This article is fascinating. Zora is being interviewed in Port-au-Prince Haiti by a reporter who’s just discovered that she’s not only researching a book about voodoo but is also on the verge of having another novel published in the United States. That book was “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. In the interview, she admits unhappiness with her own work. She is disappointed with her two published books, and the one that is about to be published.
“Each book has fallen short of what I wanted to make of it. And despite the fact that some critics have been kind enough to praise my work, I can’t fool myself.”
Zora was in Haiti, studying the vadoun religion under a Guggenheim grant. Her work put her in danger of her life, and she eventually went home with knowledge of the process of zombification – drugs that induced a state of unconsciousness easily mistaken for death. While others had been to Haiti and had studied the people, Zora alone isolated the secret societies and the substance that caused the zombie trance. And when given the opportunity to visit a local hospital, she brought her camera. Her photo of a zombie would be published in LIFE magazine in 1937.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” would become an American classic.
I hear occasionally from filmmakers who want to know how to make a documentary. The first thing I tell them is that you have to have an idea. And that’s where some of them get stumped. What’s your passion, I ask them? Many are new to this idea, that they can have a passion. They have a degree, they have a camera, they have hope. But alas, they are not inspired. And I remember back when I was looking for my next project and I read Bob Hemenway’s wonderful book, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Who was this brave woman, I wondered? Where did she get that voice of hers, accusing her arrogant peers of being “malicious snots”, scaring her ex-husband by sprinkling voodoo dust around his home. And I wondered, who did she think she was – and more importantly, how could I capture that courageous spirit on film and tape? I puzzled by the very few holes in Bob’s story that left me with unanswered questions. I knew I had to do my own research because unless I thoroughly understood Zora, I couldn’t write her story. And so, with these loose ends in hand, I launched my film.
So you want to make a documentary film? Then first, find your passion. Read a book about where you live. Research in the library. Read the newspaper. Watch TV and ask yourself what you’d like to see up there other than what’s there. Then you can start your own documentary film.
You missed it last time? There have been two PBS broadcasts of JUMP AT THE SUN, first in 2008 and most recently Feb. 22, 2010. So if you want to see the critically acclaimed ZORA NEALE HURSTON: JUMP AT THE SUN, your best option now is to buy your own copy here or through Amazon.
That pistol-packing mama, Zora Neale Hurston, had a rich life, challenging Jim Crow laws in the South as she collected folklore and the cultural matrix of Black America through her film camera, her brownie camera, and “sound machines” provided by the Library of Congress. This photo is courtesy of Howard University Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
Selected press clips: The Miami Herald: “Shimmering”; Detroit Free-Press: “A big story, beautifully told”; New York Times: “Does a fine job outlining Hurston’s life and near-miraculous achievements”; NY Newsday: “An exhilarating portrait of an exhilarating woman”; Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “Irresistible”.