Documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf talks teenagers, Nazis, and queer artists

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Thirty-two year old Matt Wolf knew early on that he wanted to be a filmmaker. Inspired by the experimental work of Kenneth Anger and Sadie Benning, he enrolled at NYU and got involved in New York’s robust art scene. His discovery of enigmatic musician Arthur Russell inspired his first full-length documentary, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. He has since made High Line Stories, about the construction of New York’s now iconic elevated park; I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard, about the eponymous artist and writer who died from AIDS-induced pneumonia in 1994; and Teenage, a kind of collage documentary exploring the social and cultural role of teenagers in America. 

 

We caught up with Wolf to talk about forgotten artists, Nazi youth, documentary film, and more.

 

dot429: Teenage was your first widely distributed documentary, but it’s very different from your first two. What inspired this new direction?

MW: After I made Wild Combination, I made another short experimental film about an artist named Joe Brainard. It’s a thing I’m interested in—these biographies of forgotten queer artists who died of AIDS. But I realized that I wanted to make really different kinds of films. And I was inspired, in a sense, by Arthur Russell, who made all different kinds of music and used all these aliases and monikers. 

Over time I realized that what I’m most interested in is hidden histories and forgotten biographies. And I think that’s at play in Teenage. I’m really into music and I was inspired by Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming, which is sort of the definitive history of punk, so when I picked up [Savage’s book] Teenage, I felt that punk perspective really coloring his depiction of history. He was uncovering this secret history of youth culture and teenagers. As different as it may seem from someone like Arthur Russell, it connected in my mind that way. 

dot429: I liked learning about the youth counter-culture movements in Nazi Germany, and I was impressed with the footage you found.

MW: I didn’t know I was obsessed with World War II and Nazi history but I became obsessed when doing the film. It was fascinating to me how Hitler, unlike any other leader in history, mobilized youth and shaped his movement around them because they represented the future. I was fascinated by that and how it contrasted with the consumer pop culture we associate with America.

dot429: How would you describe the style of your films?

MW: I’m a collagist, in a way. I’ve seen tons of interviews, but I like to find dialogue and written source material and collage that. It’s a new text that expresses new ideas. That’s kind of at the core of what I do. So I’ll interview somebody, like we’re doing now, and then reassemble that to make new points and combine it with other people’s words to create its own narrative or an essay. That’s a strategy I use all across my work. 

dot429: So there’s a strong connection between style and subject matter. Do you try to inspire a particular sensory response in viewers?

MW: Yeah. I’m going for a super immersive hearing in the films that I make—they’re not just informational or didactic. All the things I’m doing, from the use of experimental filmmaking to a certain kind of music, are trying to elicit an emotional response, but not the normal ones we get from traditional narratives. 

dot429: Tell me more about your project Another Portrait of Jason.

MW: I’m so happy that people still find that. I loved doing that project. It was so fascinating to find out what happened with that guy.

dot429: Was Shirley Clarke’s documentary Portrait of Jason eventually restored?

(Jason Holliday)

MW: Yes, it was restored. It had a release in probably New York and maybe it played at the Roxy in San Francisco, but there is a DVD coming out. It is in progress and I contributed to the Kickstarter, so I get updates every once in a while. It will be commercially available and is a really fascinating film.

dot429: Would you consider doing your own documentary about him?

MW: Part of the reason I did that project was hoping to find him, and yes, I would have made a film about him. But I did not find him—he was deceased. I don’t think there was enough there for me to make a film. But I’m really inspired by that film. Its so basic and stripped down but so highly constructed—just a woman asking a man questions on camera. 

dot429: Do you think you’ll continue to uncover artists who were overlooked by the mainstream but who were prominent figures in queer culture?

MW: I’m not doing that right now but I know I will again. Well, I am actually doing a film about a gay artist right now. His name is Hilary Knight and he illustrated the book Eloise. He’s alive, he’s 87 years old, and I’m making a film for him that will be on HBO next year. But at the same time, I’m trying to push myself in a different direction. I’m starting this new film that’s not queer and not…actually I don’t want to talk about it yet [laughs]. 

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