Award-winning filmmaker coming to Columbia with Whitman documentary

Tuesday, September 9, 2008 | 5:52 p.m. CDT; updated 9:33 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 9, 2008

COLUMBIA — Filmmaker Mark Zwonitzer initially shied away from producing a film on Walt Whitman. He doubted a good documentary could be made about a poet.

In the end, however, that skepticism inspired the aptly titled "Walt Whitman," a film that aired earlier this year on PBS as part of the "American Experience" series.


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"That was enough of a challenge for me," said Zwonitzer, who graduated from MU with a degree in journalism in 1984. "I decided that I wanted something I could really fail at."

As part of the School of Journalism's centennial celebration, Zwonizter's documentary on Whitman will be shown in Jesse Auditorium from 2-4 p.m. Wednesday, and will be followed by a discussion with Zwonitzer from 5 to 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

The documentary has been nominated for two primetime Emmy awards, something Zwonitzer said he is excited about.

Unlike other categories, this one will be judged by his peers, other documentary filmmakers.

"I'm thrilled with it," he said. "I've had plenty of awards, but this is a big one."

Whitman was a noted American poet who was originally published from the 1840s to the 1870s. His work was quite controversial, especially "Leaves of Grass," a collection of poetry with overt sexuality that critics considered, among other things, "trashy, profane and obscene," according to Richard Tayson in an article, "The Casualties of Walt Whitman," which appeared in the Spring 2005 edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Yet the work drew praise from other American poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.

First published in 1855, "Leaves of Grass" was to be Whitman's obsession throughout his life.

Zwonitzer said he believes it was Whitman's self-revelation that made his documentary a success. Whitman revealed parts of his life through his writing, Zwonitzer said.

"Walt saved me," he said.

The filmmaker, who grew up in Columbia, has produced, directed and written several award-winning documentaries, including "Battle of the Bulge," "The Massie Affair" and "The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson."

He co-authored the book, "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music" with Charles Hirshberg. It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Zwonitzer said he doesn't have time for much else other than work and his family, but he does make time for MU football.

"I grew up going to the games, so I've had literally 40 years of heartache, so this (year) has been fun," he said.

Zwonitzer has making documentaries for the last 16 years, working in 46 of 50 states. As a producer, director and writer, he said it is the people that he likes most.

"Not just the people I work with," he said, "but the people I get to meet. There are some very strange and odd experiences."


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