and woman speak openly about the ways in which their disability informs
every aspect of their lives, from economic conditions to religious ideas
and the expectations of society. An Italian artist with a rare blood
disorder contrasts his life before being altered by his crippling disease
with total isolation he now feels. Finally, a post-polio American
woman of Italian heritage discusses her lifelong struggle with prejudice
based not only on her disability but also on her marriage to an African-American
man. While each subject’s story is different, they all experience isolation
and invisibility within their own cultures. Greytak uses her personal
experiences to create a story highlighting the vulnerability and resilience
of her subjects.
Greytak’s intentions were for the film to reach a wide audience, not one
specific group. Looking at the range of venues at which the film has
been screened, she feels it has succeeded. These include the Walter Reade
Theater at Lincoln Center; MoMA's Gramercy Theater; The Egyptian Theater
and other local theaters in Los Angeles; the Double Take Documentary Film
Festival (now called Full Frame), where it received a prize; and the Hot
Springs Documentary Film Festival. In addition, special screenings
were held in Hong Kong and Siberia. Greytak reports that the
film was very well received by all audiences.
Process and Retention:
In 1997, Greytak began the initial stages of preproduction by working on
proposals and fundraising. When she first started working on this project,
she knew she wanted to go to Russia, and she was very interested in going
to Asia. She contacted social organizations and organizations for
people with disabilities, but the most valuable support came from arts organizations
and word of mouth. She visited her first stop, Russia, in 1998, before e-mail
was pervasive, and she still retains copies of the faxes she sent.
Preproduction for this film was fairly unrelenting; upon returning to New
York from one country, Greytak would begin securing funds for the next.
As a result, she has on file two 10-minute VHS screener tapes used to solicit
funds from arts organizations. The first has New York footage only, and
it was sent to ArtsLink and CEC International Partners to obtain funds for
the Russia trip. The second tape has footage from Russia and New York; with
it she secured funds for postproduction from the New York State Council
on the Arts and the Soros Documentary Fund. Greytak has copies of these
tapes in her home, labeled under the working title for this film, The
Resilient Spirit. In addition, she has on file copies of her project
proposal and synopsis, as well as the questions she prepared for each country.
Though she would have preferred to shoot on film, this was impossible due
to the need for portability when traveling. The film was shot on DVC
Pro, with the diegetic sound being recorded directly onto the tape.
She interviewed people she thought would offer a wide perspective—and who
would express it candidly. The voiceover narration in Losing It reflects
her thoughts as she searches for something intangible and difficult to elucidate.
In Hong Kong, for example, she recorded several interviews with people who
“toed the party line”; that is, they spoke of wheelchair basketball teams
instead of the obvious segmentation in Hong Kong society between the abled
and disabled. Although interviews such as these did not make the final
cut, she does have this footage on file on DVC Pro master tapes and a Beta
SP safety master.
In Russia, meanwhile, Greytak and her small crew were detained at the Moscow
airport for unknown reasons. Greytak narrates this unnerving experience
in the film, her voiceover accompanying still photographs taken by her assistant,
Katie Duffin. Separated from their video equipment, Greytak asked Duffin
to take photographs with her 35 mm camera. Duffin also photographed the rest
of the production process, and these images, along with the airport stills,
are safely stowed in a photo album in Greytak’s apartment.
Other photos appear in the film, nicely complementing the Russia still
photos. First, Greytak’s narration accompanies pictures from her own childhood—photos
Greytak had previously wanted to destroy, but later conceded were perfect
for setting up the film from a personal point of view. These still exist
in Greytak’s apartment. In addition, the film includes photos of Marino,
the interview subject in Italy. Filmed images of the photos were shot
on location in Italy, and the originals remain with Marino.
Greytak shot on DVC Pro, but because the camera she used did not have Firewire,
she had to transfer the DV Pro tapes to Beta SP for editing on Avid.
All in all, approximately 25 hours of footage were pared down to a 90-minute
For the narration and music, separate DAT tapes were created, which remain
unedited in Greytak’s home. Greytak was very enthusiastic about her collaboration
with composer Wes York for the original music in the film. The two
artists worked very closely together to create the right mood for the piece,
and she expressed disappointment that this process itself was not documented.
Because many of her interview subjects spoke in a foreign language, Greytak
has hard copy transcripts of the text in multiple languages and their English
translations, as well as a tape with subtitles that is kept with the master
copies. The film was finally completed in 2000. Finished copies were created
on Beta for festival screenings, and Greytak made a 16mm copy for a screening
at the Walter Reade Theater, which at the time couldn’t screen Beta tapes.
The transfer to film gave the documentary a “moody” feel that was bluer,
darker, and had more contrast. It provides an additional preservation and
viewing format, one with which Greytak is quite satisfied. These materials
are labeled and safely stored in her apartment.
This film would not exist without the enormous amount of assistance provided
by others. After the initial trip to Russia, Greytak hired a research assistant
to help choose shooting locations, create contacts, and arrange interviews.
It was this research assistant who met Edith, whom we see interviewed in
Hong Kong, through an internet chat room for disabled people. Edith
was a huge help in arranging meetings for Greytak, and her strong English
conversation abilities meant that a translator was not necessary. In
other countries a cameraperson and a production manager, who often doubled
as a translator, accompanied Greytak. During post-production, two editors
and an assistant editor assisted her.
Losing It provides unique insight into the lives of disabled people
in vastly different cultures, making it very valuable to those who have
an interest in the subject but cannot travel to those places themselves.
It has a wide range of educational uses as well. Both the film and
the ancillary materials that still exist may be quite useful to students
and other artists who are learning about the process of creating such a film.
A saved fax or letter may one day give a feel for this time in history,
making those items valuable artifacts. The film, itself, could prove useful
to history students in the future, illustrating the primitive ways in which
modern society deals with disabled individuals and hinting at potential
tensions surrounding mixed race couples. Film studies students writing about
the film or filmmaker will find the unused footage extremely useful, demonstrating
Greytak’s style and helping to pinpoint what she was looking for in interview
subjects, while the production notes and other written materials give insight
into the director’s thought processes and intentions.
Because the materials that remain from the film do not require much storage
space, Greytak is currently keeping everything in her home. These
materials are labeled by title, either working or final. Though this
is convenient for her to access items without going through the hassle of
traveling to an off-site storage area, it is somewhat risky.
Greytak is very aware of the potential dangers of any media storage, so
she has taken the precaution of maintaining copies of her documentary in various
formats. In addition, Greytak is quite satisfied with the 16mm print,
so preserving this format is a priority for her. Her ancillary
materials are essential to maintaining the provenance of her work and to
understanding the process of creation and production as well as the historical
value of the work. Therefore, we suggest she look into preservation
options for the paper objects such as photographs, faxes, letters, transcripts
and interview materials that she accumulated during the process of production.
Had we been able to work with Greytak from the beginning of the project,
we would have saved all the materials that she has (she didn't throw anything
away!, as every piece ultimately has value. Because the amount of
material in total is not overwhelming, this is not a big storage issue.
Overall, the collection is fairly well taken care of, though we do strongly
encourage storing her materials in a cool, safe space to help ensure the
preservation of the work.
For Contrast: A Brief Look at Sharon Greytak’s Feature Films
In addition to her documentary work, Sharon Greytak has completed two feature
films: Hearing Voices (1991) and The Love Lesson (1995). Both
received limited theatrical release.
Greytak eschews storyboards and rarely seems to record screen tests, but
many other written and recorded materials were generated during the production
process. As with her documentary films, Greytak is careful to retain and
keep track of these materials. First, scripts for both features are in the
script collection at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles. (The scripts
are non-circulating.) In addition, Greytak has on file paper copies of the
script supervisor’s notes, while the editor’s script with notes “stays with
the project.” For each feature, a 35mm print and outtakes are in storage
at Iron Mountain, and the negative is at the lab. Greytak has separate DAT
tapes for sound and music, and there are many Beta and VHS copies available
through her distribution house, Cinema Guild.
A caveat to researchers: Some of the materials described above might be
labeled Broken Frames (a working title) instead of Hearing Voices.
If possible, peruse the boxes with Sharon Greytak along for decoding!
Caveat #2: Note that the news footage in The Love Lesson is from
a stock house, so rights might need to be obtained.