An Unreasonable Man

He’s made two ambitious films in the past five years, and has a couple more in development. An intense man on mission, 36-year-old Jarecki is stocky with rugged good looks, wavy brown hair and piercing steel blue eyes. 

Typically dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, he looks more like a truck driver, carpenter, or the boxer he once was than the intellectual wunderkind filmmaker he is today.  His recent political documentaries are: Why We Fight (2005), winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002).

Unlike other local film auteurs like Jay Craven, John O’Brien, and David Giancola, Jarecki doesn’t make his films in Vermont.  But Jarecki definitely considers himself a Vermonter – and is proud of it.

 “There’s something about this place, there’s something…mature and reflective…the recognition that vaulting ambition does not necessarily imply progress,” says Jarecki.  “You can say someone like Eugene is drawn here because he has idealistic politics,” he adds, referring to himself in the third person.

“He’s really smart, he’s passionate, and very driven and focused yet, you know, a regular guy, doesn’t put on any airs,” says Ben Cohen, who appeared with Jarecki in Burlington at the Vermont premier of Why We Fight.  “I’ve learned a lot from him,” continues Cohen.  “One of the really interesting things about Eugene is, he talks a lot.  And I don’t usually like people who talk a lot, but what strikes me about Eugene is that when he talks a lot, he’s so interesting, so engaging…”

Viewers of Why We Fight – critical of the War in Iraq – and The Trials of Henry Kissinger – an indictment of the role of Nixon’s former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize recipient in the invasion of Cambodia and the overthrow of Chile‘s Salvador Allende – might assume Jarecki is a leftist.  But Jarecki considers himself a ‘radical centrist’ in the mold of President Dwight Eisenhower, who inspired him to make Why We Fight.

“There’s no question that Why We Fight had a single catalyzing moment: my discovery of Eisenhower’s farewell address,” says Jarecki.  “And for a general and a two-term American president to look the system in the eye with that clarity of purpose, that willingness to be an unreasonable man, immediately said to me, you have to make good on Eisenhower’s extraordinary enterprise here and figure out to what extent his words are coming to pass, and to what extent they’re not.”

 “We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” warned Eisenhower.  “The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.  The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government… The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist… Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

“As I saw myself living in a time when checks and balances were being stripped away, and I saw simultaneously the deregulation of the activities of the corporate sector, particularly the defense sector, and when I started to learn more and more about the particular means that the defense sector as a special interest profoundly influences the decision-making process in Washington, I started to feel that Eisenhower’s warning was coming true in ways that even he might not have predicted; but it turns out I was wrong, he predicted all of it.”

Why We Fight documents how the U.S. defense sector has swelled to where it eclipses the combined defense budgets of all our NATO allies, plus Russia, plus China.  The special interests and awesome momentum this represents poses a potent combination for military adventurism and empire building that Congress and U.S. Presidents have found nearly impossible to resist, hence why we fight.

The Boston Globe reviewer found the film “balanced, reasoned and utterly damning.”  And the New York Times termed it “a dense and absorbing critique of American militarism.”

To talk to Jarecki about serious social and political issues is like reading a densely packed work of non-fiction: “When you go and see the strip mall-ization of America, when you see nothing but strip malls from coast to coast…it suggests that the citizen’s involvement in his or her life has been dialed down to the streamlined and simplified choices of a fast food menu,” he posits.  “And for a democracy, in which the notion of democracy is entrusted to the processing of textured issues to come up with the best answers for the public good, dialing the public down to be, in essence, stupidified vessels either for prepackaged information or prepackaged cheese slices is a grave danger, because you’re eroding the various parts of the engine for a democracy, which is the capacity and the imagination of the people.”

Jarecki, who grew up in Westchester County, New York, credits his parents for instilling in him his intellectual curiosity and sense of purpose.  “My father’s family fled Nazi Germany in 1939; my mother’s family fled tsarist Russia at the turn of the 20th Century,” explains Jarecki.  “That means that all the children in my family – three boys – understood from a very early age that our lives would really only make sense if they were dedicated to applying the lessons of our own past persecution to the challenges faced by others, particularly others in America facing oppressive conditions.  Both my parents became involved very naturally in civil liberties and civil rights struggles, and the boys inherited a certain sense of obligation.”

Jarecki jokingly considers himself a ‘child of the Sixties,’ having spent two months of 1969 as an infant. “My parents were those sort of civil liberty-thinking people who saw America as the last, best hope for the world.”  His father Henry, a clinical psychiatrist and Yale professor, ran a free psychiatric clinic in a low income New Haven neighborhood, where his mostly African-American clients could receive pioneering forms of treatment.

He describes his home as Hotel Jerecki.  “My household growing up was almost a circus of the mentally ill,” says Jarecki. “It was very welcoming and the icebox was always full and everybody was on equal footing, and it would be no surprise for me to come to the house and find friends of mine there who had not been invited by me, just hanging out in and among my home and family and (it had) a sense of an open community…

“In 1970 my dad switched careers completely.  He went from medicine – to this day he remains on the (Yale) faculty, has patients to this day – but he drifted away from his commitment to medicine, moved closer to New York City…to be involved in business” – commodities trading. Jarecki’s first contact with Vermont was at Middlebury’s Camp Keewaydin, which he attended at age 10.  He started traveling here while attending Princeton University, where he directed Shakespearean plays. “I came up to Vermont for the sort of typical reasons people do.  Skiing, enjoying the landscape, buying fudge and maple syrup,” he explains.

As well as being profoundly influenced by his parents, Jarecki had a role model unusual for a well-off Jewish kid from the suburbs.  “My godfather is Melvin van Peebles…a pioneering and pretty and truly bad-ass media figure who could be instantly inspiring to a young person,” says Jarecki.  “He taught me how to make uncompromising choices… Melvin was a mentor in a spiritual sense and gave all of us (brothers) our first jobs.”  

Van Peebles taught Jarecki and his brothers to be unreasonable men “in a time where, to be a reasonable man might be to make Faustian bargains with one’s own morality, one’s own ethics,” says Jarecki in his serious, self-referential mode.  “That ingredient of social concern that was born into the boys at birth finds itself naturally into the unreasonable conduct of the documentary chronicler who is concerned about his time, wants to apply the lessons of his own family’s past, wants to do so to greatest effect, at a time of mass media proliferation, and therefore one goes into mass media.” (Jarecki’s older brother Andrew produced and directed the acclaimed Capturing the Friedmans, a revealingly intimate documentary about a dysfunctional Great Neck, NY family.)

Jarecki proudly considers himself to be an ‘unreasonable man.’  “Americans care about the very quality of unreasonableness, they like it.  Look at the most famous characters on TV – Archie Bunker, a dreadful, unreasonable man, very loved; Ralph Kramden, a terrible, dreadful, petty, unreasonable man, loved,” explains Jarecki.  “And yet when we make movies now, we try to make movies about loveable people. Well, loveable people are boring.  Textured, complicated, contradictory people are more loveable.”

Upon his Princeton graduation, Jarecki came to van Peebles with a screenplay.  “I thought he’d be thrilled when I told him I wanted to make a movie, and he said, ‘that’s the last thing you ought to be doing,'” he recounts.  “And I said, ‘Why?’  And he said, ‘Because you don’t know anything.  You have nothing to make a movie about.  That’s not your next step.  Your next step is to go live your life.  You were in college, before that you were in high school.  It’s all very ivory tower, it’s all very removed from reality.  You’ve got good street sense, but that doesn’t tell a story.  You should go live your life.'”

But the driven, headstrong young director ignored van Peebles and made Season of the Lifterbees, “a 25-minute lyrical fairy tale told in a sort of Gaelic Jabberwocky invented language.”  Jarecki cast his future father-in-law, a family friend, in the lead role.  Jarecki was the youngest person to ever have a film accepted at the Sundance Film Festival, and he won a prestigious Film Institute of America Student Academy Award and the Grand Prize at the Aspen Shortfest.

But then Jarecki started to encounter some bumps in the road.  “A whole bunch of things went very well for that film and I thought, this is easy,” says Jarecki.  “My ship is now coming in.  You know I wonder if it’ll be Spiderman 5, what they’ll have me do… I thought the phone would be ringing off the hook and of course, it wasn’t.”

His sense of entitlement deflated, Jarecki began pounding the pavement and paying dues in Hollywood and New York.  “I started to take sort of work as it came along, directing work.  I did a lot of commercials and music videos and things like that,” remarks Jarecki, “what I like to call my eclectic period, which my friends call my desperate years, and I’d call them up and say, ‘Hey do you want to come to the screening of my new toothpaste commercial?'”

Jarecki today is apologetic about having felt like a failure in his chosen career of filmmaking at such a young age: “They make you think that if you’re not, you know, Leonardo DiCaprio, and owning the world and by the time you’re 25, you’ve done something terribly wrong and I fell for that.  So I felt failure even though to you it looks like just idiotic naïve bumps along the road that any adult would have said, these are nothing.”

Not sure that his film career was viable, Jarecki tried stints as media advisor for the Democratic Party’s Ron Brown and then for Jessie Jackson and his Get Out the Vote effort.  While he was working for Jackson, Jackson turned his attention to the plight of Haitian boat people, many of whom were detained at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, “loaded with cameras and we filmed this whole experience.  It was a very privy look at a world that I’d never seen, that I’d never filmed.  It was pretty much the first verite shooting I’d ever done.”

Jarecki was able to sell the resulting rare footage to news outlets in the U.S. and Europe, leading him for the first time to consider making a documentary.  “The idea just came to get a camera and shoot and then see what happens,” as he puts it.  This led Jarecki and his wife-to-be Claudia Becker to shoot a film called the Quest of the Carib Canoe: “A small handful of them wanted to build an ancient ocean-going canoe out of a trunk of a tree, carve it and then sail it back to find their roots in the jungles of South America. So I moved down there (to Dominique) and Claudia and I went into the rain forest to work with and live among the Caribs and be part of that remarkable tribal historical momentum and capture that on film.”

Following unsuccessful attempts to market Quest to the U.S. television market, Jarecki succeeded in selling the film to the BBC in London, a connection that was to prove pivotal to his future success with documentary features.

But Jarecki hadn’t lost his taste for feature films and, after several failed attempts at peddling a variety of screenplays, he finally found a producer and distributor for a small, independent film called The Opponent, shot in update New York.  Jarecki had boxed as a kid at the Community Center in Port Chester, near where he grew up.  At that same time, Mike Tyson was training in Troy, New York, where an uncle who knew Jarecki was interested in boxing introduced him to Tyson’s manager and to Tyson himself.

The Opponent is a story about an abused woman who discovers in boxing a healthy outlet for her pent-up rage, based on how Jarecki saw Tyson’s meteoric rise to the top ranks of the boxing world.  But The Opponent didn’t make a big splash and, despite its small budget, five years later it has yet to break even.

“Melvin (van Peelbles) was right that had things gone better for me and had I had instant success at age 22, I probably would be a far shallower person than I am today,” Jarecki muses, “because in many ways the more tortuous path that I’ve had to take for the failures that I experienced along the way has without any question enriched who I am.”

Around this time, Jarecki and his wife bought a house in Vermont‘s Mad River Valley, and they began spending more and more time here.  Jarecki had become a supporter of Camp Keewaydin, and he and his wife Claudia Becker, originally from Bavaria in Germany gravitated here. Vermont resonated a great deal with her, reminded her of home,” says Jarecki.  The couple was married here in 1999, with justice-of-the-peace Marcel Leahy – wife of old family friend Senator Patrick Leahy – presiding.

The Leahys have known Jarecki since he was a small boy.  Senator Leahy calls him “extraordinary, committed, a very good father and husband.  He has ideas going a mile a minute.”  He has appeared with Jarecki at Washington screenings of Why We Fight.

Explaining his attraction to the state, Jarecki says, “There’s an incredible amount of volatility and majesty in being a contrarian, the way that Vermont is contrarian.  You never want to count a contrarian out: they’re never boring, they’re never run-of-the-mill.”

“Ultimately, it was the right place for both of us to be, a spiritual refuge, a great place to raise kids,” says Becker.

On the heals of The Opponent came The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which was produced with the backing of the BBC and the Canadian Broadcast Corp. (CBC); it was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and won the 2002 Amnesty International Award and was broadcast in over 30 countries. 

When asked if he considers The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Why We Fight propaganda films, Jarecki replies, “I don’t take issue with that at all, because I think by the very nature – by their selectivity in editing, and by their use of music and other effects – films by definition are propagandistic of the viewer.  Having said that, if you look at the original Frank Capra series, Why We Fight, made during World War II, commissioned by the U.S. government, those were de facto propaganda in the way we’re used to using that term, which is paid by a government to indoctrinate someone. 

“If you look at my film, Why We Fight, which is commissioned not by one government, but by the broadcasting agencies of 15 different governments – the BBC in Britain, the CBC in Canada, Artee (sp?) in France and Germany, and the list goes on – these are all allies of the United States, who I think supported the film because they wanted to support the impulse of an American to look introspectively at the American story,” explains Jarecki.  (see sidebar)

(drop-cap) Jarecki hopes his documentaries will serve as a wake-up call to a complacent American public: “I think America is very much like the fat Elvis today,” explains Jarecki, launching into one of philosophic diatribes.  “If you remember when Elvis was young, he was good-looking and beautiful, and his songs were great…and then, what happened? 

“What happened is Elvis got rich, Elvis got successful – all that led to a place of rarified triumph for Elvis,” continues Jarecki as if interviewing himself.  “So he ends up living in hotel rooms, in Vegas, ordering a lot of room service, getting hooked on a lot of things of convenience, addictions of one kind or another.  You look at our war addiction, I look at Elvis’ amphetamines or alcohol or whatever else,” says Jarecki, returning to his analogy.

“What Elvis discovers is, he’s so powerful, he doesn’t even need to write his own songs any more, he can just outsource that, get other people to do that.  It sounds almost as good, he doesn’t have to do it, and pretty soon he doesn’t get out of his hotel much, he doesn’t talk to his friends much, he puts on weight, he becomes a tragic shadow of what he once was,” laments Jarecki.  “And Elvis’ friends, those who love him – like the BBC, like CBC, like Artee – they’re like, let me give you a little money, maybe we can…look at these old pictures of yourself, look closely at these, remember when you were like that?  Let’s go back there.”

Jarecki cautions aspiring documentary filmmakers not to expect material awards.  “If you’re not ready for something to take over your life and shape virtually every waking minute for the next decade or two, don’t do this,” remarks Jarecki, noting that neither of his acclaimed documentaries have brought him wealth.  “If I was advising a young person who wants to combine making a living and pursuing the kind of labors of love that I pursue, it’s very unlikely that you can have both.”

When asked what’s next on his ambitious agenda, Jarecki mentions multiple documentary and feature projects, but is coy about the details.  He insists his top priorities in the short-term are promoting Why We Fight on campuses and other venues across the country, and in supporting his wife Claudia Becker, who recently opened The Big Picture movie theater in Waitsfield. 

“You have to have an eye on the global and yet if all your energy and output is global, you ignore your own backyard and the system erodes from within,” says Jarecki, stressing the importance he and Becker place on building community.

Becker says the idea behind The Big Picture “has been to bring a lot of elements of our lives together – film, community, teaching – into one cohesive whole.”  She emphasizes how closely she and Jarecki have worked together over the past dozen years: “I’ve been involved in every part of every movie he’s made.  And conversely, he’s been intimately involved in my projects.”

And asked to describe her husband, Becker says, “I think intense is definitely a word that comes to mind, on every level – in his work, at home, in his love for his kids – it’s never boring.  It never gets dull.”

The Why We Fight DVD was released June 27, and the film will be shown at the Big Picture in Waitsfield July 7 or 14.  The Big Picture Café’s grand opening is today, July 1, and features a screening & discussion of An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore global warming documentary.  Jarecki conducts interviews about U.S. militarism and related topics in the forthcoming August Playboy magazine with several luminaries, including Ethan Hawke,

Why We Fight:

Why We Fight is a complex and affecting film weaving together stories of everyday people affected by 9/11 and the Iraq War, along with interviews with well-known commentators on all sides of the debate: Richard Perle, Senator John McCain, Gore Vidal, William Kristol and Dan Rather.   President Eisenhower’s son and granddaughter John and Susan Eisenhower are also featured.  Its central theme is that the U.S. has ignored Eisenhower’s warning, in his 1961 farewell address, about the perils of creating a permanent military-industrial complex.

But it is the stories of ordinary people that define the film and leave a lasting impression.  There’s former Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, who was working in the Pentagon when it was struck on September 11, 2001.  When she he was assigned to the Pentagon’s Iraq Desk in August 2002, she immediately knew something was wrong.  “I could see that war was going to happen.  The decision had been made and it was just a matter of bringing the American people up to speed.”  She resigned her commission shortly thereafter and is today raising horses in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

There’s Anh Duong, who fled Saigon as a teen in 1975, vowing to fight tyranny for her adopted country.  She became one of top explosives experts in the U.S., and when the Iraq war started, she saw a chance to repay her lifelong debt to the “American war-fighters” who rescued her in Vietnam.  There’s Navy Pilots Fuji and Tooms who, on an early morning in March 2003, took off from an aircraft carrier into the night sky to fire on Baghdad the opening shots of the War on Iraq.  And there’s the 23-year-ld idealistic Army recruit Private William Solomon who, on January 10, 2005, was shipped to Iraq where he is serving as a helicopter mechanic.

Jarecki explains how he approached the making of Why We Fight: “I’ve got a documentary on my hands.  It’s about a very deep, important subject, but it’s also a subject that I want people to be super interested in…  I don’t want anyone to think it’s too heavy or dry or anything else.  So what do I think?  I think, how to I keep people riveted to their seats?  Everybody likes a good detective story.  Everybody likes to be a sleuth.  Everybody likes to have something unfold, layer by layer, peeling back the onion.”

Jarecki believes in using narrative story-telling techniques in making documentaries. “Moby Dick teaches us great truths about the human experience,” he says.  “The Old Man and the Sea has more truth in it than Frontline has ever dreamt of.”

For instance, in telling story of the Navy pilots – who didn’t know what their mission was when they took off from the aircraft carrier, and only found out much later that their target was Saddam himself – Jarecki creates dramatic tension by only revealing the details of their mission in bits and pieces, to parallel how the pilots themselves saw their roles in the war play out.

Jarecki’s most compelling figure in Why We Fight is Wilton Sekzer, a patriotic Vietnam veteran and retired New York City cop whose son Jason died on 9/11 in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. He believed President Bush when he cited links between al Quida and Saddam Hussein as a pretext for the war.  Later, when Bush maintained he had never suggested a link between Saddam and 9/11, Sekzer was incredulous.  His felt exploited and betrayed.

“Don’t give a lot of talking heads who are going to tell me that we’re lied to about our wars,” says Jarecki. “Give me a guy who’s lost his son on 9/11 and then is lied to by his government… That guy can speak to everybody.”

When asked how he discovered the ordinary people profiled in Why We Fight, Jarecki says, “there seems to be some sort of great casting agency in the sky that emerges when you start to make a movie.”

A visiting professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International Studies, Jarecki says, “When I talk to young people about filmmaking, I tell them, ‘Show up, attend every gathering, meet every person, cold-call every institution – put yourself out there, and you’ll be surprised at how open, in fact, those circumstances can be.”

He calls his approach to filmmaking a mix of John Lennon and Woody Allen: “John Lennon said life is something that happens when you’re making other plans; Woody Allen says 99% of life is just showing up.  So I show up, and that’s the plan I make, and then life happens.”

“I had human stories on the one hand and a theoretical analysis of Eisenhower’s warnings on the other; I had a film that was fundamentally schizophrenic, whose personality was split in two parts that didn’t naturally fuse,” says Jarecki.  “And honestly, even on the plane to Sundance, not knowing that we would win Sundance, I truly was concerned that the film, no matter the particular strengths of some of its individual elements, was a mess, was a schizophrenic mess, what my mother would call jewels in a bucket.”