David Sutherland ’63 Creates Portraits on Film

“I’ve always wanted to do a ‘My Life as Told to…’ interview,” quipped Rivers alumnus David Sutherland as he settled in to talk on a recent afternoon. And talk he did, passionately, about his award-winning films and his goal to convey the dignity and humanity of his subjects, often marginalized members of American society.

Although these subjects have run the gamut from WPA artists to a founding father to a Nebraska family to a couple of Appalachian teenagers, the films share a common thread: of revelation, of discovery, of lives patiently allowed to unfold before the viewers’ eyes.

Portraitist on Film
Sutherland sees himself as a portraitist. His goal is to capture the mood and personality of his subjects, deftly using image and sound to bring the viewer “inside their skin.” He doesn’t call his films “documentaries” because he brings no agenda to his projects. He is filming individuals and if generalizations are made beyond them to wider social issues, then so be it. “My films often raise more questions than they answer,” he said.

One of his earliest films was about a diner in East Boston that he had visited often as a child, a place seemingly stuck in a time warp. “My father would take me there and greet everyone equally, no matter what their status. He taught me to treat everyone with dignity and that has carried over into my work. I also grew up in a Jewish family with an Irish nanny in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Newton. I can relate to anyone because I look beyond my first impression and allow myself to see them differently as I get to know them. Many people can’t shed that first impression even if they realize they are mistaken.”

Finding a Common Ground
He attributes his success at creating his remarkable films to his ability “to find a commonality between me and my subjects and adapt my personality to them and their environment. I try to find the dignity in a person and a situation. I have a certain sense of humility, I guess, that allows that to happen.”

As a teenager, Sutherland developed a love for reading under the guidance of Rivers English teacher Bill Gallagher. “That love has stayed with me throughout life. And Mr. Thomsen, who coached me in football, was a great motivator. He could channel any frustrations I was having into a positive force. Even today, I ‘counterpunch’ when I come up against a challenge. I can be very tenacious, and that has gotten me through projects that have stretched out for years.”

An Instinct for Drama
Sutherland filmed the diner and its patrons over a three year period until the owner was forced to close. He couldn’t have anticipated the film’s ending but trusted that a story would unfold for him. That willingness to follow his instincts about his subjects has served him well, especially with his critically acclaimed Frontline mini-series, The Farmer’s Wife and the recently-aired Country Boys. In the first film, a couple must fight to save their farm from foreclosure, and in the second, the boys struggle to overcome their surroundings to finish high school. The first has been called a study of man vs. nature; the second could surely be deemed man vs. nurture.

Sutherland couldn’t guarantee how the films would conclude, or even when. But he invites the viewers along for the journey. In the end they have intimately witnessed pain, frustration, and joy and have glimpsed a way of life that is unfathomable for most, but all too familiar for others.

Ground-breaking Films
Each of the films in his thirty-year career has been ground-breaking in its own way. In the eighties, he made a pair of films about 1930’s artists Paul Cadmus and Jack Levine, weaving an overview of their paintings with the verité of them at work in their studios, bound together by a novel approach to narration. “I would interview them and then create a script for them to deliver about themselves. It made their stories more cohesive for the viewer. They were documentarians in their own docudrama.”

While both films were critical successes, Halftime, a portrait of five Yale graduates at their 25th reunion, brought Sutherland national fame. His ability to capture on film the soul-searching of these men was unprecedented and set the stage for later films.

“My film about George Washington for the American Experience was a departure for me into history. What intrigued me most about Washington and made me want to study him was his willingness to give up power for the good of the country. It set him apart from other leaders both then and now and that is what made him great.”

“The film was unique because it was the first for PBS about a subject that predated photography. We had to find a way to create visuals, with reenactments, and audio tracks to bring paintings to life. We used a steady cam before it became a common filming technique. I still sell outtakes of the battles as stock footage.”

American Gothic on Film
After several more films, he became interested in doing a film about the endangered American farmer. He had lived and worked in the western half of the country in the years following his graduation from Tufts University in 1967 and graduate studies at the University of Southern California. “I really liked the people there. Then after The Farmer’s Wife, people would say to me, ‘But, they didn’t look poor.’ So I wanted to see what real rural poverty did look like and that took me to Kentucky for Country Boys.

Because of the intrusiveness of the filming process in his later films, Sutherland acknowledges that his subjects’ lives have probably been changed by the experience. But he also chose subjects that he sensed had the possibility of amounting to something. “Everyone living in poverty has dignity. It’s really difficult to pull yourself out of it, but many people perform that Herculean feat. I think the boys in Country Boys would have gotten their diplomas even if we hadn’t been there filming.”

A Sharp Focus on Rural Poverty
Putting a face on rural poverty has consumed Sutherland for 12 years. And his impact has extended beyond the films themselves. After the screening of The Farmer’s Wife, he spoke at farm aid rallies, mental health conferences and PBS fundraisers in the Midwest. Since the release of Country Boys, he has been asked to speak at colleges about rural poverty and Appalachia. In addition, Cody Perkins, one of the boys in the film, has been asked to speak about the importance of adult mentoring. Contributions from viewers for a college fund for Chris Johnson, the second boy, are being channeled into a trust for him.

What next? “I’m really a dinosaur in this business. On the one hand, I’m really cutting edge. I record six sound tracks for these films. No one in Hollywood does that. But there is no money for this type of long-form production. I had financing for four and a half years for Country Boys, but the project took me seven. So I’m not really sure.”

Perhaps one of the most haunting scenes in Country Boys best illustrates the power of Sutherland’s cinematic technique. As the film draws to a close, Chris, who has seen chance after chance slip away from him, is sitting with his only friend Jay, a drifting illiterate, in a run-down apartment. Jay turns to Chris and asks, “But what about your dreams, Chris?” No narrator could have evoked the poignancy of that exchange, unfolding unrehearsed before the viewer’s eyes. But Sutherland caught it and in the process, gave voice to that universal hope in all of us for a better future.