Moment of Truth: Director Daniel Kraus Shows America its Work Face

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Welcome back to Moment of Truth, Movieline's weekly spotlight on the best in nonfiction cinema. Today we hear from Daniel Kraus, whose superb Work Series gets a showcase this weekend in Chicago.

Remember those seven masterpieces of the '00s you've likely never seen? Hopefully you have checked out at least some of them by now -- particularly the endlessly intriguing work of Chicago filmmaker Daniel Kraus. Since 2004, the documentarian has delivered three films chronicling ordinary Americans at their rather extraordinary jobs. Their tiles are self-explanatory and deceptively simple -- Sheriff, Musician and Kraus's latest, Professor. The films, meanwhile, are anything but.

The thing about the Work Series isn't that it hasn't been done before; Kraus cites the bard of workplace verite, Frederick Wiseman, as a prime influence on his own austere style. It just hasn't been done this well. Kraus's camera is less observational than it is kind of omniscient, blending a voyeur's compulsion with a filmmaker's rigorous attention to character and detail. Professor refines this tack in the company of Rabbi Jay Holstein, a brash University of Iowa religion instructor whose character is outsized only by the flood of ideas that dominate his life. The Holocaust, gun ownership, magic tricks, animal experimentation, binge drinking, race relations and imminent retirement somehow share one essence in a singular orbit, and Holstein's intense approach to each -- and much, much more -- makes for some of the unlikeliest drama on the scene today.

Sheriff (2004) and Musician (2007) boast similar qualities, and lucky folks in Chicago will have the chance to check all three out when the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts a special Work Series retrospective May 15-20. (Kraus and Holstein will be on hand this Saturday for Professor's premiere.) More information about the films' DVD's is available at Kraus's site, but get the word out to your own local cinema programmers to bring his unique -- and uniquely great -- work to a theater near you. In the meantime, Kraus spoke with Movieline about his projects' humble beginnings, his ground rules and why you won't get this kind of workplace payoff watching Ace of Cakes.

So you're still trailing people at work, huh?

Yeah, apparently I am.

What inspired the Work Series?

Well, it was sort of two-pronged, I guess, it didn't start out being the Work Series. It just started out being Sheriff. I kind of filmed it two ways at once; I didnt' know if I could pull off a verite portrait of the guy, so along the way I shot more traditional interviews. It sort of sat in a box for a couple of years while I went to finish some other projects -- which seems to be the pattern of my career so far. When I finally got to it, I was already a fan of [Frederick] Wiseman's, but I had gone through a pretty heavy Wiseman phase. I'd seen a couple retrospectives of his work, and I got sort of inspired to edit the film in that style. I think I cut one scene, and I thought, "Yeah, this is it." I thought to myself as I was finishing Sheriff that this was a template I could apply to other films about other occupations. It fit into something that was bothering me about documentary films in general, which was that we have all these portraits of famous people and historic events and all these things, but there's not a lot capturing what we do on a day-to-day basis. That's missing from our audio-visual record -- which seems crazy, because that's how we spend half of our lives: Working.

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That said, the subjects of Sheriff, Musician and Professor are ultimately performers. They're putting on shows of various kinds for audiences, and they have public personas. Is that a coincidence?

It is a little bit of a coincidence. It isn't always going to be this way. It is true that the first three subjects -- and really the fourth, too, when you think about Preacher -- they do all have a performance side to them. But that's not going to hold. This is an important distinction though: Everybody has a "work" face. They have a personal face and a work face. Even if I [film] someone at a job where they're sitting at a machine for eight hours a day, they still are going to look and act differently at work than they do at home. There's always going to be a performance aspect when your boss is looking over your shoulder. You're going to be performing in some sense.

You seem to have very specific rules in terms of your own working method. Are they consistent since Sheriff, or have they evolved in any way?

Sheriff was, in all respects, a prototype. I was feeling it out and sort of settled on a final process in editing. But from Musician on, yeah, it's been very strict. It's been very clear. It's all fairly obvious stuff -- no interviews, no voiceovers. No sound effects that aren't organic to the project. Those are the big ones -- they cut out all the tricks, so I'm left to make something interesting.

How long are you spending with them?

Well, when I did Sheriff, that was shot over a period of years. But when I moved on to Musician, my idea how to shoot these things also solidified. It's an ideal; it's not what I'm always able to pull off. But my idea is that if I'm really good at what I do in my job as a filmmaker, then I should be able to step into a perfect stranger's work routine and in two weeks have all I need for a film. Again, that's an ideal, and that hasn't always been the case. But it seems logical to me, and I think that's mostly what I was able to do with Professor. If you add up the shooting days, it's not over two weeks.

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