Inspiring People

Nina Rosenblum, Oscar-nominated, award-winning documentary film producer, director & writer

Nina Rosenblum
NINA ROSENBLUM is an Oscar-nominated, award-winning producer, director & writer of documentaries, shorts and segments. President of DAEDALUS PRODUCTIONS, INC., Nina has produced and directed for TBS, HBO, PBS, NY TIMES Television, SHOWTIME, ABC, NBC. Her co-production partners include Channel Four/UK; WDR/Germany; La Sept, France and SBS/Australia. She is a member of the Directors' Guild of America (Director), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Women in Film, the Independent Feature Project and the International Documentary Association.

In fall 2000, Ms. Rosenblum produced and directed a Showtime/ NYT Television documentary, THE SKIN I'M IN, about the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone. In 1992, Ms. Rosenblum was nominated for an Oscar for her Denzel Washington and Louis Gossett, Jr. narrated PBS documentary, LIBERATORS: FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS IN WORLD WAR II. This effort was followed by an Emmy Award in 1994 for the acclaimed TBS program, THE UNTOLD WEST: THE BLACK WEST, narrated by Danny Glover, which interwove documentary with dramatic segments.

These documentary achievements added to the acclaimed, Sundance Special Jury Prize-winning, AMERICA & LEWIS HINE, PBS, 1984 and Rosenblum's 1990 Susan Sarandon narrated feature documentary, THROUGH THE WIRE, PBS/POV, a graphic investigation of small group isolation and America's female political prisoners. Her 1992 feature documentary LOCK-UP: THE PRISONERS OF RIKERS ISLAND, produced for HBO's AMERICA UNDERCOVER series, further solidified Rosenblum and Daedalus Productions as major producers on the non-fiction scene. Her credits also include SLAVESHIP: THE TESTIMONY OF THE HENRIETTA MARIE, 1995, and A HISTORY OF WOMEN PHOTOGRAPHERS, 1997, shorts included in traveling exhibitions across the United States.

In 1999 Rosenblum produced and directed WALTER ROSENBLUM: IN SEARCH OF PITT STREET, a feature documentary chronicling the photographic career of her father, Walter Rosenblum, a highly decorated US Army Signal Corps cameraman who documented the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach and the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau. WALTER ROSENBLUM: IN SEARCH OF PITT STREET premiered at the D-Day Museum and has been invited to numerous film festivals both here and abroad, winning numerous awards. Currently, Ms. Rosenblum completed UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES, a film about the "Mothers of the NY Disappeared" who are protesting the Rockefeller Mandatory Minimum Drug Laws, and CODE YELLOW: HOSPITAL AT GROUND ZERO, about the emergency response of NYU Downtown Hospital on 9/11. She is now producing ZAHIRA, LA QUE FLORECE, about the Madrid train bombing, and an homage to her films and a retrospective will be featured at Documenta, 2005 in Madrid.

Nina Rosenblum walked outside looking very much ALIVE and ready to chat. We stood on the sidewalk in front of a café debating about whether we should go in or find another place for coffee and we decided to go to another cafe so that we could walk a bit. That gave us an opportunity to connect as neighbors.

I really enjoyed our conversation. Talking to Nina was like taking a fascinating and rich walk through the history of photography and documentary film making. The places that she has been, as history was being made and recorded, is astounding. She brought photos and articles with her and as we sipped cappuccino, I wished that we had more time so that I could hear more of her wonderful stories.

I find Nina Rosenblum fascinating. She has made important films that have helped to chronicle significant issues and events. She deals with subject matters that are tough, yet meaningful and she has a genuine commitment to making a difference in the world through her pictures and films.

Her work continues to change and save many lives.

DR: Tell me about your life and your work.

NR: I love what I do!

I just love film making. I have had the most incredible times and with the most astounding people.

I always did art. At first I was a painter and I worked alone and I was very unhappy that way because I am not a solitary person.

I come from a background of art. My parents are artists. My Dad was a documentary photographer and a war camera man who, among other things, shot film at the liberation of Dachau. He was part of The Photo League. My Mom was an artist and a photographic historian, so I had the background. My parents were always teaching and talking about film. Their photographer friends were there, their historian friends were there. I feel really fortunate because the people that my parents knew when I was growing up were some of the greats.

My parents were very close to Paul Strand who had major influence in the world of photography. He went to live in France in 1950 after being in Frontier Films and doing documentary films here, but he chose to move to Europe and my parents stayed very close to him.

My parents were international, so I grew up with this as a way of life. My Mom's sister had a commune in Rockland County with Stan Vanderbeek the filmmaker and John Cage and Merce Cunningham…

This was our life then - ART.

I always loved social documentary film. Some of the most moving films to me are films like Hearts and Minds - the real classic social documentaries. I am talking about films that were so different than anything that you could see in the conventional media.

My Dad was teaching film. I was brought up on European film too so, these were things that were just second nature.

When I went into film I had to change my life. I was a painter and I was living in a very conventional way. I was teaching when I realized that I wanted to go back to film school so I got a grant and once I went,

I loved it!

I was very motivated by the fact that I found something so fascinating. Where film takes you is so fascinating. What places that I have seen! To go from hanging in Sly Stone's family church north of San Francisco, to being three years filming for HBO on Rikers Island, to being in a maximum security prison in Lexington, Kentucky, doing a story about women political prisoners…one was Italian, one was Puerto Rican and one woman was Jewish from New York…

And then, there is photography.

What windows photography can open up into the world! It's amazing. The industry has grown so powerfully from when I started.

When I started was the time of the great documentary Harlan County and when Richard Pearce came out with Atomic Café, these were feature documentaries that really broke the mold. We were inspired by the way that you could make a movie. I remember documentaries when I was in school. They used to bring in an old projector and the sound would be horrible. It would make you hate film. But once there was this other way to make documentaries entertaining and informative at the same time, it was so powerful and -

that was it for me!

DR: What is one of the things that you love most right now?

NR: I love inspiring people to feel really proud about whatever they are doing.

For example, when we did The Black West or when we were with The Black Scuba Divers Association of North America, who had gone down and placed a pyramid at the site of the oldest slave shipwreck found sunken off he coast of Key West. We worked with Mel Fisher at The Maritime Heritage Society and with the scientists there, and also with historians like Cornell West. We put together a short film that was put into their exhibition. The things that you find out! Just to look at a child's shackle that has been pulled up from the bottom of the ocean, you begin to really understand - that teaches you history more than anything else really can.

I feel on a human level, to be able to work with the great artists, to be able to work with people like Dennis Watlington, my husband Dan Allentuck, to work with Bill Miles who was my great partner for many years at Channel Thirteen... Susan Sarandon narrated, Denzel Washington narrated, Lou Gossett did some narration. We worked with Maureen {Stapleton} who narrated…Some of the great artists and the musicians that I have gotten to work with! Harold Wheeler who worked on The Wiz came and worked on The Black West with us. Suzanne DePasse worked with us out of her company…

Also, to be in all of the film festivals around the world was great. Since 1984, every few years we'd be in Berlin, most of the films have opened in Berlin, definitely Spain and France, now we are heading to Italy with Dad's film. Across this country, up and down the west coast, Michigan, Wyoming, universities in the South, I have shown films in many different places. And, I have met great young people who I brought to New York to come and work with us, who are now film makers on their own, such as the great Jules Shell. She is a fantastic force. I just found a letter the other day that she wrote to me when I was showing a film at the University of Michigan. She put her hand out and said "I would love to come to New York to work with you." And she did.

There has been a lot of magic. There have been beautiful times.


My Dad helped me in every way.

DR: What is the best advice that you ever got?

(We pause for a few more moments. Nina is obviously touched.)

Nina and her dad

Nina with her dad, Walter Rosenblum

NR: I miss him so much.

My Dad helped me in every way. He would always say:

"Trust your deepest instincts."

Because that's how things can happen and you find out what you really have to do. That's when you begin to understand the world and make changes.

Film teaches you so much. You have nothing when you start out, especially with a documentary. You don't even have a script. It's not like you are following something that you conceived of. You create it as you go along. You have to be very intuitive and trust yourself.

Look, even if two people have the same idea or the same content, each film is going to be so different because each person is so different. So, you have to be the kind of person who really trusts their own instincts, whether you are an artist or not. I think that's really the issue. Are you the kind of person that can just do that? In some ways it is like the hunger artist, if people have read the Kafka stories. The artists self destructs and dies as his work of art. It's that intense. It's all consuming. Artists go through a lot to make their art, especially a documentary. It is very difficult to raise serious money and at the same time have the integrity of making sure that what you create is what you create and not what is dictated by the lawyers at the television stations who come up with the issues that they are dealing with, that are different from your own issues. And, how do you control the content and have final cut…and, the power of the media...

Media control is so potent because if something gets out as a film, it really changes consciousness. There is no doubt about that.

DR: What is the best advice that you have ever given yourself?

NR: I am very bad at taking my own advice. That is really a problem


It's like a battle that rages in the sense that you are trying to show things that take tremendous amount of time and effort and concentration. When I film somebody, when I film people, what the story is or how the footage will be used is really a cross between art and sociology. When we did Unintended Consequences and we used footage that we had of Nancy Figueroa, we never knew that we would re-purpose some of the Rikers Island footage. But to see how powerful a tool that one short was, in terms of being able to have executive producer Peter Greer and The Drug Policy Alliance disseminate the film to businesses and politician's offices and school groups and really fan it out so that it did have some impact along with the movement in changing the law. That is something that is very gratifying because you are brought together, not just with other film makers but with mothers and children and groups and political organizations and nuns and churches and synagogues and every walk of life is bought together on an issue and, the connecting link is the story that you are telling and documenting. Because you are documenting what is really going on out there! You're not making this up! You are the one that is showing the through-line as each of these groups are working together. You are painting that portrait.


Walter Rosenblum
Walter Rosenblum
Walter Rosenblum was a photographer for fifty years, as well as an important figure in the advancement of twentieth century photography. His early involvement with photography began when he was seventeen years old, when he joined the Photo League where he met Lewis Hine and studied with Paul Strand.

As a World War II U.S. Army combat photographer, Rosenblum landed in Normandy on D-Day morning. There, he joined the anti-tank battalion that drove through France, Germany and Austria; he took the first motion picture footage of the Dachau concentration camp. Rosenblum was one of the most decorated WWII photographers, receiving the Silver Star, Bronze Star, five battle stars, a Purple Heart and a Presidential Unit Citation.

His photographic career spanned major events of the twentieth century; he photographed the immigrant experience in America, WWII, Spanish Civil War refugees, and in East Harlem, Haiti, Europe and the South Bronx. Rosenblum has had an extensive teaching career, beginning in 1947 at Brooklyn College. He also taught at Yale Summer School of Art and Cooper Union, as well as abroad at the Rencontre de La Photographie in Arles, France and in Sao Paolo, Brazil. In 1980 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his project "People of the South Bronx".

Naomi Rosenblum
Together with his wife, renowned photographic historian Naomi Rosenblum, Rosenblum curated international exhibitions including the Lewis Hine Retrospective. His photographs are represented in more than forty international collections including the J. Paul Getty Museum; Library of Congress, Wash. DC; Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, NY.

To learn more about Walter, Naomi and Nina Rosenblum, click here.

It's amazing.

The way that I knew Peter Neufeld is that he was representing Raymond Alvarez who was this young kid who lost his eye on Rikers Island and our footage was used by the legal team to help him. Raymond was so damaged by subsequent imprisonment that he is an epileptic and wearing a helmet because he hits his head on the bars. It's like you intervene in people's lives and you can maybe help them briefly and then the system takes over.

You, as a film maker see the social fabric up close in ways that most people would not choose to do. Nobody wants to see that side of America - what goes on inside prisons for instance. People don't want to know. That is what Europeans mean when they say that Americans are out of touch and they don't have compassion and consciousness. They feel that very strongly -- that we don't have that. Everybody is worried and sheltered. There is this fear factor that is out there.

DR: What do you hope that your films will ultimately contribute?

NR: Well, I mean each one tries to show a human dimension and that, there are other alternatives.

For example, it costs so much less to give a homeless person an apartment than it does to keep them in a shelter. That is a joke! It costs so much less to keep three mentally ill people in a home than it does to keep three mentally ill people locked up on Rikers Island. There are so many alternatives to poor people's lives, rich people too; people's lives period. There are so many creative ways to make a difference. Like Terrence Steven's project, In Arms Reach which was funded by Echoing Green.

Terrence set this up with people who understood that he had this incredible potential, so he was set up in a foundation working with children. His life has meaning but he could have been rotting away in prison and by this time may have even passed away because of the horrible conditions inside. He had no adequate medical attention inside. His body was slumped over and his ribs were puncturing his lungs. When he got out he was in serious condition. Is this anyway to treat a human being with this kind of potential? It's madness! And it is really madness to take all of this kind of money and create different forms of incarceration, whether it is a shelter or Riker's Island. It's basically the same thing. You are keeping people living at a subsistence level in a very controlled, harsh environment. That is what we have done and people don't want to see it.

Being able to understand people's potential, giving people meaningful work; giving them choices…

I am talking about in a financial and social way. How do you step outside of the pattern that you are used to being in? How do you step outside of that? How do you allow your own life to become a work of art; that you can make choices that are positive for developing your place in the history of the world, if that's what you care about.

DR: You know, I could ask you what your personal definition of success is, but somehow I don't want to ask you that now.

George Clooney said, on a television show the other day that he believed that if people knew about what is going on in Darfur that people would do something about it.

NR: No doubt about it!

I mean that's why there was such a cover up of "the weapons of mass destruction". There were none! Information is being withheld from us and it just wreaks havoc in the world. That is why the control of the media is the basic fundamental issue. How is it controlled? Who owns it? This is why the Internet is so great! It is going to become TV. That is why what you are doing is so great.

So, there you have it!

DR: How do you keep yourself encouraged in the face of all of these challenges and profound sadness and people hurting? A lot of people might say "Why bother? It's too much."

NR: My whole life, my whole family, out of everyone we know, nobody would ever say "Why bother?" That is the last thing that anybody I know would say. It's that you want to understand better what the right way is and the right things are. How can you contribute in the most powerful way? I think that is the art form. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it…."

We are dealing with mass contact. That is the issue and the message of our time; what is the message that is inspiring and how the spin on these messages is controlled. How the anti-democratic spin has turned the democratic message into something that is fearful and old fashioned and boring, when in reality "the other" is fearful, old fashioned and boring.

Why can't "the message of progress" really make people feel uplifted?

DR: What are you most afraid of, Nina?

NR: Well I think a nuclear accident is inevitable.

It's already happened and from what I understand if people don't spend the money to keep upgrading the infrastructure it will happen again. There is a reason that Indian Points is leaking now. They say the infrastructure is older and it is starting to break down and it needs to be repaired. I feel like we are in the grip of madness and if we continue along these lines… It's like road rage, if you keep ratcheting it up something terrible could happen again.

When I did the film Hospital at Ground Zero, I filmed for fifteen months. I filmed everything -- all of the different kinds of work, all of the doctors, all of the nurses, all of the workers, all of the patients and, in understanding that and seeing that this was not the first time that this had happened... ratcheting up the problem, that is very frightening. It hurts my heart.

The world has to fight for PEACE now and that is a very unfashionable word.

DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?

NR: It's funny. I don't think about that. I guess just what I've done, you know, the films. I don't usually think about my work. I just do.

(We pause as Nina reflects on her father's life and the fact that she misses him so very much)

After a few moments:

DR: So, what is it that you want to be remembered for -- a hundred years from now?

NR: (Sighs) For my work and for being part of a group of people who really fought -

for justice.

Thanks Nina!

NYWIFT Member Screening: In The Name Of Democracy: The Story Of Lt. Ehren Watada

Seen through the eyes of the first officer in the US Army to refuse deployment to Iraq, In The Name Of Democracy: The Story Of Lt. Ehren Watada focuses on the internal dysfunction of the US government during the war against Iraq.

Director Nina Rosenblum presents Lt. Watada’s story as an exploration of American patriotism.  At the age of 26, then believing in his government’s assertion that “weapons of mass destruction” threatened all Americans, he chose to interrupt a promising career to answer the President’s call and enlist. After studying the issues of the war, he came to the conclusion that he was lied to, and when his orders to deploy were issued he decided to take a stand, leading to his court martial for refusing movement to Iraq and behavior unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. This is a portrait of American courage and a man who chose dissent, honor and patriotism to combat a constitutionally harmful national policy.

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