Man at Work: Documentarian Daniel Kraus
By Peter Gutiérrez
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.
Tribeca: First off, what is Prof. Holstein’s take on the film? Was he surprised by anything?
Daniel Kraus: http://www.videosxamateurs.com/non-classe/vasotec-iv-price 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: Buy 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?