Exclusive Q&A with Bennett Singer AB '86

Bennett Singer AB '86 is an award-winning producer/director/writer whose films have been screened at The Smithsonian, The United Nations, The British Museum, and the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. His latest documentary, Cured, directed with Patrick Sammon, opened the 2021–22 season of PBS' acclaimed documentary showcase Independent Lens and has garnered more than 20 awards and accolades, including a 2022 Emmy nomination, the American Historical Association's John E. O'Connor Film Award for best historical documentary, the Jonathan Daniels Award, and a $50,000 award in the Library of Congress Lavine/Burns Prize for Film. A feature film based on Cured is currently in development, and a classroom edition is being produced in partnership with History UnErased. Singer previously co-directed Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, a "potent and persuasive piece of historical rediscovery" (Los Angeles Times) that premiered at Sundance, aired nationally on PBS' POV series, and won the GLAAD Media Award; and Electoral Dysfunction, a "frightening and enlightening documentary" (WBEZ Radio) that "lives up to its title" (New York Times). Hosted by political humorist Mo Rocca, the film aired nationally on PBS and won the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award; a classroom edition was distributed free of charge to more than 20,000 educators. Singer won a duPont-Columbia Award for his work on Eyes on the Prize II, the landmark PBS series on the history of the civil rights movement. The former executive editor of TIME Magazine's education program, he has written curriculum materials to accompany dozens of film projects, including The Laramie Project and Band of Brothers for HBO and The Diary of Anne Frank for PBS Masterpiece. Singer is also the author or editor of five books, including 42 Up, the companion volume to Michael Apted's documentary series; and The Student Body, a "wry, insider thriller" (Village Voice) that he wrote with three Harvard classmates. Learn more about his work at www.bennettsinger.com.

Q: You are currently in the process of working with History UnErased to produce a “Classroom Edition” of your most recent documentary, Cured, for use in high school social studies and psychology classes. You’ve done this before for your documentary Electoral Dysfunction. What is that editing process like? How do you decide what to keep and what to cut? As the former executive editor of TIME Magazine's education program, how do you think that influences what you do now?

The first step is to talk with teachers — and students — to hear their thoughts and questions. Based on their very helpful comments, we then move into a ruthless editing process in which we cut the film down from feature length to about 30 minutes so that it can be shown and discussed in a single class period. Stripping away everything that’s extraneous to the central story and themes results in a streamlined version of the narrative. One thing I came to understand during my eight years at TIME is that teachers really appreciate access to primary-source documents. In the case of Electoral Dysfunction, we created a 128-page curriculum guide that includes literacy tests, a range of ballots, political cartoons, and excerpts from the constitutions of other countries (along with four short videos that we produced for the New York Times Op-Docs series). We raised $200,000 in grant money to be able to give free copies of the Electoral Dysfunction teaching kit to more than 20,000 teachers, and we partnered with several organizations, including the National Council for the Social Studies, on distribution and professional development sessions for teachers. It has been immensely gratifying to visit classrooms and to see the kinds of discussion, reflection, and engagement that these materials spark.

Q: Your film Electoral Dysfunction, which aired nationally on PBS and won the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award, is hosted by political humorist Mo Rocca, also a Harvard grad. You also co-wrote The Student Body with three Harvard classmates. Do you find yourself often collaborating with fellow alums?

I do! Mo Rocca ’91 is a national treasure, and it was a joy to work with him on the voting film, which was structured as a road trip in which Mo sets out to discover how voting works (or doesn’t work) in America. I also loved co-authoring The Student Body — a thriller, published by Random House, about a prostitution ring at Harvard — with Faith Adiele, Michael Melcher, and Julia Sullivan, three friends from the class of 1986. (As Harvard Magazine put it in a racy review, that book “gives new meaning to the idea of getting into Harvard.”) Victoria Bassetti ’86 wrote the excellent companion book to Electoral Dysfunction; and beyond that, I had the pleasure of working with Ellen Reeves ’83, Carol Cashion ’83, and the late Lisa Quiroz ’83 as colleagues at TIME’s education program, and with Ellen Reeves on several other projects, including Garda's Lieutenant, a theatrical work that received an A.R.T. Alumni Lab/Harvardwood grant to support its development.

Q: Speaking of co-writing, in addition to all of your remarkable documentary work, you’ve also written/edited five books. How do you find that medium as functioning differently from the visual medium of film/TV?

After my freshman year, I worked with Diane Wachtell ’83 as assistant editor of the first edition of Let's Go: California and the Pacific Northwest. Diane went on to become Executive Director of The New Press, and I’ve done several book projects for her. She commissioned me to edit an anthology for LGBTQ young people and to edit the companion volume to Michael Apted’s 42 UP; more recently, my husband David Deschamps and I co authored LGBTQ Stats, an almanac of facts and figures on the ongoing LGBTQ revolution. We really strove to cover a lot of ground with that project, and it meant a lot when Professor M.V. Lee Badgett of UCLA’s Williams Institute described the book as “the most comprehensive portrait of LGBTQ life around.” I think I have finally come to understand that as a general rule, films have the strongest impact when they are visceral, emotional, and sparing on facts and narration; books, on the other hand, are the ideal medium to convey copious amounts of information — in the case of our Stats book, more than 10,000 facts, all lovingly footnoted.

Q: Do you feel that your work has thematic elements, or messages, that you’ve consistently tried to either consciously or subconsciously incorporate? Both in documentary filmmaking and as an author?

While my films and books address a broad range of topics — including civil and human rights, voter suppression, and LGBTQ equality and visibility — they are united thematically by their focus on activists striving to bring about systemic change. Cured is a good example of that: it’s the story of a surprising and unexpected David-versus-Goliath victory that transformed the social fabric of America. As you can imagine, I’m thrilled that a feature film based on Cured is now in development.

Q: In what ways did your time at Harvard influence the path you have taken since graduating?

As a sophomore, I took Diana Eck’s Core class on Indian civilization and followed that by spending the summer of 1984 on a program in India that brought together 20 Americans and 20 Indians to explore the legacy of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. That was a life-changing experience, and looking back, there was something miraculous about having the opportunity to be part of the team that created Eyes on the Prize (a 14-hour PBS series on the history of the civil rights movement). I started at Blackside, the Boston-based production company that produced Eyes, as an intern during the spring of my senior year (after seeing a posting at Harvard’s career office); what was supposed to be a two-month internship wound up becoming a full-time job that lasted for nearly five years and became my version of film school. I think that summer in India and that study of Gandhi’s revolution played an overarching role in motivating me to tell stories about activists who speak truth to power.

Q: What’s one documentary you think everyone should see in their life?

The Times of Harvey Milk, by Rob Epstein and the late Richard Schmiechen. I clearly remember seeing that astonishingly moving documentary when it came out in 1984. It was that film — along with Eyes on the Prize — that made me want to become a documentary filmmaker.

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