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Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

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Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

Editor's note: This documentary contains mature content. Viewer discretion advised. 

Re-broadcast on June 29 at 11:00 p.m.
Streaming here from June 30–July 29.

Explore the life of experimental filmmaker, poet and queer activist, James Broughton, who was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and a precursor to the Beat poets. Broughton lived on Port Townsend in Washington State for about ten years until his death in 1999.

Years before the Beats arrived in San Francisco, the city exploded with artistic expressions — painting, theatre, film and poetry. At its center was the groundbreaking filmmaker and poet Broughton. BIG JOY explores Broughton's passionate embrace of a life of pansexual transcendence and a fiercely independent mantra: Follow your own weird. His remarkable story spans the post-war San Francisco Renaissance, his influence on the Beat generation, escape to Europe during the McCarthy years, a lifetime of acclaim for his joyous experimental films and poetry celebrating the human body, finding his soulmate at age 61, and, finally, his ascendancy as a revered bard of sexual liberation.

About the Filmmakers

Stephen Silha is a freelance writer, filmmaker, facilitator and futurist. Born in Minneapolis, he began writing for newspapers in the suburban fifth grade, and went on to report for The Minneapolis Star and The Christian Science Monitor. He has worked with several philanthropic foundations, including the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and with Children’s Express News Service, Libraries for the Future, the United Nations, Yes! Magazine, and Good News/Good Deeds: Citizen Effectiveness in the Age of Electronic Democracy.

Stephen studied English and communications at Principia College and Mankato State University, where he worked on a futuristic education system for a proposed experimental city in Minnesota.

After several illuminating years working for the Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich., he moved to the Puget Sound bioregion of Washington, where he has lived for 34 years as a freelance writer, publicist, facilitator and consultant. He is past president of the Washington News Council, a forum for media fairness in Washington State. He has also co-facilitated youth-adult dialogues on Vashon Island, Wash., where he lives. His other current project, Journalism That Matters, is a conversational think-and-do tank begun in 2000 on the future of journalism, which has inspired new experiments across the country.

Stephen joined the Radical Faerie movement in 1985, and has focused on aspects of tantra, gay spirituality and LGBT cultural history as a journalist and storyteller. Silha met James Broughton at a gathering in 1989, after James had moved to Port Townsend, Wash. with his lover, husband and soulmate Joel Singer. They became fast friends, and Broughton mentored Silha for many joyful, communicative years.

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BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton is his first feature documentary.

Eric Slade is an independent director and producer based in Portland, Ore., where he was born and raised. Eric graduated from Emerson College in 1981 and spent 15 years in San Francisco (with an amazing group of documentary filmmakers) before returning to his native city of Portland.

Slade’s feature documentary Hope Along the Wind, The Life of Harry Hay premiered on PBS in 2001. Winner of the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the film was nominated for a Bay Area Emmy Award for Best Documentary and received numerous Best Documentary Awards at festivals around the world (including the Seattle, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Fort Worth Lesbian Gay and Film Festivals).

Slade has worked extensively with PBS, including as a producer on the PBS series History Detectives (2003–2010) and on PBS’ Great Lodges of the National Parks. He was series producer for the CPB series Bridging World History. In 20+ years of creating award-winning educational and promotional productions for corporate and nonprofit clients, Slade has also been the recipient of many grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, among others. He is also a proud winner of the New Yorker cartoon caption-writing contest.

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Filmmaker Statements:

Stephen Silha — Producer, Director

As a journalist, community organizer, facilitator, youth worker and producer, my work has always been about improving human communication.

When I met James Broughton in 1989, it was like a door opening in my soul. Here was a master of images and words, who was also sexy and 75 and surrounded by beautiful young admirers. What can I learn from/with this guy?

It was my pleasure to connect regularly with James and Joel Singer, his adoring soulmate, during the ten years before James died. James and I went on “writing retreats” together, visiting the ocean, the mountains and the wine country of Washington State. His death (which I witnessed) was transcendent for me. He carried around a snakeskin all day to remind himself that he was just shedding a skin. He listened to his poetry put to music by the Chilean singer-songwriter Ludar, and music by his friend Lou Harrison. He drank champagne and praised his life adventures. His last words: “Praise and thanks. And more bubbly, please.”

Who doesn’t want to be able to express their deepest longings, their wildest dreams, their human confusion? James seemed wired into this. His poetry embraces “Yes and no singing together.”

My background as a journalist gave me a grounding in storytelling, but with BIG JOY, I wanted to go beyond the “who, what, where, when, why” to something more poetic and luminous. My work with Eric Slade and the rest of my team — animator, editors, co-producers, consultants — made it possible for me to use James Broughton’s story and art to make a film that offers an inspirational prayer for heightened creativity.

What I didn’t know when we started was how important he was to American literature and film, and the history of social movements such as the sexual revolution. His poetry and personality helped create a vibrant post-war artistic climate after WWII in San Francisco, the soil out of which the Beat movement grew. His sensual poetry and films of the '70s and '80s gave voice to a spiritualized sexuality that is continuing to emerge culturally today. He foreshadowed today’s multimedia culture.

I was amazed to learn how many of Broughton’s images came directly or obliquely from Georges Mélies and Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau and Maya Deren. James was one of the original folks who chose the “canon” of experimental film for the Anthology Film Archives. His daughter Serena, who didn’t want to be interviewed for our film, told me that auditing his History of Film class at San Francisco Art Institute was one of the great educational experiences of her life.

My own filmic influences include Robert Altman, Jane Campion, Agnes Varda, Davis Guggenheim, and Michael Moore. When I saw James Marsh’s Man on Wire, I was convinced that documentaries can be gripping and deeply personal. And for me, moving from writing to making my first film — what a great leap for one who’d mostly been conscious of words and images on a page! But without Broughton’s moving images, you can’t really tell his story.

Broughton moved me in many ways, and I hope this film will move others.

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Eric Slade — Director, Producer

When Stephen Silha approached me about working together to create a film about the wondrously imaginative poet and filmmaker James Broughton, I was excited — and terrified. James Broughton’s work and life demanded that our film be wild, revolutionary, poetic — and tell a great story. When I started working on the film, I read James’ guide to filmmaking, Making Light of It, a slim volume filled with many nuggets of clever advice. “Don’t waste your time making a film like anyone else’s,” he says. “Your business is to make something that neither you nor I have ever seen before. ”And so began the fittingly wild adventure of making BIG JOY.

Years earlier, I made Hope Along the Wind, the story of the queer activist Harry Hay, who changed the gay world through his dogged political activism. While most of my work is in the area of historical documentaries, I knew telling James Broughton’s story would be different. It was clear the film would be a lush celebration of James’ work — with 23 films and 23 books of poetry, there was no shortage of beautiful images and words to draw from. Yet it wasn’t clear there was a compelling story, with conflict and drama. And then we dove into his journals.

James wrote every day of his life, and he didn’t hold back on the page. While his journals held ideas for his films and poems, many pages were filled with his struggles, doubts, fears and demons. James eventually did embrace a life of "big joy," but it was a traumatic, bumpy road to get there. Our editor Dawn Logsdon convinced us that these journals would be the spine of the film, bringing James’ dramatic journey to life.

James Broughton’s story is an empowering one. I hope that James’ unwavering commitment to truth in his art, despite great odds, elevates audiences and inspires them to do the same. This film is as much for artists in the traditional sense as it is for all of us, as every activity that we engage in has the potential to be creative. James encouraged us all to follow our own weird: to find what we’re passionate about and embrace it fully, to not hold back, to not worry what anybody else thinks, to live a big bold creative life. I hope audiences experience James’ message of following your weird in a visceral way  that it is possible, at any moment, to choose the path of joy.

In telling James’ story, we were also able to shed light on the story of the San Francisco Renaissance, an influential yet little-discussed movement that gave birth to the Beat generation. While James was a key figure during this time, he is often missing from the public imagination of the Beat era. Uncovering his story and bringing it to audiences has been a very exciting aspect of making this film.

James was a groundbreaking queer artist who paved the way for many artists who followed. One of the first people to introduce nudity to film, he treated the human body — both male and female — in an open, celebratory and loving way. A bard of gay liberation (and a pioneer in the representation of gay sexuality), there was nothing pornographic about James’ work — he merged art and sex in a striking and jubilant way, free of shame, which is as revolutionary today as it was in the 1970s. I hope audiences will be as uplifted by these celebratory aspects of James’ work as they are by his championing of individualism.

Many of my personal cinematic influences embody James’ message — Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Marlon Riggs, DA Pennebaker and Agnes Varda — ll artists who followed their own callings with originality. Likewise, making BIG JOY gave me a good excuse to revisit the films of Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and Luis Buñuel. In making BIG JOY, Stephen and I worked to find a unique voice for the film  — one that would hopefully follow its own weird, too.

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