Fred A. Simon, a Boston-area documentary filmmaker who specialized in “talking head”–style profiles, died Feb. 8 after a long illness. He was 71.
Fred’s topics included death and grieving, life in Boston’s Combat Zone, and the feminist movement, all told through up-close interviews with subjects. His work was broadcast nationally on PBS, the Learning Channel and throughout Europe and Japan, and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
“Interviews are valuable when individuals bear witness to what they have seen or experienced, and what they feel others should know,” Fred told the Boston Globe in a 1989 interview. “Then, telling people fulfills an obligation.”
Perhaps his best-known film was his unflinching, deeply intimate portrait of a Vietnam veteran that was broadcast on PBS in 1981, Frank: A Vietnam Veteran. The broadcast sparked protests from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other veterans’ groups who objected to what they saw as “negative” content. It was, in fact, one of the first portrayals of post-traumatic stress disorder, a term not in wide use at the time.
In reviewing the film and the controversy, New York Times critic John J. O’Connor wrote:
At issue is an interview, taped in black and white, in which the camera focuses only on the face of Frank B. as he talks about his experiences in Vietnam during 1970 and 1971 and his subsequent difficulties in readjusting to what is supposed to be a more normal life. In the sense that the result is hardly comforting, entirely devoid of cheering crowds and marching bands, the portrait is indeed negative. But as Frank gropes, with astonishing candor, to explain what happened to him, the effect is undeniably powerful.
Fred favored black-and-white video cameras because “it made it feel very intimate,” his business partner and former wife, Susan Walsh, told the Boston Globe. “That’s what he was always going for in his films — a conversation late at night between two friends.”
Fred’s unique style of documentary occupied territory somewhere between the Leacock-Pennebaker cinema-verité aesthetic and the bare-bones approach of anthropological oral history. He believed it was crucial to minimize as much as possible the apparatus of filmmaking, sometimes lighting his subject with ordinary floor lamps. He was hearing-impaired, which meant that he had sit close to his subject, creating a further level of intimacy.
Fred was a longtime assistant professor in Screen Studies at Clark University and co-founder (with his former wife, Susan Walsh) and Executive Producer at The Center for Independent Documentary, a Boston-area nonprofit organization which has collaborated in the production of over 200 independent films since 1982. In those roles he helped numerous young filmmakers make their ideas into a reality.
Fred was born in Cleveland and attended Shaker Heights High School and the University of Wisconsin. In addition to his former wife, he is survived by a daughter, Mira; a son, Benjamin; and his sister, Margery Klein of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
In the 1989 interview with the Globe, Fred said that a lack of funding should not stand in the way of filmmaking and that expensive technology is not needed for effective storytelling.
“We feel that independent producers should be able to present points of view and issues that are not dealt with in the mainstream media,” he said of the films he and Walsh helped make. “We are willing to take a risk on ideas that are different.”
Eric Stange is a Boston-based documentary film producer, director and writer. He first met Fred Simon in 1984 and worked with Fred and the Center for Independent Documentary on many projects since.