Documentary filmmaker looks to connect with Baltimore witnesses to Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train in 1968
On Saturday, June 8, 1968, a train bearing the body of assassinated New York senator and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy traveled from New York to Washington, D.C., for his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. LOOK magazine photographer Paul Fusco was on that train, and shot photos of the myriad people who spontaneously lined the tracks along its route, and those photos appeared in a summer 2008 exhibition at New York's Danziger Projects gallery. Now, South Africa-born, London-based filmmaker Jon Blair--whose impressive work includes a 1983 television documentary about Oskar Schindler and 1995's Anne Frank Remembered, an Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Feature--is making a documentary, Is Everybody Alright?, about those people. And he's seeking help in locating and identifying the people in the photos, such as the above image taken from the train's pass through Baltimore. City Paper spoke to Blair by phone from his London home May 5, 10 days before the production begins its first round of shooting. If you know anybody in this Baltimore photo--click the link at left for a more high-resolution version--please contact the production via its web sites: rfk-trainwitness.com and iseverybodyalright.com.
City Paper: How did you come to this project? I ask because in reading an interview with you online, you say you don't really decide to look into something as much as situations fall into place.
Jon Blair: That's precisely what happened here. Actually, back in 1966--so it's a heck of a long time ago--I heard Bobby Kennedy speak in South Africa. I was in a crowd of young people where he gave an extremely inspirational speech basically telling us that the future of justice and righteousness and all the rest lay in our hands. And you can imagine in the darkest days of apartheid that was a really inflammatory speech and it stuck with me for years.
Last year I was at a documentary conference in England and I heard someone mention, just out of the corner of my ear, that there was a documentary being made about Bobby Kennedy's funeral train--which I was also aware of. So I thought, Oh, I wish I was doing that, and didn't think much more of it.
But a few hours later I was sitting on the lawn in the beautiful sunshine and I started talking to the woman next to me and it turned out she was the producer of this project. And far from it actually being made, she was still trying to raise the finances, but she did have another director attached to it. And I simply said to her, "Look, if ever that director isn't available, please let me know." And we talked some more and she mentioned that Bobby Kennedy's final words were, "Is everybody alright?" And I said to her, "Look, I don't want to be presumptuous or anything, but share this as an idea for free. Don't make a film just about the train. Your film should be called Is Everybody Alright? and you make the film about the people who turned out to watch him and you ask them, are they alright?" And then a few months later, the director she approached wasn't available and she approached me and here I am now making it.
CP: So you've only been working on this a relatively short time?
JB: Since the later part of last year.
CP: So is shooting a ways off? Are you still doing pre-production research?
JB: No, we work really quickly. I'll be filming this in 10 days time.
CP: Oh wow. So how many people from the photos have you been able to locate?
JB: We've so far talked with or been approached by or made contact with a total of somewhere in the region of 60 people, of which we have identified just over a dozen who are in photographs. And the big one for me now, because I had a huge hit in Philadelphia, where--if you look at our web site, the picture that is at the top of our web site is of a bunch of crowded, primarily African-American faces. Our first breakthrough was to have someone from Amtrak identify that as being North Philadelphia--because, for us, the big problem is the photographer doesn't remember where he took any of them. So identifying where they are is really important. And as soon as we got North Philadelphia, the only way you can do it is old-fashioned, boot-leather journalism. And I wandered around the African-American ghetto just next to the North Philadelphia station and I started talking to people. And I said, "Were you there? Do you know anyone who was there?" and so on.
And you can imagine--I'm a white, middle-aged, middle-class guy in white chinos--how well I fit in in that area. But I do have an accent, and that makes it a bit easier--very quickly people can tell I'm not selling anything or campaigning for their votes. And I then came across two wonderful women sitting on their porch. It was a really hot day in Philly last week. And they looked at the picture and said, "Wow. There's Pinky and there's Cedric." And they started reading off the names of a whole bunch of people--"There's Miss Louise"--they all knew, and a few who were dead, sadly, from drugs or guns or whatever. So from that one picture, we've got an amazing group of people--all with different life stories and different things to tell.
And the big one for me now, and I believe we sent you a picture which we believe is from Baltimore, and if we can find a few people from that picture, or even where that street is, we will feel as though we've had a great breakthrough.
CP: And I presume you're doing this all along the train's route?
JB: Oh absolutely. I've got a team of people up and down the east coast at the moment. And we're going to start interviewing people Saturday week.
CP: What sort of things are you talking to people about?
JB: I basically want to know a few things about them. I want to know what they remember from that day, what that day meant to them as a human being, as an ordinary American. And then I want to find out what's happened to their lives since, in the years intervening between Bobby Kennedy's assassination and Obama's election.
Because this is a film that is the exact opposite--I don't know, you sound like a young guy, you may have learned history in a different way than I did--where I was taught, history was all about dead white men. And I think that a) it's uninteresting, and b) I don't think it makes any sense. The history I'm interested in is the history of ordinary people and what's happened to them. And from that we can learn about our nation and about our destiny and about our future and how we can make the future and how we can make the world a better place.
CP: So what sorts of stories have you heard so far?
JB: Let me give you an example. I talked to a woman last week, and I said to her, "Tell me what was the best moment of your life since you watched that train as a kid." And she said, "Oh, that's simple. It's when I bought my house." And think how much is contained in that, in today's time when people are losing their houses. Think of that little sentence and what happens in someone's eye when they tell you that. And then I said to her, "What was the worst moment in your life?" And she said, "That one's simple, as well. It's when my dad died." And put all those different stories together, the different layers together, you begin to tell the story of America.
CP: Do you remember when Robert Kennedy was shot? Where were you?
JB: I would have been in England by then. I'd been drafted into the South African army by the end of '66 and I left. And so I was living in England, but I remember it very vividly.
CP: I ask because 1968 was a very dramatic year in America, but it was also turbulent the world over.
JB: All over the world, absolutely. There were student rebellion in France and Europe and so on. And two months before RFK's assassination there had been MLK's assassination, followed then by the Chicago Democratic Convention. And it was a big year. And it's one of those "if only" questions--had he not been assassinated, had he lived, would he have got elected? Which, there's a strong possibility. It wouldn't be an absolute shoe-in but there was a strong possibility that a) he would have got the nomination, and b) have beat Nixon. But as it is, we got Nixon, we got Watergate, which would have been just a hotel, and so it goes. He probably would have pulled American out of Vietnam a long time before Nixon did, and that would have saved a lot of lives. So there's lots of if onlys, but I'm not interested in if onlys so much as I'm interested in the story of all these people who appear to have been devastated by his death on that day, as frozen in time in these pictures. And let's unfreeze them now and find out about them.
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