Judy Irola is busy finishing a documentary about growing up in a unique subculture. She says it’s her swan song. Let’s hope not.
Judy grew up in a family of traditional Basque sheepherders near Fresno, California in the 1950s. “It’s a way of life that hardly exists anymore,” she says.
She envisions a roughly 15-minute film that will use extensive 8mm footage shot by her father along with stills from that era. Interviews will be kept to a minimum. Two 91-year-old Basque women she has known all her life will be among the voices in the film. The planned title is The Sheepherder’s Daughters.
The semi-autobiographical piece will join two other docs Judy has made since 2006, both of which explored themes of idealism in the 1960s. The first was Cine Manifest, which looked back at a San Francisco film collective in that era that was an early step for Judy as well as current ASC president Stephen Lighthill. In the film, the members try to hash out in retrospect whether their endeavor, which produced two acclaimed independent films, was a success in light of its stated goals. It’s a glimpse into a different, more hopeful era, and while sometimes those hopes were perhaps too naïve, the people who grew out of the endeavor seem admirable to this viewer for having tried to demonstrate the courage of their convictions.
Judy’s more recent film is Niger ’66, the story of her Peace Corps cohort, which reunited and returned to Niger. Nineteen middle-aged participants recall their idealistic youth. Judy has taken the film to a number of festivals, sold it to the Documentary Channel, and found excellent educational distribution through the Cinema Guild in New York City.
“It wasn’t like we were going to save the world,” Judy says. “It was really to get away and grow up. Women didn't have a lot of options at that time. The world was changing. While we were in country, Martin Luther King was killed, and as as we returned, Bobby Kennedy was shot. We came back to revolution in the streets in San Francisco and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The film is a reflection from all of us about how that experience influenced our lives.”
Judy places great importance on filmmaking in part because it informs her teaching, which is her day job. (The official title is Conrad Hall Chair in Cinematography at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she is also head of the cinematography program.)
“Still, these projects take everything out of you, especially when you’re so involved,” she says. “I love my position at USC, but you need to be creative. I see that almost all of our faculty members are doing creative things outside of school, and that’s good for the students, too. We know what’s going on, and we’re passionate about what we do.”
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I connected with Dan Mindel on the phone from New York City, where he is about halfway through shooting The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with director Marc Webb. His previous assignment, Star Trek Into Darkness, was filmed mostly in California. There are of course many important differences between shooting in New York and California, but for Mindel the Southern California locale and the right shooting dates meant he could indulge his love for sailing on his off days, often with many crew members along.
Dan was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Like most South African cinematographers of a certain age, he is quick to remind me that there was no television there until the late 1970s. People watched imported movies on 16 mm projectors, or went to the cinema. Dan taught himself still photography early, but moving images didn’t grab his interest until he was going to secondary school in London. It was there that he became enamored with The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
“I realized that images could move, and go underwater, and do all sorts of things,” he says. “I became really interested in underwater documentary, and I realized that I could have to learn to use real moving cameras. While in college, I saw an advert in the newspaper, and found a job cleaning floors, making tea, and watching what was going on in a film studio.”
Today Dan and his wife are avid SCUBA divers and sailors. When he’s not working, his focus is enhancing the lives of his four children, who currently live in Topanga, and “giving them the tools to develop into the sort of human beings who can make a difference.”
But on a day off from a rigorous shoot, he finds the ocean to be a perfect antidote. He says the boat he and his crew used this past summer belongs to a friend who skippers.
“We usually eat a fantastic meal on the boat, and then go sailing in Santa Monica Bay,” he says. “It’s a very interesting effect to go offshore. It’s like taking a mini vacation. Things seem to disappear from the mind when you do that. My wife and I met on a tropical island. We spent the last five years living in Hawaii. We’re very attached to the water. So any way I can get near it, I do. The ocean is a very big part of my life.”