Whitman alum releases documentary filmed during Watson year

caitlinhardee

Teal Greyhavens

Imagine having the freedom to travel the world for a year with a video camera, capturing inspiring footage from a multitude of cultures along the way. For alumnus Teal Greyhavens ’08, the dream became reality when he was awarded a Watson Fellowship to explore cinema across the globe. The film that resulted from his year on the move, “Cinema Is Everywhere,” had its North American premiere on Oct. 22 at the 2011 Austin Film Festival. The Pioneer spoke to Greyhavens over the phone on the triumphs and trials of recording his masterpiece.

“It was fantastic. We were at the Austin Film Festival in the Alamo Ritz Drafthouse Cinema, which I had never been there before, and it’s just one of the greatest cinema spaces that I’ve ever been in,” said Greyhavens. “Fantastic turnout and people really seemed to love it, so it was a great experience.”

Greyhavens, who graduated from Whitman with a major in rhetoric and film studies and a minor in religion, almost left the college in his first year.

“When I was a freshman at Whitman, I came within inches of transferring out to go to a proper film production school because I knew that’s what I wanted to do; that’s what I loved,” said Greyhavens. “I decided to stay at Whitman because I had the sense that what was more important than being able to make a film was to be aware, to absorb, to know how to listen to people, to perceive the world and to really hear people’s stories and integrate that into all the wide variety of things that you can learn, that I did learn, from a Whitman education. I stayed at Whitman because of wanting to not pigeonhole myself into knowing how to make a film but not having anything to say. I think that absolutely came through in making this film. There was hardly any technical expertise involved; it was mainly my ability to immerse myself in these other cultures, talk to people, learn, absorb, interact and all the kind of things that I think you get from Whitman.”

That decision also panned out in the form of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a highly unusual grant for self-development and world exploration only available to students at a select number of colleges.

“I should probably say for Whitties reading this, and Whitman being a Watson candidate school, the Watson Fellowship is not a film production grant and it’s not a grant that one seeks with, like, ‘I’m going to make a product and sort of benefit from it in a tangible way’ in mind,” said Greyhavens. “My Watson project was to explore what it means to go to the movies and what cinema means to people in cultures all over the world. As part of the proposal, I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a camera and see if I can capture some of what movies look and feel like everywhere.’ So I did that. It was very open-ended, I didn’t have hardly any plan or contacts or anything like that, and almost everything that went into the film that became “Cinema Is Everywhere” was total serendipity. Basically I came back from the Watson and sifted through about 150 hours of footage and sort of at that point decided, ‘I think I have a film here.’ And that became kind of the next project.”

Greyhavens’ travels took him through a number of cultural and political climates, including Tunisia, brimming with the tension that would eventually spark the Arab Spring.

“When I was in Tunisia, I followed a young filmmaker named Karim who had a documentary that was about a taboo subject in Tunisian Muslim society. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the reactions of the people to his film really were kind of a microcosm of the willingness of people, the desire of cultures to be open and to communicate with each other. In Tunisia in particular, it was affecting because we saw that play out just this year in ways that I never imagined. It was the same response that I found to cinema––I think cinema is ultimately a form of community––and to see that take place and then evolve into what it did in Tunisia was really amazing. There were very much sort of pre-echoes, premonitions of what was to come,” said Greyhavens.

A journey of such proportions without a support network naturally posed significant challenges.

“If I had been doing this with all the resources of a major film production, it would have been different in a lot of ways, and I would have chosen to keep it the same in a lot of ways,” said Greyhavens. “The ways in which it was difficult––being alone on the Watson . . . Not speaking the language was particularly tough. I probably filmed at least 20 to 25 hours of footage in Hong Kong having no idea what was going on around me. People speaking in Cantonese all day long, and I was filming people having no idea what was going on––that was not ideal. When I came back from the Watson, after spending some time at home catching up with family, I came to L.A. because of course that’s where the business of film production happens. Among the many things I had to do to get the film completed and turn it into a proper film was translating an absurd number of hours of footage. I had the help of a lot of really great people here, people who spoke Arabic and Hindi and Cantonese. I definitely owe the film to them in part.”

While it might be easier to play up the film’s star power in Western countries with the name “Tilda Swinton,” Greyhavens has resisted doing so, striving to bring the disparate worlds of cinema together.

“It’s been very interesting with this film because, of course in almost all the circles I travel in, people perk up when they see that Tilda Swinton is involved, and they like to ask about her,” said Greyhavens. “The fact of the matter is, there are people in the film like Indian director Shyam Benegal, for example, or Stanley Kwan in Hong Kong, who are every bit as famous and wonderful and have contributed just as many amazing things to cinema as she has, but they’re almost unknown in the West. And that’s sort of part of what the project was about, that back-and-forth. All of them were fantastic. In every case I just got very lucky. Some of it was persistence, and some of it was total right-place, right-time, getting to sit down and talk with these people, and it was just really an honor.”

Since signing a distribution deal for “Cinema Is Everywhere,” Greyhavens has been in constant motion with a whirlwind of diverse projects.

“I was just in Thailand, shooting for a travel show called Andiamo!, which is airing any moment now,” said Greyhavens. “You can’t survive doing film or television production without doing about a dozen different things at any given time. I’m also working on developing several future projects that I myself want to have a hand in, helping some friends work on theirs and also continuing the Cinema Is Everywhere project. I’ve started gathering some people to expand the website for the film into more of an online gathering space where people can write in from all over the world and share stories about what cinema means to them and their cultures and countries.”

Greyhavens left us with a few final words in advice to aspiring Whittie filmmakers.

“If you really want to work in film, there’s a lot of work to be done outside of what you would learn at Whitman, or anywhere, film schools completely aside,” said Greyhavens. “It has a lot to do with knowing how to meet people, how to make connections, how to juggle a dozen different things at once, how to be prepared to be poor for a while. I guess I think the biggest thing is, if you want to make films, don’t let the structure that is set out for you for your life determine whether or not you get to make films. Find ways to do it anyway. If you don’t have a film class, ask if you can make a film as a project for another class. If you can’t do that, make a film outside of school, and get some people together. Spend tons of hours online reading all the geeky blogs and reviews and festival buzz and all that kind of stuff. Immerse yourself in it at the same time as you’re doing everything else that you’re supposed to be doing.”