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William Farley, filmmaker

photo credit-Max James Fallon

William Farley

After graduating from high school, and following the working-class tradition of my family, I began working in a factory. My mother showed some of my drawings to a local artist and was told I should consider going to art school. This idea was a shock to me as I had no formal art training. However, I hated the sweatshop, and the prospect of escaping it was irresistible.


I enrolled in Vesper George School of Art (1961-1964), studying commercial art and met William Georgenes, a recent MFA graduate student from Yale, who gave the class his Josef Albers design problems as homework. To my surprise, he found me good at creative problem solving and thus began my journey to becoming an artist.


Upon graduation, I was immediately drafted into the U.S. Army and spent the next two years in Baltimore, Maryland, working as an Illustrator for an Army Intelligence unit, developing tools for spies. At night, I took art classes, where I discovered sculpture as a new medium for me to explore.


After discharge from the Army, (Honorable!), I returned to school on the G.I. Bill, at Maryland Institute College of Art, (BFA 1969). Majoring in Sculpture, I received a full tuition scholarship to Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (1968). During my undergraduate work I had the opportunity to meet many distinguished poets, artists, and musicians as well as revolutionary thinkers like Buckminster Fuller and Margret Mead. This exposure was life changing, showing me that following a creative discipline could be transformative.


hI entered an MFA program with a scholarship at California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, Ca. (1970-72) where my sculpture became more conceptual and political. After the shooting of students at Kent State, protesting against Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, I printed an edition of postage stamps showing the back of my head with a pony tail as an expression of my loss of faith in our government's foreign policy. Some of the stamps, which were printed on gummed paper with “US Ten Cents” across them, were found on letters as postage and I was interviewed by the Secret Service to see if I was a counterfeiter. The government decided not to bring charges after I went on a television news show and argued for my intention in making the artwork. This sheet of stamps was included in Dana Atchley's “Space Atlas” (1970) and was my first work of Mail Art during the Correspondence Art movement.


In graduate school, I took a History of Cinema class as an elective. For  grades, the professor offered  the option of writing a paper about the films  or making a film. My film, ”Making Out” (1970), a satire about adolescent courting, became a success on the festival circuit. I received my MFA in 1972 with more credits in film production than sculpture.


After graduate school I worked as a crew member on cargo ships and brought along filmmaking equipment. One night, on watch on the bow of the ship talking into a tape recorder about my experiences at sea, a fellow crew member came up to me and began telling me about a terrible incident in which he was steering the ship and accidentally ran over a Korean fishing boat and didn’t go back to look for survivors. The resulting film, “Sea Space“(1972) was edited at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, where I taught film production from 1974 to 1980. “Sea Space” won awards nationally and internationally and is in the permanent collection of the Walker Museum of Art in Minneapolis. It was also shown at, Sundance and the New York Film Festival.


I worked with Joan Jonas as a story adviser on “Juniper Tree” (1976) and made two films for her for “Double Lunar Dogs” at the Berkeley Museum of Art. I performed in Robert Ashley's “What She Thinks”, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1976) and was the production designer for “Music with Roots in the Aether” (1977), the Gordon Mumma episode. I continued to explore experimental filmmaking within the tradition of storytelling and completed “The Bell Rang to An Empty Sky” (1977) with Dennis Banks, cofounder of the American Indian Movement, and was given an Award of Merit from the Belington Film Festival by John Hanhardt (Curator, Film and Video, Whitney Museum of American Art). I received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant for Filmmaking (1979). I also worked on several theater projects, and created film components for George Coates Performance Works and Alan Finneran's Soon 3 productions. I continued to work as a performer in art events; “Looking on The Eighties”(1980), conceived by Linda Montano and performed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with George Coates, John Duykers, Pauline Oliveros and Linda Montano.


I joined the board of several San Francisco arts organizations in 1980; including Langton Arts, a non-profit alternative space, focusing on contemporary art; The San Francisco International Theater Festival (1980-84); George Coates Performance Works (1981 to 1988); the Film Arts Foundation (1984 to 1996); and was president of the Film Arts Foundation Board from 1992 to 1996.


In collaboration with George Manupelli and Don Novello from Saturday Night Live, I produced “Become an Artist” for the San Francisco Art Institute, which won a Clio for the best public service announcement of the year (1981).


My first narrative feature film, “Citizen, I'm Not Losing My mind, I'm giving It Away” (1982) was a fictional film slightly disguised as a documentary. It received grants from the California Tamarack Foundation in 1982 and the Zellerbach Family Fund in 1983. It featured Whoopi Goldberg in her first screen appearance. It premiered at the 1983 Sundance Film Festival followed by a one month run at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York.


I received a Western Region Media Grant for Filmmaking in 1984 and was commissioned by producer Jim Newman to direct a documentary about an Indian Raga singer, whose music inspired Terry Riley and La Monte Young in their creation of the modern classical music called Minimalism. “In Between The Notes, The Life and Music of Pandit Pran Nath” (1986) won a first prize at the 1987 Chicago International Film Festival.


Shortly after my return from India, my younger brother Stephen was found dead in his apartment and I began to research a film to honor his memory, and a tribute to his life. I collected tens of thousands of clips from old documentaries and fictional films and began viewing this material and listening to an orchestrated music score I found on an LP. The music and images seemed to illuminate each other, creating a deep subtext of emotional meaning. I sent a print of the finished 16mm film to the composer David Byrne who gave me permission to use his music. “Tribute” (1986) screened worldwide in the international festival circuit.


In the summer of 1977, I wandered around Ireland for a month of filming and met John Molloy, an actor at the Abby Theater, in Dublin. His life story became the inspiration for my second narrative feature, Of Men and Angels (1989), written by Deborah Rogin, Marjorie Berger and me. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for outstanding screenplay. ”Of Men and Angels”, was acquired by a London film company for European distribution.


For a year I took still photographs of people living on the street, before I began filming “broke” (1995), a meditation on begging. The film suggests that labeling people without money, as bad, is a way of not wanting to address the problem of homelessness. The score was written by Academy Award composer Todd Boekelheide and performed by the Kronos Quartet.   At the 1998 Independent Feature Project, in New York, Variety magazine wrote that “5:10 To Cooperstown” a screenplay I co-wrote with Adam Keker and Christopher Upham was a hot prospect. The story was based on my childhood growing up in a family where my father drank and inadvertently lit fires. I met with executives from Fox Searchlight about producing the film, but they were unwilling to give me final cut. Talks ended there.


My friends Mal and Sandra Sharpe bought a 1963 painting, "A Bohemian Nightclub", in an upscale junk store. The painting once hung on the wall of North Beach's Old Spaghetti Factory. The Sharpes asked me to join the search for all the people in the mural and record their stories. “The Old Spaghetti Factory” (2000), went out on PBS satellite and was shown in more than 95 cites in the U.S.


“The Stories” (2005) was inspired by what a friend told me about his conversation with his dying father. The story moved me deeply; Family questions are not always answered, regardless of our desire for closure. My next film, was “Darryl Henriques Is in Show Business” (2006), is a portrait of an immensely talented comedian whose biting commentary on modern life and the abuse of power made him a favorite of the political Left. The film follows him through his daily life working as a caterer with occasional stints as a stand-up comic. It includes interviews with Ed Begley Jr., Paul Krassner, and Peter Coyote.


John O'Keefe's adaptation of Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself” (2006) performed at the Marsh in San Francisco; CA was recorded with five cameras.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote of the show, "Every poet has his own Walt Whitman within him. John O'Keefe liberated his Whitman and gave it to the open air, much to everybody's delight."


“Arianna's Journey” (2007) follows the travails of a spiritual healer following the private directives of a rascally deity. Her family travels with her on a pilgrimage to holy shrines in Israel and Palestine, to sacred caves in France, and finally to the largest peyote fields in the world, located in central Mexico.  


In 2007 I began to photograph urban and rural landscapes at night in the fog. Photographing after midnight and before dawn in the fog satisfies a deep need for me as I do my best to capture the drama of the silent light of a liminal world. This work is an exploration of my belief that the photographic image has the potential to reach beyond the rational mind to our innate understanding of the mysterious beauty of the material world. This work is represented by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Artist Gallery at Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA.


I was commissioned to direct “Shadow and Light, The Life and Art of Elaine Badgley Arnoux”, a  2009 documentary about an 83-year- old woman who paints catastrophes of the 20th and 21st century in pursuit of self-healing from her childhood traumas.    I found a walk near where I lived which filled me with a sense of meaning beyond what I considered the problems of my own life. “The Walk” (2011) is a celebration of a landscape's power to heal and to honor what it gave me.


I received another commission to direct “Plastic Man, The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish” (2015). His life has been one of metamorphoses: first an activist bail bondsman in the 1960s, then a filmmaker, and now a sculptor, using plastic junk to create vividly alive figures full of expression and feeling. Barrish is striving for validation through public acclaim. The film premiered at the Hof International Film Festival in Germany and won the audience award at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival. Recently it showed on KQED television in San Francisco. The film received grants from the Fleishhaker Foundation and the Lef Foundation.


I produced and directed “Alvin Lucier’s Self Portrait for Flute and Wind Anemometer” (2017) with Barbara Held on flute. The ten-minute film documented the improvisation with three cameras. Crew members included; sound recordist: Philip Perkins, camera: Barry Stone, editors: Barry Stone and William Farley.


I am presently in post production with “I Wanted To Be A Man With A Gun, Three American Soldiers in World War Two”, a feature documentary about three men who bore witness to war and its inhuman face during World War Two. They participated deeply in different ways and came to understand that the monsters are not always the enemy. Their stories cut through our romantic fantasies about war. Like all combat soldiers, Leo, Harold and Paul found themselves in a nightmare reality, where what was occurring around them was almost unimaginable, unpredictable, and deadly. To survive, they made an accommodation with death. What are the consequences of becoming killers or refusing to kill? This is an essential question. What did they become when they survived the war? What burdens did they carry for the rest of their time on earth? The film will explore their lives and will, beyond “shell shock” or Post Traumatic Stress, search for meanings, and how to be a decent human being.

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