NIGEL NOBLE: Documentary Filmmaker

October 4, 2001

"I try to make films about people who are never usually in the public eye," said Nigel Noble, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who lives in Springs. "The films that I make are basically home movies for people who don't make home movies."

Mr. Noble's most recent documentary, "The Charcoal People," examined the lives of the charcoal workers in the Brazilian pig iron industry, marginalized laborers at the very bottom rung of the global industrial ladder. It was shown last year at the Hamptons International Film Festival. At the festival, Mr. Noble found both a distributor for "The Charcoal People" - the Cinema Guild - and another documentary project.

The project, one of several he is working on now, was the brainchild of Carlos Sandoval, a writer and former attorney from Amagansett. It deals with undocumented Mexican day laborers and the tensions they have engendered in Farmingville, where last year two white men posing as contractors allegedly attacked and severely beat two Mexicans after luring them to an empty warehouse with a promise of work. One of the white men was convicted in August. After he is sentenced, his lawyer has promised the filmmakers an interview.

Mr. Noble is no stranger to difficult subjects, but he believes the Farmingville project may be "the most difficult film I will ever have to make," partly because the filmmakers are trying to take a "neutral position."

"We're asking how a small town like Farmingville can suddenly find itself being ostracized and called racist, and to do that we need to hear from everybody," Mr. Noble said.

When Mr. Noble, Mr. Sandoval, and the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Don Lenzer of Amagansett began filming in February, nobody wanted to talk to them. The Mexicans didn't want to be photographed and the people who wanted them out "didn't believe we could tell their story without editorializing and making them say things they didn't mean. . . . We walked up to people on the street and they would shout at us to get our camera out of their faces. It was a very difficult and edgy situation there."

At first, the crew filmed public meetings and followed the Suffolk Legislature's debate on whether to pay for a hiring hall in Farmingville. They hung out on the street and went to church services and soccer games to get to know the Mexican workers.

Slowly, the Mexicans and the people in the middle have started to open up, but the residents of Farmingville who are adamant about deporting the day laborers still don't trust the filmmakers to represent them fairly. "They represent themselves very well in public, but we'd like to get a little closer than that. We'd like to get into their homes," Mr. Noble said.

"The people of Farmingville are not racists," he said. "They are in this position where an enormous amount of men have suddenly showed up. There are elements which are extremely vocal and stir up the issue. They bring the media in and the word racist suddenly becomes very useful."

Issues of race and class have always been important to him and his films, but Mr. Noble sees the Farmingville situation as a "real conundrum."

"I feel bad for the people . . . and that's exactly what the film is about," Mr. Noble said.

Tighter Borders

The events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath will change the direction of the Farmingville documentary considerably. With border security expected to be tighter than ever, some laborers who might have gone back to Mexico for the winter and returned in the spring have already left and may not be back. Others, knowing their trip back will be more difficult than usual, will not leave at all.

Mr. Noble said he hopes the film will teach the long-term and temporary residents of Farmingville something about each other. "For the film to work, the audience has to make up their own minds," the director said.

That is true of any good documentary. And when people learn something they did not know before, they may see the world differently. "Sometimes you get a sense that people's lives can be changed by watching a film. I don't expect miracles, but if one person's point of view is changed, that's pretty satisfying," Mr. Noble said.

He said he believes the greatest challenge in making a documentary is "being honest to the subject." There are some projects that help pay the bills and some for which he will scrape together money because he feels the film has to be made. Before showing those films to a broader audience, he always shows them to the people who are in the film. "Nobody should ever get hurt by the films I make," Mr. Noble said.

That sensitivity was especially important with an Emmy Award-winning film called "Voices of Sarafina!" The film, about growing up black in apartheid South Africa, featured the cast of the musical "Sarafina!" Mr. Noble was particularly concerned that in speaking about their experiences cast members might put their families in South Africa in danger. In the end, however, "not one person objected to anything."

Mr. Noble came to the United States from England in 1965, planning to stay for six months, and never left. He was a stage manager for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon before hopping the pond and became a recording engineer in the U.S., working on such films as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "The Lords of Flatbush."

His first documentary as a director was "Close Harmony," which followed the rehearsals leading up to a concert at the Brooklyn Friends School, where his son was a student. "Close Harmony" won Academy, Emmy, and Christopher Awards.

After starting off with a bang, Mr. Noble continued doing sound, but grew increasingly frustrated with the directors he was working for. "They knew less about what they were doing than I knew about what they were doing," he said.

Now, almost 20 years later, he has nearly two dozen awards to prove that his decision to become a director was the right one.

After so many years of making documentaries, Mr. Noble is now looking forward to making a feature film, he said. He is working on a satirical script based on a true Hollywood story and would say no more, for fear the idea might be snatched away. His features would not be loaded with sex and violence, he said, and would have to have "that same sort of visceral human truth" that he tries to reveal in his documentaries.

In addition to the Farmingville project, he is finishing up a film for National Geographic about cowboys in the Brazilian pantenal, which will be aired on television in November on "National Geographic Explorer."

"Where 'The Charcoal People' was about the destruction of the environment, this film is about the destruction of a way of life," Mr. Noble explained.

He is also a series producer of "Code Blue," a program about a hospital in Savannah, Ga., for the Learning Channel produced with The New York Times Television company.

Like many artists, Mr. Noble has found himself pondering new directions and searching for a way to give voice to the turmoil that so many people feel in the wake of the Sept. 11 air attacks.

Mr. Noble said he felt "useless" at first, until it occurred to him that as a filmmaker in the business of communicating, he could, if nothing else, help other people express themselves.

He proposed that The New York Times Television company put up the money to produce a program of short films that would allow the employees of the company to express their feelings about what happened through short dramas, documentaries, or visual poetry. The company agreed and Mr. Noble is now collecting proposals from staff members.

Seeing just a few responses, he said, he wonders why he never thought of doing such a project before. "Why do we have to have a major sad terrible event to trigger us to do things like this?"