January 30, 2023

Leaving a Legacy: From Scranton to Kyiv

Documentary Filmmaker and SCA Professor, Mark  Jonathan Harris, who is retiring from teaching at SCA this year, maps his influences, which began with a childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Looking back, I can see a pattern in my life, a shape and trajectory that I didn’t experience while living it.  Choices I made were often determined by exigencies of the moment, or circumstances I didn’t control.  For example: I never intended or expected to become a university professor.  My undergraduate years at Harvard too often felt, in that wonderful phrase from Virginia Woolf, as if I was running “in and out of the skulls of Sophocles and Euripides like a maggot.”  When I graduated, I was so eager to get away from what I found desiccated and sterile that I bolted before commencement. Real life awaited outside Harvard Yard. I rushed to embrace it.

I began teaching a decade later, totally by accident.  When my family moved from Montreal to Los Angeles in 1973, work I’d been vaguely promised by my one connection in Hollywood fell through. We had almost no money in our checking account—we’d spent most of our savings moving; my wife was about to start graduate school, we had two children under six, and I had no immediate job prospects.  Out of the blue, I received a call from a LA friend of a cinematographer friend of mine in New York, asking if I might be interested in teaching.  Her husband was a faculty member at California Institute of the Arts and needed someone to replace him for a year so he could take a leave of absence to make a documentary.   Classes were starting in a few weeks, and it was clear the school was as desperate to find a substitute instructor as I was to find work.  I drove to Cal Arts, showed two of my films, and even though I had no experience teaching, I was hired the next day.

Cal Arts in the early 70s, with its casual nudity around the swimming pool and haze of pot in the edit rooms, was nothing like the Harvard that I’d fled.  “No information in advance of need” was the film school’s philosophy, which meant few or no lectures.  Education was self-directed.  You learned by discovering what you needed to know just when you needed to know it, or afterwards when you realized too late the mistakes you’d made.  It was the way I’d become a filmmaker myself, through trial and error.  Self-taught, with no formal training, I had as much to learn about teaching as my students did about filmmaking. At the end of the year I felt I’d gained much more than I’d imparted. I often felt that I benefitted more from the faculty critiques than the students whose work was under examination.  I found the intense interchanges with students and faculty provocative and stimulating.  They forced me to examine my own process, which had largely been intuitive and unconscious, and to develop a more disciplined and critical approach to my own work. Cal Arts was my formal film education.  

Still, I didn’t see teaching as a life pursuit, even when Sandy MacKendrick, the dean of the Film School, invited me back a few years later to teach some writing classes on a part time basis.  Looking back now, though, after 40 years as a fulltime faculty member of the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, the fact that I ended up an educator seems inevitable.  It matched my career as a filmmaker.  Documentary filmmaking has always been a process of discovery for me, a means of exploration, a way to better understand the world, and myself. My films are a way to share the experience I’ve had in making them, to communicate the facts, ideas, lessons, truths I’ve learned along the way.  My documentaries inform, instruct—some might say preach—much as I do in the classroom.

When I look back at the body of films I’ve had the privilege to make, I also see a pattern that wasn’t discernable when I was moving from one project to another, scrambling to make a living and build a career. But clearly there is a commonality to the subjects and issues I’ve tackled. I’ve made films about exploited Filipino and Mexican farmworkers, impoverished villagers in Colombia, and the child welfare system in Los Angeles. I’ve also explored slavery, the Holocaust, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur---“If it’s genocide, call Dad,” my son used to say.  I’ve dealt with child labor, child poverty, child abuse, child neglect, and teenage murderers.  I’ve also documented revolution and war in Ukraine and the complicity of doctors and psychologists in torture in Iraq and our military prisons. “Doctors of the Dark Side” is the title of Martha Davis’s documentary that I wrote, and you might say that most of my films deal with the dark side of human nature— cruelty, hate, exploitation, oppression.  But in my books as well as films, I always look for hope, resilience, the possibility of reform and redemption.  It’s probably why I’ve written five novels for children. Despite all the horrors I’ve documented, I still believe we can build a better world for future generations.

I don’t think the subject matter or themes of my films are accidental either, but again it took a long time before I recognized the thread and connections in my work.  I grew up in a relatively affluent, upper middle class, Jewish family. My father was a prominent small-town lawyer, my mother a homemaker.  I have a younger sister.  Although our family belonged to a conservative synagogue—which my grandfather helped to found—and I had to go to Hebrew school three afternoons a week after school and on Sunday morning, we didn’t keep kosher and my parents rarely went to services, except for the High Holidays.  Religion was not a fundamental part of their lives.  Attending synagogue was mainly about keeping up appearances. On the High Holidays my father would park the car several blocks from the temple, and we would walk the rest of the way.  It was just one example of the hypocrisy I grew up with.

America in the fifties was an era of conformity, but also contradictions that were difficult for even a child to ignore. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I lived, there were few blacks or Asian Americans—there was only one Chinese restaurant that I recall—so I wasn’t exposed to much racial prejudice or discrimination. When I was in third grade, though, my parents moved from the Jewish enclave in the center of the city to the suburbs, which were only two miles away geographically, but culturally a world apart.  I turned out to be the only Jewish kid in my elementary school, and later just one of two at the much larger junior high school. Although no one picked on me for being Jewish, I always felt an outsider, the Jewish kid who led the Pledge of Allegiance in the student assembly during Brotherhood Week, sharing the stage with the Black girl and Chinese boy, all of us embarrassed to be singled out for display.

But more than race or religion, I think the real difference I felt growing up was class. My seventh, eighth and ninth grade classmates were largely from blue collar families and lived in a much poorer section of Scranton, a city which had been economically depressed ever since the death of anthracite coal mining after World War II.  The few friends I had from working class backgrounds were disparaged by my mother for their poor grammar –they said ain’t—and what she considered their lack of manners, so I stopped bringing them home.  Although we were clearly better off than the majority of kids in my junior high, at the same time, we were nowhere near as wealthy as the social group in which my parents traveled.  Their friends were thoroughbred horse-raising rich; they owned department stores, factories and transit companies; they built football stadiums and hung Modigliani and Soutine paintings on their walls.  The contrast made me understand how my school friends might feel about my family’s affluence. 

When my wife and I lived for a time in Montreal, we rented a house in Westmount, the wealthy English-speaking section of the city. Our semi-detached residence was the last house at the bottom of the street at the very edge of Westmount. It seemed a familiar place to reside, the borderland.  As Americans, we were neither French nor English, and we couldn’t really afford to live in our expensive neighborhood. It was a replica of how I felt growing up—I didn’t quite fit in any of the worlds that I inhabited.

I imagine my parents had similar feelings. They were certainly ambivalent about the people in their social circle, for whom they displayed a mixture of envy and resentment. At home I often heard them speak critically of their friends—belittle their intelligence, their taste, their politics.  My parents held an election night party when Eisenhower won the presidency, and my mother was the one person to cry because Stevenson lost.  I don’t know why my parents, the Democrats in their social group, ended up throwing a party for Republicans. But perhaps it was just another part of their hypocrisy. They could demean their friends in private, but they hid their views when they socialized with them.  My father represented a few of them, and always hoped to become a lawyer for others, even though they often treated him with disdain.  It pained me to see him ingratiating himself with people he didn’t respect, but whose business he still wanted to obtain.

My parents’ hypocrisy—the gap between the values they professed and their actual conduct—was confusing.  I remember one glaring incident when I was eleven.  My father held a fundraiser at our home for the incumbent mayor, who was running for re-election. At that time I was a Boy Scout and one of the merit badges I was trying to obtain was for Citizenship in the Community, which entailed learning about local government.  So I knew the Mayor’s salary was $7500, a detail I still remember.  But at the party, where I was helping out, the Mayor was playing poker in our basement at a table where people were wagering more than a hundred dollars on a hand.  The next morning I asked my father about the discrepancy.  He dismissed my concern.  “The Mayor has other sources of income,” he said tersely.

The class differences, the mixed messages I was receiving about politics and religion, made me sensitive to the larger disparities and inequality in America.  In college I got a summer job working at a local book printing company, which my father represented.  My first day on the job, an older man who’d worked at the company for many years approached me, not realizing I was only a temporary employee.  “If I had to start here again like you, I’d kill myself,” he advised. After a day working on the assembly line, I understood why.  The monotonous repetition of the work was both exhausting and numbing.  The fact that I only had to endure it for three months reminded me how much my own privilege and education separated me from people whose options were so much more limited.

These feelings were reinforced by a summer in Tanzania, where I did volunteer work when I was a junior at Harvard, and by my first job after college as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago.  In Africa I encountered poverty at a level and scale I’d never experienced before.  The same was true of racism in Chicago. As a cub reporter at City News, I covered crime on the south side of Chicago from five in the afternoon to two in the morning.  Most of that crime was in the African American community, Blacks victimizing other Blacks, crime labeled “cheap” by the City News desk, too inconsequential to even write up for the four Chicago newspapers that existed at the time.

All these experiences have clearly shaped the way I see the world and my choice of documentary and fictional subjects.  The two forms of narrative share more in common than their differences.  I write fiction to discover the truths I failed to see or understand at the time I was filming or experiencing them. As Don DeLillo has remarked, a writer “learns to ride his own sentences into new perceptions.”  My children’s novels depict children struggling to cope with problems created by adults—divorce, displacement, homelessness—problems not of their own making, circumstances I also examined in documentaries like Foster and Stolen Childhoods. Many of my later stories revisit other formative childhood experiences, but viewed now from an adult perspective. My stories also explore the intersection of race and class in Los Angeles, the Ellis Island of the 21st century, where I’ve lived for the last 50 years.

You don’t have to be poor, or a minority, to see the injustices and inequities in our country that have only grown more extreme since I was a child. I’ve been very fortunate in life. I grew up in affluence and privilege, in a family that had influence and connections in our community. I attended Harvard, where I made new social connections that landed me a job at City News, although I had no journalistic experience, and then later a job in television with the King Broadcasting Company in Seattle, although I hadn’t gone to film school and had no filmmaking experience.  But my privilege also opened my eyes to the many contradictions in America, the gap between the ideals we proclaim and our actual behavior. The gulf between rich and poor I glimpsed growing up has become a chasm now and our government less caring and compassionate to those who are marginalized, exploited, living on the edge. 

In my filmmaking, however, I’ve also seen how collective action can dramatically change people’s lives. Early in my career I filmed the historic grape strike in Delano, California.  Huelga! documents the battle of Filipino and Mexican-American farmworkers to form a union and shows how working together for a greater cause can transform the lives of ordinary people. A half century later I saw the same thing happening again in Ukraine in the “revolution of dignity” on the Maidan, where thousands of young and old united to overthrow their corrupt president. I was fortunate to be able to capture that in Breaking Point:  The War for Democracy in Ukraine, the documentary I made with Oles Sanin and Paul Wolansky.

In over a half century of making documentaries I’ve found heroism, bravery, generosity and resilience in many of the places that I’ve filmed: in the grape fields in California, the death camps in Germany, the child welfare system in Los Angeles, the barricades in Kiev, Ukraine. I’ve met dedicated labor organizers and compassionate social workers; resilient concentration camp survivors and courageous whistleblowers and journalists who have inspired me and fortified my conviction that it is possible to bring about positive change. I feel fortunate to have documented the struggles of these activists and reformers, and been able to add my voice to theirs. I’m grateful to have sustained a long career as a writer, filmmaker, and teacher and been able to employ my skills to fight for a more just world and for people born with much less privilege than I’ve been lucky to inherit.