Focusing on Alan Berliner

From digging through dumpsters to collect squares of cardboard for a collage, to creating a filing cabinet full of sounds, Alan Berliner, a prestigious experimental, non-fiction filmmaker, has done it all.

The Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, an organization that provides the funding to give notable artists residencies, funded Berliner’s visit to Colgate so that he could present some of his films and studio art to students.

Professor of Art and Art History and Film and Media Studies Lynn Schwarzer was one of the dedicated faculty members who worked to bring Berliner to Colgate.

“Alan [has] an outstanding career as an internationally recognized documentary filmmaker and we knew that he would engage a range of students, including those in cinema studies courses and those in video production and studio art,” Schwarzer said.

Berliner attended SUNY Binghamton and began making films there in 1973.

“It just so happened that they had one of the most exciting and dynamic experimental, avant-garde film departments in the world and I was lucky enough to be a student there while this was going on,” Berliner said. He soon discovered that this film department was “the most interesting place on campus,” so film immediately became his major.

While visiting Colgate, Berliner showed a clip from his most recent film, Wide Awake, a documentary on insomnia. The clip gave students some insight on what goes on behind the scenes of Berliner’s films. Only seconds into the clip, it became clear that his studio is one giant filing cabinet. There are shelves and shelves of color-coded boxes containing everything from other people’s home videos and portraits, to thousands of newspaper clippings. Berliner is the epitome of a pack rat and yet he manages to turn this obsessive collecting into deep and meaningful art.

“I am the keeper of memory,” said Berliner. He not only researches and analyzes his own family’s past, but keeps the discarded memories of other families in home videos, family portraits and sound clippings from old tape recorders.

In 1980, Berliner bought a very large collection of 16-millimeter, anonymous home movies from the 1920s to 1950s, which totaled at 35 hours of film. After sifting through these movies, Berliner created a film entitled The Family Album. This movie used clips from 75 families’ videos of birthday parties, weddings, arguments and simple everyday activities. As for the narrative, it was simply a compilation of discarded garage-sale tapes and various families’ oral histories.

The film masterfully captured the duality of the flawlessly happy home videos and the brutally honest, sad oral accounts. After his film was released, people began to assume that he was an expert on the family dynamic.

“I realized that you cannot be an ‘expert’ on the family if you’re not an ‘expert’ on your own family,” Berliner said.

This eventually led Berliner to study his own family history and identity, from which he created two documentaries — Intimate Stranger in 1991 and Nobody’s Business in 1996.

He explains that his work is “all about taking things that are found and figuring out how I can give them meaning. It is my job to restore some kind of humanity in the case of home movies or family photographs that are unhinged from their sources. It is an interesting challenge to attempt to make them relevant despite their anonymity.”

Berliner seems to have a common goal in his films and studio art, despite the wide-range of subject matter.

“I want to turn the screen into a mirror or a window for the viewer,” he explained. He hopes that viewers will either see themselves reflected on the screen or are able to look through a metaphorical window into others families’ problems and triumphs in order to have a broader view of the world.

“When it comes to my films,” Berliner said, “I want to use my life as a laboratory and I want to allow the situations, circumstances, stories and characters to transcend the specificity and detail of my life so that the viewers are able to struggle along with me in dealing with how they would feel in a similar situation.”

After Berliner completed his residency, both students and faculty agreed that Berliner’s lectures and film screenings greatly benefited the Colgate community.

“As a filmmaker, Alan masterfully edits sounds and images as he explores both archival and autobiographical material cinematically,” Professor Schwarzer said. “Through critiques, classes and conversations, [the students] felt that they really got to know him over the course of his week-long residency.”

“I want students to understand that filmmaking is hard but it is extraordinarily rewarding,” Berliner concluded. “The challenge is part of the joy. Don’t do it if you don’t love it because inspiration and passion are the most important parts of the motor that drives people to do anything.”