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Pioneering Documentary Filmmaker William Greaves Dies at 87

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act August 27, 2014 at 10:49AM

A retrospective of his work is forthcoming.
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William Greaves
William Greaves

It is 1968; director William Greaves and his student crew are in New York's Central Park filming a screen test. The drama involves a bitter break-up between a married couple. But this is just the "cover story." The real story is happening "off-camera" as the enigmatic director pursues some hidden agenda, leading to growing conflict and chaos amongst the students, which explodes on screen, producing a brilliant kind of raw energy and insight.

"Symbiopsychotaxiplasm," the cinema verite film-within-a-film can't be easily defined. But it's one of the most innovative movies about making movies. It generated 1 sequel titled "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2," released 37 years later.

Both films, as well as the other 11 features Greaves directed, should be on your must-see lists, especially in light of today's sad news.

Per the New York Times this morning, veteran notable African American documentary filmmaker and journalist, William Greaves, died on Monday, in his home in new York City, at age 87.

His daughter-in-law Bernice Green confirmed his death.

The Times doesn't say what the cause of death was, but, I recall, about 4 years ago, receiving an email informing me that Greaves was ill, and his family was unsure of how much longer he would live. At the time, I was told that he'd developed a neurological condition that impacted his ability to move, speak and swallow, and interrupted work on what was then his latest film - a 90-minute documentary exploring cultural life in Harlem, titled, "Once Upon a Time in Harlem." A fundraiser had been set up to raise money for his treatment.

Unfortunately, I don't have any information beyond that at this time. I've, however, made inquires, and will update this item when I learn more.

William Greaves is one of the most respected independents, working in both film and television, producing, directing and editing films for over 4 decades. His documentary films on the African American experience include classics like "From These Roots;" "Ida B. Wells: A Passion For Justice;" and "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey."

He was writer and director of the 2 acclaimed "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm" feature films (1967 and 2005 - both previously highlighted on this blog), and was executive producer of the successful Richard Pryor film, "Bustin’ Loose."

Greaves has been honored with many awards, including an Emmy for his work as executive producer of the pioneering public television series, "Black Journal," and a Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association. 

He was a long-time member of the Actors Studio, where he often substituted for Lee Strasberg as moderator of acting sessions.

It was just a year ago that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences added Greaves to its membership - an invitation that, as I noted at the time, really ought to have happened many years earlier, given the man's contributions to cinema. His oeuvre comprises of significant social documentaries on a variety of issues, recognizing and preserving the history of a people, while also challenging the rules of filmmaking, creating a new language for documentary and dramatic cinema, thus becoming a true film pioneer. 

Sadly a lot of his work isn't readily available for rent or purchase. Easiest to find is the work that he'll likely be most remembered for - "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm" both parts, which are available for purchase in a 2-disc Criterion Collection DVD set. I recommend you start there. Pick up a copy for yourself via Amazon.com.

Rest in peace Mr Greaves.

A retrospective of his work is forthcoming.

This article is related to: William Greaves


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