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Reading Aloud: What Is Power? by Fred Dewey

A film of the essay "What Is Power?" by Fred Dewey (2023, full version 38 minutes & abridged version 20 minutes; 4K digital video, color, sound)

Produced by the Fred Rogers Dewey Legacy Project (Jeremiah Day, Renée Peteropoulos, Lucas Reiner, Brooks Roddan, Sue Spaid)

Fred Dewey (1957-2021) was a democracy activist, writer, organizer, teacher, book editor, publisher, and designer. He organized public “table readings” around the world of Hannah Arendt’s writings on democracy and authoritarianism. Dewey wanted readers to realize their capacity for a different kind of politics, one in which people claim their own power. This project employs one of Dewey’s most penetrating texts and his belief in the transformative experience of people reading out loud to each other. It aims to capture those transformations on film.

With Will Alexander, Stephanie Bell, Dennis Cooper, Sandra Cruze, Dorit Cypis, Alexandra Epps, Laura Flanders, Simone Forti, Todd Gray, Dakota Higgins, Hedi El Kholti, Peter Kalisch, Chris Kraus, Suzanne Lacy, John Malpede, Eileen Myles, Russell Marling,  Meena Nanji, Jeffrey Owens, Renée Petropoulos, Pilar Petropoulos-White, Linda Pollack, Rachel Grace Potts, Pamela Ramos, Manuel Ramos Ruiz, Trinidad Ruiz, Guy Santiago, Catherine Scott, Kyungmi Shin, Jack Skelley, A.K. Toney, Shirley Tse, Jody Zellen.   

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Director's notes:

The video is an unedited (text-wise) reading of Dewey's essay "What Is Power?" which is printed in the book the people are reading from, The School of Public Life. The piece is 40 minutes long because that's how long it took to read the entire essay out loud. The camera was positioned as if sitting across the table from the reader, face-to-face, in an attempt to invoke Fred's table-readings, which he so believed in and conducted frequently. The viewer takes a position across a hypothetical table from the reader, as they would if attending one of Fred's readings. The readers were considered the primary audience and the aim was to capture their reaction to the text on film.

      All of the readers were paid the same fee and given a copy of the book. There were no random readers; everyone either had a relationship with Fred (several are famous poets and writers) or were invited because of their different spheres of influence. The goal was to get the book, the information about power, into as many different "neighborhoods" as I could.

     Many things are Godard-inspired since his films were favorites to Fred, but mostly because when I was asked to make a film of this text, I had visions of scenes from Weekend and La Chinoise in which actors read from books straight into the camera. It was the first time I had encountered such a thing in cinema and it had a major effect, on all of us I think. Coincidentally (perhaps), I later discovered that Godard had died on the day I was invited to make the film and had envisioned the scenes from Weekend.        

     The use of primary and secondary colors in the titles, mise en scene, compositions, and costumes echo those particular Godard films, and in a couple of the shots I used setups straight out of Weekend, such as a character dressed up as Benjamin Franklin marching around lecturing. I stopped short of shooting someone in a bathtub! And, of course, the title typeface is "Jean Luc"— and the erupting blurts of music were designed to interrupt just as Godard employs the music in Weekend, like a slap on the cheek.

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