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Helen Whitney: A filmmaker of passion and vision

February 8th, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

By Latashia Redhouse

LOGAN–Educators, students and movies fans were given a look into the challenging, chaotic, frustrating, glorious and pleasurable life of an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker this week.

Helen Whitney allowed a series of USU audiences to look through the “lens” of her documentary career and intellectual journey as she screened several of her films and engaged students in the experiences of her wide-ranging film topics.

“I was beaten up,” Whitney said, recalling the filming of “Youth Terror: The View Behind The Gun,” a film that explored the world of juvenile violence and its causes. “The ladies we were shooting turned on us, I was trying to save the camera.”

Attacked and robbed during the project, “It was like the wild West,” said Whitney. “This is a subject I wouldn’t do again. You do it once, that was it.”

Well-known for spiritual themes in many of her films, Whitney developed a fascination with radical religious commitments and a passion for spirituality while filming her favorite documentary, “The Monastery,” a film about Trappist monks in Spencer, Mass.

“I talked with the men, I heard their stories,” she said. “They questioned whether there was a God, longed for a wife and kids.” The soul-searching aside, Whitney said, it was her only film in 30 years that was problem-free.

Her documentaries cover a diversity of subjects, with religion being the core of interest. “I love it,” said Whitney of her career. “My career permits me to enter the most diverse, sometimes exotic worlds I’ve never been able to explore.”

Her experience with the monks left Whitney searching for more spiritual themes, and she addressed these questions in lectures during her three-day visit to USU. She also produced a film on “John Paul II: A Millennial Pope” for FRONTLINE, a four-hour PBS series on “The Mormons,” and “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero,” which explored the spiritual aftershock of 9/11.

Whitney described her own faith as flickering. “It goes on and off,” she said. “I’m always looking for a visceral experience of that higher power.”

For Whitney, a career as a documentarian storyteller has been a license to explore people’s lives and motivations. Some of her dozens of films include “American Masters—Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light,” which digs into master photographer Richard Avedon’s life and career; “Homosexuals,” first documentary about gay life in America; and “They Have Souls Too,” a film about the mentally ill.

“Don’t get into this profession if you are dreaming of riches, it is financially precarious,” Whitney warned aspiring filmmakers. “Ask yourself what your tolerance level for insecurity, not being able to plan ahead, risk and if you have someone who will share the family load.”

Whitney says her current project, “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and A Time to Hate,” may be her last. At least, she says she needs a break. “I’m working on delivering this child and getting it out there,” she said.

Despite her passion for her nearly 40-year career, Whitney says she’s exhausted. “These last four-hour series have been tough,” she said Wednesday. “It’s a long process and I want to see more of my daughter and have parties with my friends.“

USU history professor Daniel McInerny said he was grateful to have had the opportunity to experience Whitney’s films with the filmmaker herself. “I’m very glad that someone like Helen had an opportunity to speak to audiences about the intersections of her life and projects,” he said. “It’s too often that credits flash by quickly and the viewer loses sight of the creative face behind this voice, those who have devoted their lives to these projects.”

A filmmaker since 1971, Whitney’s work has appeared on ABC’s “Closeup” and the PBS series “American Masters” and FRONTLINE, on HBO, the Turner Network, and CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Her awards include an Emmy and the Peabody Award, an Oscar nomination, and the DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award. She has written or co-written 10 film scripts, and produced and directed nearly 20 films and documentaries.

Whitney’s three-day visit to Utah State was part of Crossing Boundaries, a year-long project promoting unity and diversity across the community. Crossing Boundaries, hosted by Caine School of the Arts and the College of HASS, is made possible with the support of the Obert C. and Grace Tanner Foundation, the Utah Arts Council and the Utah Humanities Council.

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