Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Film
Competition: US & Canada
Filmmaker David Zeiger captures moments of transition, oftentimes traumatic transition. He began his career as a photographer in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was then living, having turned to that medium as a means of dealing with the sudden death of his elder son, Michael, at the age of nine in 1986. As a favor to a friend he started photographing local theater productions in a style reminiscent of Max Waldman. By 1993 he was the premier theater photographer in Atlanta, and from 1993 to 1998 he worked as the staff photographer for a number of local organizations, including the Alliance Theater, Actors’ Express, Center for Puppetry Arts, the High Musuem of Art, and Atlanta Magazine.
Gradually his principal artistic interest became documentary photography. Very aware of the changing demographic of Atlanta in the 1990s, when a sudden influx of immigrants from Mexico and refugees from Southeast Asia upset the city’s long-standing biracial character, for an entire year he developed relationships with the newcomers, photographing their growing communities. The result was the highly regarded project Displaced in the New South. With support from the Georgia Council for the Arts, it toured throughout the South, and photos from it were published in Atlanta Magazine, CrossRoads, and the University of Mississippi’s Journal of Southern Culture.
But Mr. Zeiger realized during this project that a lot of what he had learned about these ethnic communities could be more fully conveyed through film. With funding from the Atlanta and DeKalb County arts councils, the Georgia Council for the Humanities, and the Harland Foundation, he produced the film Displaced in the New South (1994). It was shown at such important venues as South by Southwest, Chicago Latino, and San Francisco Asian American film festivals; and was broadcast on PBS, as well as by SBS-TV Australia, NBC Asia, and Discovery Channel Worldwide. In 1995 he founded his own film production company, Displaced Films.
He followed Displaced in the New South with a very personal documentary, The Band (1997), which followed his younger son, Danny, through his entire junior year as a member of the Decatur High School Band. His camera became his means to grapple not only with the life changes Danny faced as he neared the end of high school, but simply living with the still always present grief over Michael's death. Featured at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, and the Central Florida Film Festival, where it won the “Best of Show” award, The Band was broadcast nationally on PBS’ P.O.V. series and internationally by ARTE/France. On the strength of this film Mr. Zeiger was awarded an Atlanta Mayor’s Fellowship for the Arts.
Returning to his own high school, Fairfax High in Los Angeles, twenty-five years after his graduation, David Zeiger once again immersed himself in the Sturm und Drang of teenagers to film Senior Year. And once again, the idea of transition was very much in play, both in terms of the students’ impending graduation and in the actual makeup of the senior class. During Mr. Zeiger’s years at Fairfax the student body had been mostly Jewish; but on his return, the high school was among the most diverse in the city, and the fifteen students he chose to focus on reflected that. The resulting thirteen-part series aired on PBS in 2002, and on U.S. Armed Forces Television and Planète Câble in France.
His Guggenheim Fellowship project is in some ways an outgrowth of The Band and Senior Year. But unlike his earlier documentary efforts, Sweet Old World is a fictionalized account, mixing professional actors and scripted scenes with students in South Pasadena High School’s marching band and unscripted footage. Nevertheless, autobiographical elements certainly undergird the story. Following the death of his elder son, Michael, a father (Brian) and Ethan, his younger son, are forced to deal with their own long-stifled grief and the rift in their relationship caused by Michael’s death. The catalyst for all this is the return of Michael’s best friend, Jimmy, whose own grief over Michael’s death had driven him to move away. Now as Ethan gravitates toward Jimmy and takes him as his rather questionable role model, Brian follows them through the lens of his camera as secrets come to light and chances for a renewed relationship with Ethan emerge.
Between The Band and Senior Year, Mr. Zeiger began filming the regular get-togethers of his father and a group of his father’s friends, most of whom were formerly successful comedy writers, for his own amusement, but on the announcement of one of the cadre’s imminent death the documentary took quite a different turn. The result was Funny Old Guys, which premiered at the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles in 2002, aired on HBO2’s documentary series Still Kicking, Still Laughing in 2003, and played at the International Documentary Association and the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
His other documentaries are A Night of Ferocious Joy, billed as “The West Coast Underground vs. George W. Bush,” which was shown at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and South by Southwest; and Sir! No Sir!, a long-simmering project, that brought to light the intra-military movement against the Vietnam war, the existence of which had been completely ignored if not actively quashed in histories of that era. Sir! No Sir! was a critical and popular success. Playing in over eighty movie theaters, it received “two thumbs up” from critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel and won a string of awards, including Best Documentary at the Hamptons Film Festival, the Seeds of War Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
David Zeiger is a member of Film Independent, the Independent Feature Project, and the International Documentary Association.
Sweet Old World is now in post production! Follow the film and its progress.
This is Where We Take Our Stand is heading for PBS, with support from the Independent Television Service. Watch the web series.
Sir! No Sir! and FTA are available everywhere on DVD.