“Path? There was no path,” says Eleanor Bingham Miller ’64, and laughs, when asked how she ended up in documentary filmmaking. When she graduated from Concord Academy, the medium she loved, television, was dominated by the studio system, and by men. So it was a chance encounter with a new technology, a small, portable video camera — the Sony Portapak — along with an irreverent inclination, that launched her career as a pioneering videographer and documentary producer in the early 1970s.
Speaking with students, faculty, and staff over lunch on May 18 — and asking as much as she answered — Miller demonstrated the aplomb and inquisitiveness that aid a documentary film producer. “You’re always connecting everything,” she said. While a director hews to a specific vision, she explained, it’s a producer’s job to manifest that vision on screen, so a collaborative nature is essential to getting a large group to realize a common experience. Miller was on campus to deliver the 2016–17 Hall Fellow Lecture. She also visited English teacher Nancy Boutilier’s class, Creative Nonfiction: The Art of the Essay. Her most recent film, BOSTON, the first feature-length documentary about the Boston Marathon, was screened at CA the evening before.
In her talk in the Performing Arts Center, Miller showed clips from several of the films she took part in making. The early ones, especially, created with collaborative coproducers, turned the camera on previously undocumented subcultures. A 1973 film exposed the cult surrounding Guru Maharaji Ji. “It’s hard to believe it now, but no one knew it was being recorded,” she said, because the camera was so unobtrusive. A 1975 film about the Superbowl interviewed Cowboys and Steelers players, who talked frankly about their injuries long before head trauma became a public caution. The 1978 film The New Clan: Heritage of Hate used helicopter footage of a Ku Klux Klan rally, while David Duke was campaigning for the Louisiana State Senate; this one-hour documentary aired nationwide on PBS and competed at the Cannes Film Festival. And the 2007 documentary Thunder and Reins, about seven professional jockeys, digs beneath the glitz and glamour surrounding the Kentucky Derby to reveal the difficult lives of these athletes, and their incredible toughness and discipline.
Between film clips, Miller gave a tour de force visual sequence of her life and work, captioning photographs of herself with many of the actors, musicians, and public figures she orbited. They included a young Bill Murray; the Grateful Dead, for whom she was a videographer from 1974 to 1978 (keyboardist Keith Godchaux sometimes had to unplug when she needed power); and former President Jimmy Carter, whom she delighted in once bringing together with the anarchist and revolutionary Abbie Hoffman. Miller locates the genesis of her work in cinéma vérité, or “truthful cinema,” a freewheeling 1960s film movement that rebelled against the conventions of the documentary tradition. “We had a radical worldview,” Miller said. “We wanted to make the world a better place, and we were willing to be extraordinarily silly.”
It was her sense of humor that landed her at Concord Academy. Born in Louisville, Ky., to a family of self-described “media barons” who owned the local CBS affiliate, a newspaper, and a radio station, Miller was the youngest of many siblings. Asked not to return to the school she attended there, due to her “prankish nature,” as she described it, she enrolled at Concord, where her spirit was undaunted. In March 1964, she was back in Louisville on a five-day suspension — she had pulled a prank on Mrs. Morse, the head of the science department. While there, she witnessed the death of her brother Jonathan in an accident. He had been just four years older. “I lost my soul,” she said. “And I learned that people can vanish with no record.”
Perhaps Miller’s career in film was born of that realization. After time spent in college, she went to London during the Swinging 1960s and started out as a young adult in the fashion industry. She was on the Spanish island of Ibiza modeling crocheted designs when she saw her first Sony Portapak in use. Fruit of the Loom was filming an underwear commercial. Suddenly television production no longer had to be studio-based, or gender-based, or entered through an apprentice system. Anyone could afford a camera, and community-access TV stations allowed self-minted “video freaks” like her to educate one another about the equipment while developing radically new forms of programming. In the mid-and late 1970s, Miller worked with such stations in Aspen, Colo., New York, and Los Angeles, where she joined the legendary documentary collective TVTV, or “Top Value Television” as they called it. Their collaborations aired on PBS across the United States.
Coming full circle to her current work, Miller said that even earlier this year she was filming surreptitiously in Iran. When questioned by the secret police in Isfahan after interviewing subjects, she had a new guise for infiltrating another culture: “I’m just an elderly grandmother,” she said she told them sweetly. “I’m taking home videos to show my family. I love Iran.” They let her be. Miller came out of retirement to coproduce BOSTON, when the film had to be radically altered following the 2013 terrorist bombing. Now she’s conducting interviews for a video portrait of her brother who died before the age of 21, documenting memories while there’s still time.
During a lighthearted Q&A session, asked by a student what the prank was that sent her home, Miller demurred. “Oh, I don’t think I should say,” she said, looking impish from stage. “It would be easy to replicate, and you’d be suspended.” Instead, she offered some advice to students. “If there are people in the field you’re interested in who are doing great work, just get in touch with them. Hang out with people who are pushing the boundaries of your art, and who will push you.”
The Hall Fellowship is an annual endowed lecture named for Elizabeth B. Hall, headmistress of Concord Academy from 1949 through 1963, that was established by the Trustees of Concord Academy in 1963 to honor her tenure. Over the years, this lectureship has brought a wide array of accomplished individuals to CA, from poets to activists to politicians. Read about recent talks by hydroponic farming CEO Sonia Lo’ 84, education expert Howard Gardner P’87, ’90, ’94, planetary scientist Lucy McFadden ’70, Holocaust survivor Edgar Krasa, population geneticist Spencer Wells, and Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone.