The artist, Stephen Moses, was gone, shot dead at 23 in a random killing. But his work lived on in a posthumous Mission District exhibit curated by his friends; some 18 years later it lives still in "Wrong Place, Wrong Time," a short film by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson.
In the camera's slow pan through Moses' San Francisco apartment, in the collage of imagery of and by the artist himself, and in the off-screen voices of friends who mounted his memorial show, the loss of life is made palpable, as is the personality of a young man who got the most from his time alive.
The 10-minute film from 1987 was a potent first collaboration for Haptas and Samuelson, a Stanford, Calif.-based husband-and-wife team who've gone on to further acclaim and screenings at festivals and museums, and on broadcast venues around the world. "Wrong Place, Wrong Time" and their three subsequent shorts will screen at the March 8 Film Kitchen -- Pittsburgh premieres all, though the couple have often traveled here to visit their daughter, a Pittsburgh resident.
Samuelson was already an experienced filmmaker, mostly working in documentaries, when she met Haptas, then an attorney in private practice. But after Haptas gravitated toward filmmaking -- "She was having more fun than I was," he says -- they began with "Wrong Place" to develop a new, collaborative style. It was a cinematic-essay approach that departed from the more observational tack she'd taken previously. "You're really trying to tell a story with a strong point of view," says Samuelson. The newer films are "more rhetorical. They're also more poetic."
Their subsequent films (all shot by cinematographer Jon Else) include: "Empire of the Moon" ('91), a wry, gorgeously filmed tour of Paris, and of the very notion of tourism itself; "Riding the Tiger" ('99), an award-winning retelling of the Vietnam War; and "The World As We Know It" ('02), a rumination on the ubiquity of war, produced for a traveling video anthology of filmmakers' responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Within the essay format, Haptas and Samuelson strive to remain accessible -- many of their films end up screened in high school and college classrooms, as well as at festivals -- yet also to experiment with form, questioning the conventional documentary duet of talking heads and archival footage. They found it compelling, for instance, to have most of the speakers in "Wrong Place" talk off-screen, over images of something else. Likewise in "Empire"'s mosaic of literary excerpts (Hugo, Twain, Stein, Barthes) voiced over footage of the Isle de St. Louis, the Louvre, Notre Dame.
Their most ambitious collaboration to date is "Riding the Tiger," a film that began with a compulsion to film the dismantling of decommissioned B-52 bombers at an Arizona Air Force base, which they'd seen depicted in a magazine photograph. Eventually they constructed around those images a collage of voices -- including those of survivors and witnesses of B-52 carpet-bombings in Southeast Asia -- and a montage of archival images, some familiar but many of them less so, including horrific footage of the injured and the dead.
As filmmakers who came of age in the Vietnam era, with "Riding the Tiger" Haptas and Samuelson were especially driven by educational motives: Working on the film in the wake of the first Persian Gulf War, they perceived that younger people knew nothing about Vietnam. And the history that kids were learning, says Samuelson, was worse than useless.
"The overarching motif [of classroom lessons] was, 'We could have won this war but we had one hand tied behind our backs,'" she says. "That simply isn't true."
When a society isn't experiencing a "hot war," Haptas adds, "You can feel the historical knowledge evaporating." Then you'd hear the government (and the media) boasting about projecting U.S. power overseas, and about getting it all done with remote-control technology, and "you just knew that the next time we were going to do the wrong thing."