Jake Oelman’s LEARNING TO SEE is not your typical nature doc, nor is it really a documentary about a photographer. It is about both those things but at it’s core its about a son trying to understand his father. Twenty years ago, Robert Oelman gave up his psychology practice to move to Columbia and take pictures of insects. At the time his son Jake was just starting College and getting into filmmaking. The more Jake visited his father the more he understood what drew him to this exotic place, surrounded by nature, and the creatures he was trying to capture in photography. Although Jake does not appear in the film, this document of his father’s work only exists because a son enjoyed his father’s own delight in finding himself anew and bringing his work to the world. Most of the insects Robert Oelman photographs have never even been seen before, and this allows entomologists to properly identify them and declare new species. Jake’s first film, DEAR SIDEWALK, is a narrative feature shot in Austin that deals with a young man finding himself before its too late. LEARNING TO SEE seems to say it’s never too late to find yourself.
The images in the film are spectacular. Robert is soft-spoken but the world he captures is vibrant and eye-exploding. LEARNING TO SEE gives a full portrait of this artist who gave up everything and rediscoved himself, really on his own. His methods of photography have really been perfected by trial and error, and he has done the same with his life, fitting into a foreign culture now more than he ever did in the US. All the while, we know we are viewing this through the lens of his son, a proud witness to what his father has to share with the world. Unlike most nature documentaries, the context of Robert’s story make is much more human and accessible, even if the world he is catching is secretive.
I had a chance to sit down with Jake Oelman (an old friend as I had programmed the world premiere of DEAR SIDEWALK at Austin Film Festival in 2013), and producer Jerry Aronson, academy award nominated producer of CHASING ICE and Oelman’s former professor shortly before LEARNING TO SEE’s world premiere at SXSW.
BEARS: Your first film was a narrative and now you’re moving into documentary. Usually that’s an odd choice, but clearly this is a very personal story.
Oelman: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve had a very weird kind of career where I’ve dabbled in everything. So, I’ve done music videos and commercials, and live events so, because it was a personal story, it just felt like a natural kind of way to go. It really has evolved. When I came up with the idea ten years ago, I was just interested in my father’s story. But then as time went on and as my dad was progressing as a photographer, the focus really changed. A few years ago I brought Jerry on board. Jerry was my professor in college so we had already had a kind of a previous relationship and the time that I was really getting rolling, I just saw CHASING ICE on Netflix, I was like, “Oh, Jerry did this movie and there’s a lot of similarities.” I mean, not the same movie by any means, but there were a lot of similarities there.
Bears: What do you remember about your father making this decision – how old were you?
Oelman: I had just graduated high school. So I was going off to college and he didn’t have any kind of family ties, really. My parents were divorced when I was very young. When I was going off to college, I was always rambunctious and wild, so him going off to Colombia really didn’t seem that strange to me. I actually always thought it was cool, but when I would tell friends, they would be like, “Oh my God, he’s doing what? He’s moving to Colombia? Is he a drug dealer?” You just get all these kind of statements from people, but, it was fun to see him really find his life again. Kind of a mid-life crisis, but for him, I think he would look at it more like his life was progressing. He was just of following his path. It’s exciting to watch your dad grow, you know?
BEARS: So, how did you pitch the film to your dad?
Oelman: At first he was very standoffish, in a way. I don’t think that he necessarily understood. I don’t necessarily know if he trusted me to do a film about him. But, as we sort of hit milestones – you know, first was our Kickstarter campaign, it’s like, “Okay, yeah, you guys were able to raise money. Let’s go on a trip together.” And then going on a trip and not being intrusive. And then, when Jerry came on board, getting him involved, he started to get more and more comfortable with the process.
BEARS: Jerry, what about the story interests you?
Aronson: Well, I’ve been making and teaching documentaries for forty years. So, the last one CHASING ICE was about a photographer, except that he was photographing these grandiose glaciers turning into icebergs on time lapse and it was an amazingly large project. His cinematographer approached me and said, “We have 200 hours of footage, can you help me make this into a documentary?” Three years later, I actually retired from CU [University of Colorado, Boulder] where I set up the film department there, and I realized I had produced about 2,000 films, my student’s films, basically. So I said, “You know, I’m making my own films.” I was nominated for an Oscar in ‘78, a very long time ago. And I make one every 10 years, this is horrible. So, I basically resigned- retired. Retired – that’s a good word. Jake got hold of me and said, “I have the same story.” And I thought to myself, “Wow- instead of monstrous glaciers giving off monstrous icebergs, visually speaking, we have these amazing close-ups of the opposite – the smallest little insects on the planet.” Their existence is as importance as glaciers and icebergs – and it’s all about climate change anyway.
BEARS: Right, essentially it’s about making sure we capture these images before they disappear.
Aronson: Exactly, exactly – so I was really excited. Plus I had worked with Jake when he was 20, on your thesis film, I think?
Aronson: And his mom was involved. So, then I thought, “Well, we may as well have dad on the other side here.” So he was working with his father, and it was really working pretty well but there needed to be a breakthrough – and I’ve been interviewing people for like, 80 years. So, he flew me out to LA and he said interview my father please. So, we sat down for about eight hours. But the day before, his dad and I went out and got drunk, and became buddies and got to really trust each other. So, the next day Jake had a beautiful set up, camera, sound, lights, the whole works, but beautifully set up, beautifully lit. Bob and I started talking, and about two hours in, (and I wasn’t trying to be Barbara Walters) but about two hours in, he started crying. And I looked over at Jake, and he’s like –
Oelman: I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it. I mean I just didn’t expect that. Jerry, you might’ve expected it more than I did.
Aronson: He didn’t seem like a crier.
Oelman: No, he didn’t seem like, he didn’t seem like a crier. I mean, that interview specifically was a big breakthrough because my dad really started to open up. So I think he had been a little bit more closed off prior to that. Also, I think there’s that issue of, “I’m the son.” He’s older, had a bit more life experience, and so there’s that “Can my son do this?” trust factor. Whereas, when he’s talking to Jerry, and I knew that this would happen, he’s talking to a peer. That really helped with the trust issue, I think it helped emotionally to open him up. That was really a big, big help, because then any interview I did with my dad after that was a totally different dynamic in how we discussed things. “Hey, you need to kind of give me some more. It’s not just one word answers. Like, I need to get more out of you. You need to explain this, you know? You’re not just talking to me, you’re talking to the world now.” That interview was really kind of the breaking point.
Aronson: But also what I learned over the history of making films and being a photographer myself, a rock and roll photographer way back, is that photographers like to take pictures, but they don’t want to be particularly in front of the camera. James Balog was like that for Chasing Ice, but when he started giving TED Talks he got pretty savvy. But Jake’s dad, I think except for the New York City Gallery, that was the first time he spoke publicly, really.
BEARS: And he says that in the movie – he says, “This is really the first time I’ve ever talked about this.”
Oelman: In a lot of ways he’s become more Colombian than like an American. He’s living up in the mountains and he’s- I don’t want to call him a recluse – because he does open up, he really does like to share his stories and photographs with people. But he’s away from the industrialized world.
BEARS: Tomorrow he is going to see it with a group of people for the first time, and his images will be projected huge on the screen, that should be a pretty amazing experience for both of you.
Oelman: It’s definitely emotional. I think every project for every filmmaker is emotional, but this one specifically, just given my relationship with Jerry, given the fact that I’m doing my dad’s story, my wife was wrote the ending credits song, she was a co-producer, my roommate of 20 years was a DP with me. So, it’s a very family affair.
BEARS: Your father when he discovered this photography thing, was there any inkling of that prior? It seems like it was just out of nowhere.
Oelman: It really was out of nowhere. He would probably say differently, but when I was a kid, the one thing we always would do together, was we’d go to movies. That was how my dad and I would bond, and that was a big part of it. But he wasn’t artistic in any kind of way. I don’t remember going to art shows. He’d take photographs like any dad would take photographs on family vacations, that kind of thing. But not in any real artistic kind of way. But, when he finally moved there, I just think being surrounded by nature, that opened up his eyes in a lot of ways. I really saw that. Every time I would talk to him. I saved all the letters that he would write to me when he moved there. Just very hippy kind of scribe. Like “I saw The Magic One” and he’d send me a photo of a hummingbird. He’s definitely not the same guy I knew growing up.
Aronson: And he wasn’t on hallucinogens, right?
Oelman: No, he wasn’t on hallucinogens.
BEARS: I think a lot of us feel like our parents freeze when they have us and they stay that person for most of our lives, as we imagine them. And then when we leave the house, we imagine they continue to be that person that we remember when we were twelve. But it sounds like your dad made a very conscious break from that.
Oelman: Yeah, he really did. My relationship with him is very different now than when I was a kid. I mean, I think when I was younger, we bumped heads a lot like a lot of teenagers will do with their parents. Whereas now, we just talk a lot about process and art and like, “How can you market your stuff versus how can I do it?” We have a lot of those kinds of conversations and it’s a very kind of cool relationship that we have. It’s a little bit more of a colleague’s type of relationship.
BEARS: It’s sort of interesting he was getting involved in photography basically as you were getting involved in film. You were each pursuing those simultaneously.
Oelman: Yeah, on separate continents. And at that point we didn’t have cell phones, so it was really just like letter communications and I talked to him maybe once every couple months on the phone, so it was sort of sporadic conversations. And I would get these little messages here and there and think “Oh, he’s really doing cool stuff.” Like having a hummingbird sanctuary. The seed was planted and I thought “Oh, wow, it’d be kind of cool to document this.”
BEARS: Had you been down there before?
Oelman: Yeah, I had been down there probably three or four separate times before I really kind of started working on the film. 2005 was when I shot my first interview – none of that interview was in the film, because he was a little bit like, “Why are we talking about this?” I did use some b roll from that time – but 2008 was the first time I went on a trip with him. It was him and my brother and I just watched him and his process. Now looking back to see how his process has changed now, how much more efficient he is, how much better his eye is, like what he sees, how he composes photographs, technically where he’s at. And so it was really kind of cool, because I know that I’ve gone through the same thing, just editorial, shooting things from actors to storytelling, you get better as you do it. And, you know, his photographs are his story, or, you know, the insect’s story, really.
BEARS: Well, he also seems to be moving in more of an ‘art’ version of photography.
Oelman: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, I think that what the one thing he’s noticed in terms of marketing his work is that if you only show an insect photo it’s somewhat journalistic, you know? So that there would be room for that from an editorial standpoint, but they really are beautiful creatures. And, as artwork it has more value in terms of what somebody can put in their home than just a single photograph. So, he’s really developing that and making prints bigger, doing a lot of composite work, and taken it all on himself, nobody told him to go that direction. He’s finding where his voice wants to take him and what he wants to show the world.
Aronson: Yeah, I want to add to that, too. I came in for the last two years, after all of this footage and all of this stuff that Jake had told me. It was just fascinating to me to watch the story develop. As you pull away all the extra footage, there it is, hopefully, you know? Jake’s dad going through changes, really, his dad’s story, and he’s not even in the film, which I found fascinating.
BEARS: Yeah, I kept waiting for you to be in the film actually.
Oelman: At one point, I actually thought I was going to narrate the film and tell like funny, anecdotal stories, and we had talked about this several times. Should I be interviewed? There are pros and cons to doing that, and we finally made the decision for me not to be in there. The film tells his story and the story of the insects better than if I were to inject myself into it. I didn’t want it to be too family- I really wanted it to be his story.
Aronson: It’s clear Jake expresses himself differently than his father, and you probably could’ve overpowered him story-wise.
Oelman: Also I didn’t want to feel like I had to, “Oh I’m looking for this sound byte so let’s ask me this question.” You know, I didn’t want to be too forceful. You can’t really coach my dad into saying things. He’s just very genuine and honest and he says it the way he sees it and I didn’t want to detract from that, so when Jerry and I made this decision, it was definitely best for the movie.
BEARS: As much as it’s a film that you’re making about your father, it’s not about you. Like the title, “Learning to See,”you chose that title because it’s him learning to see and showing us how we can see these things. It doesn’t really have anything to do with you.
Oelman: The back story is interesting- it’s the son telling his father’s story. There are all kinds of back stories that are cool, but ultimately, it’s him and his evolution.
LEARNING TO SEE world premiered at SXSW and screens one more time (on the 18th) before the end of the festival.