The Work Series from Daniel Kraus returns with Professor, which features big ideas and occasional gunfire. Catch it Sunday at Union Docs.
Professor Jay Holstein Daniel Kraus’s Professor doesn’t start with a bang so much as a barrage. In its opening minutes, the University of Iowa’s Jay Holstein comes right at his undergrads, waking them from their lecture hall reveries and deflating any preconceptions they might have about what lies in store for them. And of course, thanks to Kraus, Holstein has the same effect on us. What's more, Holstein is a prime example of practice-what-you-preach (or maybe the reverse?): he's not only a popular professor of religious studies, but also an ordained rabbi.
As such, like the subjects of the other films in the Work Series—Preacher, Musician, and Sheriff—Holstein is something of a performer. Yet these docs aren’t really about playing to the public, or even about all the introspective, behind-the-scenes work that’s done in preparation for them. Rather, the focus is on that middle ground where one grapples with expressing inner values, ideas, and, yes, spirit, in ways that produce external value for the community. After all, isn’t that what “work” should ideally be about? So whether he’s holding forth on the Holocaust or counseling a couple before their wedding, Holstein comes across so vividly and genuinely that in the end there seems to be little distinction between job and man.
In welcome contrast to the agenda-driven docs that have been so popular over the past decade, the Work Series tries hard to “document” its subjects without added-on layers of opinionated commentary and outside footage. Maybe that’s why Professor, the latest of these remarkable and remarkably minimalist films, feels like an argument for a certain kind of cinematic purity, the lack of artifice a testament to Kraus’s skill as both director and editor. As when in the hands of any good storyteller, the audience doesn’t really notice any overt style, just appreciates the immediacy of the story being told.
Professor is being screened at Brooklyn’s Union Docs on September 26, and we were fortunate that Kraus was able to take a break from, um, work to discuss this latest installment in his acclaimed series.
Tribeca: First off, what is Prof. Holstein’s take on the film? Was he surprised by anything?
Daniel Kraus: Despite thirty-some years of teaching and being videotaped for various reasons over the years, Holstein had never chosen to watch himself, so this was a long time in coming. I think the fear is pretty understandable—does the emperor have clothes after all? His ultimate reaction was that of my other subjects—there was some stuff that made him cringe, but he also saw moments of greatness that caught him off-guard. I think in some ways the movie might feel a bit like a career bookend, in that it provides him some solace and reassurance that he hasn't been wasting his time, that there is indeed something to his approach, he does get through to students, and so on.
Tribeca: His energy and forthrightness seem to be a great fit for your I-won't-get-in-the-way-of-my-subject approach to making documentaries. Your thoughts?
Daniel Kraus: That's true, but it's not how I think about it. Focus is really the element that makes for a good subject. Ken Vandermark, the subject of Musician, is just about the polar opposite of Holstein, but he focuses on his work in a similar way—he burrows into the creation of music the way Holstein digs into lessons on the Holocaust. That focus allows me to sort of fade from their peripheral vision.
Tribeca: As the film progresses we see Holstein more in his role as rabbi, not just educator. Was this an important part of choosing him as your subject, or just kind of a nice bonus, an added dimension to explore?
Daniel Kraus: A subject's life outside of their job is always the trickiest part of putting together a Work Series film. These films are not about the subject's family lives or hobbies or any of that, so I have an inclination to turn the camera off when they go home. On the other hand, it's crazy to say that what goes on at work doesn't affect their home life or vice versa. In fact, I've found that showing glimpses of the rest of their life intensifies the depictions of work—it shows what they're working for. Holstein's activities as a rabbi were not a factor that pushed the filming in any way, but they certainly inform it. His Biblical knowledge stems from his career as a rabbi, and that's a major part of what fuels his work in the classroom.
Tribeca: Initially Professor can come across as "stereotyping-smashing" regarding academia and, for some audiences, maybe even Judaism. But then that response itself seems clichéd, because the film ventures into deeper waters and varied subjects. Ever get concerned you were covering too much ground?
Daniel Kraus: Not really. You have to sort of squint to see the films like I see them. If you kind of blur out the specifics—which in this case are all the myriad topics that Holstein burns through in classes—you see about three differently colored blurs: the classroom, the office, and his home. These are three different modes in which he works. He could be teaching calculus for all I care. The content of his classes in a nice bonus, but it's the method of communication and dedication to that communication which was of primary interest to me.
Professor Jay Holstein
Tribeca: As the Work Series continues to unfold, how are you shaping it as a whole? Do you look, for example, at how the different installments complement each other by covering similar—or very different—themes?
Daniel Kraus: I do think about how the series functions as a whole, and it's a source of constant frustration. Most glaringly, there are no women in the first four films, which is not how it was supposed to unfold. Two films with female subjects fell apart on me. But I'm not a production company with a full staff—I work alone. So although I do have a bigger picture in mind with a variety of jobs and different kinds of people, I also have to put them out in the order in which they fall into my lap. Rest assured, things will even out demographically and thematically as the series moves forward.
Tribeca: Is there anything you've learned from your subjects about how they approach their jobs that you've been able to apply to your own work?
Daniel Kraus: I've learned that it's a great fortune to fall upon your life's calling, and a great talent to recognize that calling when it shows itself, and a great struggle not to lose the opportunity to work in that calling. My subjects have, of course, both succeeded and failed in those respects, and continue to fight the good fight. It's something I struggle with personally all of the time and, now that you mention it, I should look more often to my own films for inspiration. That's a good idea, actually.