Taking on the world, from the neighborhood

From Vietnam to Cuba and Nicaragua to Iraq and Ground Zero in New York City, John Alpert has spent 30 years making political and social documentaries whose research is almost activist in nature. Through his non-profit Downtown Community Television center, the journalist makes films that pose important questions and seek answers. Alpert, who was a guest at the Thessaloniki International Documentary festival last week for a tribute to his work, spoke to Kathimerini about documentary journalism, the limitations of the job, the disappointments and the satisfaction to be had as a freelance documentary journalist. You make documentaries with a journalistic approach. Do you feel more a filmmaker than a reporter? When I started out I was nothing. I was a neighborhood activist with a primitive camera trying to achieve better schools, better healthcare, better housing. To my surprise, it sometimes worked. That encouraged me. But I never felt like a journalist until I went to different places and did the things journalists do, such as, for example, the fact that I was the first journalist to visit Vietnam after the end of the war. That also gave me the responsibility that my work had to be covered by the professional ethics of a journalist. On the other hand, the films have to be watchable. I could be a great reporter and people may not be interested in watching my films. Sometimes people call me a filmmaker, sometimes a reporter. Sometimes they call me bad things. Such as? Some of my programs have created a backlash. In comparison to other countries the US does have freedom of press, but there are elements of control and often there are consequences when you offend powerful people or organizations. They become vindictive. It’s not like Russia, where they poison you or throw you out a window, but you may find yourself on a blacklist. The media of every country reflect the situation that prevails more generally. In the US, the media are extremely commercialized. But there is also an independent media. I am one of its representatives and I have a strong organization backing me, but we are a very small minority. How difficult is to be independent? Very, because you have to work very hard to survive. We started after the Vietnam War, when young people did not want to join the system. About eight or 10 independent television stations evolved and that was very exciting at the time. Today it’s just us. But, I like what I do. You see the result immediately, and not just with the audience. We are also providing a social service. We teach 350 students a year and these are mostly kids who have no opportunities. They are poor, they are involved in drugs, yet they can easily work in film. What was your most defining experience? My early trips really formed me because I was so inexperienced. I was obviously influenced by the violence and war I saw. I have been in a war zone more often than most people play tennis or golf. My last experience, in Iraq, was very profound, because it was the first time I found myself with American soldiers. In the past I was frequently bombed out by Americans. But this time I developed a respect for them and for what they are doing. I wish we could be more successful in finding peaceful resolutions.

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