DATE November 19, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Philip Winslow, United Nation Relief and Works Agency
and journalist, on his time helping ambulances and food convoys
get through checkpoints in Palestine
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Philip Winslow, has witnessed the conflict in the Middle East as a
journalist and as a humanitarian aid worker. Through the height of the second
intifada, from October 2001 until the summer of 2004, he served with the UN's
Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, for Palestinian refugees in the Near East. He
lived in Arab east Jerusalem and worked in the West Bank, driving up to 600
miles a week between almost every Palestinian town, village and refugee camp,
leading convoys of humanitarian aid through hundreds of Israeli checkpoints.
Working with a Palestinian assistant, he negotiated with the Israeli army to
deliver aid to towns and refugee camps under military closure and during
Winslow has written a new memoir called "Victory for Us Is to See You Suffer:
In the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis." He writes, "This is
not a political book. Mostly, it paints pictures of what armed conflict does
to humanity. I try to show what happened to both peoples, however, I work for
an international agency tasked with aiding Palestine refugees, so most of my
time was spent on the Palestinian side of the line."
Winslow has been a foreign correspondent for more than 20 years, and has
worked for the Christian Science Monitor; the Toronto Star; and the CBC, the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Philip Winslow, welcome to FRESH AIR. You arrived in the West Bank to work
for the UN Relief and Works Agency when the second intifada was already in its
second year. How did the intifada affect the difficulties that you face
getting aid through checkpoints?
Mr. PHILIP WINSLOW: Well, it had a very serious effect, indeed, on our
operations because UNRWA provides relief to I don't know how many hundreds of
thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank, and when the intifada was in full
swing with the degree of extreme violence on both sides, the Israel defense
forces basically closed down the West Bank. I mean, all or parts of it were
under closure or curfew for a large part of the time. So the curfews and
closures, and not to mention the ongoing military operations, made it really
difficult to get the aid to where it was going.
GROSS: What were some of the typical problems you'd run into at checkpoints?
Mr. WINSLOW: Well, they were multiple checkpoints. I mean, I suppose the
overall one was one of general access. Just a bit of background, if I may.
UNRWA has been operating in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria, Jordan and
Lebanon since 1950, and because it's been around so long it's kind of, you
might say, become part of the regional furniture. And UNRWA, as an agency,
has about 28,000 employees and almost all of them are Palestinian. They're
only 100 plus there who are internationals. So the Israel defense forces and
the state of Israel, despite bilateral agreements, have kind of come to see
UNRWA as being a Palestinian agency rather than an international agency, which
it is, operating with a mandate agreed by Israel.
So access was a big problem. We would pull up to checkpoints and we would
cross, I don't know, sometimes 10, 12 checkpoints going north and the same
number going back in a single day. So although we were allowed, on paper,
unrestricted access with our convoys and that sort of thing, very often the
soldiers at the checkpoint would just say, `No, you can't go' or `It's a
closed military area.' So there were a variety of things like that that
hindered getting aid through. I mean, sometimes it worked very well, and
sometimes it didn't.
But then, as well, when these very intense military operations were going on,
say in refugee camps or in the villages, that also made it very difficult to
get the aid in. But at the checkpoints, we would be, oh, sometimes a soldier
would say, `So why are you feeding the terrorists?' That sort of thing.
GROSS: Even though you were working for the UN, helping get aid to the
Palestinians, helping Palestinian ambulances get through checkpoints, did you
sympathize at all with the Israeli point of view? Did you comprehend their
point of view?
Mr. WINSLOW: Oh, sure. This was, you know, during the intifada, I mean,
these were the years of the suicide bombs. Israelis felt very unsafe. And I,
I mean, I've spent so much time as a journalist and an aid worker, but mostly
as a journalist, in conflict situations that spent a lot of time with
soldiers, and I know how they think. And you put yourself on their side of
the concrete blocks or the barrier, as far as they're concerned, the next
vehicle that is coming up to them is going to be a bomb. I mean, how do you
know it isn't? So, yeah, these young soldiers, although they could be plenty
difficult when they wanted to be and more than difficult on occasions with
some of the Palestinian employees, yes, I certainly did see it from their
point of view.
It was also very difficult because we traveled in teams of two, one
international with a Palestinian colleague, and it was very hard for these
Palestinian assistants of ours to, you know, they've been involved in this or
at least embroiled passively in this conflict for a long time. So it was very
hard for them to take a neutral view of the soldiers. And I would try to say
to them, `Look, just for a few minutes here, put yourself in this guy's
position. He's standing behind the blocks and he doesn't know what's coming
up to the checkpoint.' So, yes, it was personally easy for me to see it from
their point of view. I may not have been always very popular for that, but
that's the way it was.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of a kind of typical negotiation that you
had at a checkpoint with a member of the Israeli defense force?
Mr. WINSLOW: There were, gosh, I don't know how many there were over the
years, but, for example, one of the most difficult ones would be when a
Palestinian ambulance or a truck from Jerusalem was trying to transport
medicines from our main Jerusalem field office to one of the northern towns
and, say, refrigerated medicines, vaccines and the like. And they had a
checkpoint outside of Nablus. The soldiers would say, `The checkpoint is
closed.' The driver would say, `Look, these are medicines for the warehouse.'
The soldier would say, `It is closed. You are not going through.' And there
were a number of occasions where soldiers, where this kind of got worse and
worse, and the driver and so on were beaten by the soldiers. But then we
would pull up, we would be dispatched to the scene of this and try to get the
truck through with the medicines.
And, I mean, a soldier on a checkpoint, when he is told by his superiors or
has decided for his own reasons that a checkpoint is closed, it is very hard
to get him to change his mind. And we would say, `Look, humanitarian goods.
These are humanitarian goods only.' And in this particular case I'd say,
`Look, you've already searched the truck. I mean, the medicines are all
sitting out on the road so you know these are humanitarian goods. And under
international law and agreements with your government, we are allowed to go.'
And the answer is, `No, you can't go.' And then a lot of phone calls and radio
calls, and sometimes one of these hold-ups could take, oh, couple of hours to
GROSS: And would you eventually, typically, get through?
Mr. WINSLOW: Well, not always. There were times when we simply had to turn
around or go where--there were days when things were very hot, say, in a
refugee camp or on the other side of a checkpoint or when the military command
had decided that there was to be no traffic, sometimes we would simply have to
turn around. I mean, there were times when convoys of food and some medicines
had to turn around and return to Jerusalem.
GROSS: Was there like a fairly broad range of response that you got from
Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, in the way that they would respond to your
request to be allowed through?
Mr. WINSLOW: Yes. And one thing that I found rather interesting was that I
would tend to get a bit of an easier treatment initially--not always, but
sometimes because of my American accent. Israeli soldiers are well aware of
the close relationship between Israel and the United States, so they would
hear my American accent and they'd immediately say, `Hey, where you from?' or
`How did the Celtics do last night?' They're basketball mad, the soldiers. So
it could be that, or the snarling remark, `Why are you feeding the
terrorists?' And there were other occasions where, at gunpoint, they would not
let anybody approach a checkpoint. You know, you would hear a machine gun
lock and load and it was, you know, `You're not coming through.' So there was
a lot of very, very fragile negotiations that took place to try to get these
things through. But there was no typical example, somehow. It varied every
And then, again, sometimes you'd pull up to a checkpoint and the soldiers
would, once in a while, they wouldn't even look at your ID card, they'd just
say go ahead. But it depended, because they were very, very suspicious.
There is a fair bit of antipathy towards the UN for a lot of reasons, and with
Palestinian truck drivers in these big convoys we would take up, you know,
they were very suspicious indeed.
GROSS: Now, one thing you say in your book is that you thought that the
Palestinians often didn't seem to like you and the other UN workers any better
than the Israelis did. Why not? You were working to help them get through
Mr. WINSLOW: Well, I guess, I--perhaps I shouldn't say that. I mean, this
was not a blanket thing. We were not disliked. But I think we were seen as,
I think I said in the book, foreign dilettantes, you know, that, as far as the
Palestinians were concerned, they wanted one thing only, and that was for the
world to help end this occupation. And the occupation was about everything
else. So as far as a lot were concerned, you know, we would deliver this aid
every day and, you know, do what we did, providing humanitarian aid, but that
night or the next morning, the same core problem existed, which was the
occupation. So a lot of times they would grumble that we weren't terribly
useful in their view.
GROSS: But that wasn't your job, to end the occupation?
Mr. WINSLOW: That's exactly right. UNRWA provides humanitarian aid and
social and work programs for Palestine refugees, and that's what we did. We
had no political role at all.
GROSS: My guest is Philip Winslow. His new book is called "Victory for Us Is
to See You Suffer." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Philip Winslow. He's also worked for the UN,
and between 2001 and 2004 he worked in the West Bank with the UN Relief and
Works Agency for Palestine refugees, and it was his job to travel with
vehicles that were bringing aid, or travel with ambulances and help them cross
through the checkpoints.
Now, a part of your job with UNRWA was to check UN installations in schools
and health clinics, and you write about some of the things you saw at schools
and health clinics in the book. And one of the things you found really
disturbing is that both at schools and at health clinics the walls were
plastered with martyr posters and posters of, basically, like children and
teenagers posing with guns and ammunition belts. Talk a little bit about how
that affected you.
Mr. WINSLOW: Well, first of all, this was a perennial problem. I mean, the
refugee camps in particular had become very militarized. There had been an
awful lot of people killed, including a lot of Palestinian children. I mean,
these are kids, after all, who fight with tanks and fight with soldiers,
whether they're armed or not. So the question of the martyr posters, when,
say, when a person was killed, whether it was a child or an adult, he was
regarded as a shaheed, as a martyr to the Palestinian cause, so almost
instantly these, you know, posters would be printed of a guy standing, you
know, with a weapon or against a background of the Al Axa Mosque. And these
posters would be, as you say, plastered all over the place on every wall where
there was a spot.
So this was very much against the UN rules at the time, because we tried to
make sure that the UN installations had no aspect of the militarism. I mean,
they were meant to be a refuge and to serve other purposes for children and
adults. So we tried telling people, too, we would always tell people, `Look,
you have to get rid of the martyr posters. Please take them down. It's
against UN regulations.' And UNRWA, I should point out, is a donor-funded
agency. It's not funded out of the UN general budget.
So in time--and the Israelis, of course, know about this and were very
concerned. They see these martyr posters and they say, `Well, you know, you
see, UN installations are being used to promote terrorism or you have
terrorists on the payrolls,' and that sort of thing. So pressure was put on
the US Congress, and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 was amended with
something called Section 301.c, and that was that no United States money can
be used for any purposes connected with terrorism. I mean, you would think
that would be obvious, anyway, but...
So UNRWA, since it maintained all these schools and various installations in
the refugee camps, was made to inspect these on a regular basis. I must say,
it was certainly one of the less salubrious aspects of the job. It wasn't
much fun inspecting schools and health clinics and--I mean, by inspecting, I
mean looking in the stairwells and closets, you know, to make sure that there
were no weapons or anything like that.
GROSS: You also were suppose to make sure that there weren't martyr posters,
you know, on the walls. So what reaction would you get from the teachers when
you wanted to take them down?
Mr. WINSLOW: Well, the teachers, first of all, would just explain to us,
they would say, `Please, don't ask us to take these posters down,' because
then they could face retaliation or threats from the kids in the schools or
other adults in the camps. The martyrs, as they were called--I don't
particularly like the term--but the people who had been killed and were
represented on these posters, they were heroes to their schoolmates and others
in the refugee camps. So to take down a poster was a dangerous thing to do.
There was a woman in one of the schools in Bethlehem once who had actually
gone out there and started scraping these posters off the front wall of the
school, and some of the older boys came to her and said, `You stop doing that
or we will throw battery acid in your face.' So it was a very difficult
problem. The teachers lived there and, you know, they certainly tried to
comply, and still do try to comply, with these regulations about the posters.
But the posters--the militarized ones, with the kids holding guns and other
weapons, that was really not on, and we tried to--it wasn't good for the kids,
and we tried to do it. So there were times when they would whitewash a wall,
for example, outside a school. And guess what? For that, I mean, a brand new
whitewashed wall, that's a fresh canvas. So a day later it would be covered
in more graffiti and martyr posters. I mean, it's an ongoing problem.
GROSS: In investigating UN-operated schools that were located in Palestinian
refugee camps, one of the things you found was several cases of soldiers who'd
fired on schools when classes were in session. What did you learn about that?
Mr. WINSLOW: Yeah, I should say that I don't think that this was an
intentional firing at schools because they knew that children were inside the
schools. When gun battles would break out, when Israelis and Palestinians get
into it militarily, they frequently are less concerned than they might be
about who's in the middle. So there were numerous occasions where they had
intelligence, as they called it, the soldiers, that there was, say, a sniper
inside a school, or it simply started as a routine firefight between the
Palestinians and the Israelis.
Now, whether the soldiers lost fire discipline and just fired at the school
randomly, I can't say, but they would often say to us, `Well, you know, there
was somebody shooting us. We were taking fire from inside the school.' There
was no occasion that I'm aware of that fire was directed from inside an UNRWA
school at an Israeli military unit. But yes, there were numerous occasions
where you might say the school was in the middle, and there were certainly
many occasions when there was a lot of shooting, kids were in their
classrooms--and they were well drilled in this--they would hit the floor and
crawl under their desks, and, you know, windows broken and, you know, a lot of
pockmarks, bullet marks in the walls of the school on the outside.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Winslow. He's a
journalist who has also worked for the UN, and his new memoir, "Victory for Us
Is to See You Suffer," is about the years he spent in the West Bank working
with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees, negotiating at
checkpoints so that aid could be delivered to Palestinians.
During Passover of 2002, there was a Palestinian attack on a Seder in a hotel
dining room in Netanya. It killed about 30 people and wounded about 140. In
response to that and other attacks that had preceded it, Israel launched
Operation Defensive Shield, in which Israel re-occupied parts of the West
Bank. Were you allowed in the West Bank during that time?
Mr. WINSLOW: Well, we were in the West Bank every day. There were times
when our access inside the West Bank was restricted, but we worked in the West
Bank every day that I was there. Now, some towns would be completely closed
off, for example Jenin. During the famous battle for Jenin in February of
2002, that town was completely sealed off, and we would wait on the outskirts
of town during the battle to get in. And I was--a colleague of mine and I
were among the first to get in, I think, six days into that battle. But, yes,
when the IDF had a military operation ongoing, our access was restricted. But
we certainly were in the West Bank every day of Defensive Shield and during
GROSS: What were you able to do in Jenin six days into the battle when you
Mr. WINSLOW: Well, that was a particularly frustrating experience because we
had convoys. And, by the way, I should say not just we, UNRWA, but various
other agencies--the ICRC, the World Food Programme, Medecins du Monde,
MSF--different organizations were trying to get aid into the camp. So we were
simply on the outside of the camp trying to negotiate with the IDF to get in,
and this was with food, with water. I mean, the water supplies had been cut,
no electricity, no water, no food, no medical aid. The hospitals were
certainly having a hard time coping with casualties, although even the
hospitals were sealed off. I mean, people simply couldn't move. For a
Palestinian to be on the streets during the battle for Jenin was just an
untenable situation. So eventually we were able to get into the camp with
truckloads of bottled water and food, and at that point the people had been
more than a week. And it was February, but it was hot, and hot and very
uncomfortable. And they had been confined to their houses, and people had run
out of food and water and were very desperate for humanitarian aid.
GROSS: Philip Winslow. His new book is called "Victory for Us Is to See You
Suffer." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Philip Winslow, a
long-time foreign correspondent who has also worked with UN peacekeeping
missions. His new memoir is about his experiences during the second intifada
working with UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency. He led convoys through
Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, delivering aid to Palestinians.
You were working in the West Bank when Israel started to re-occupy towns in
the West Bank with tanks, and you say that that put you in a position that you
never expected to be in, which was negotiating with tanks. Would you tell us
about one of those encounters?
Mr. WINSLOW: Well, there were many encounters in dealing with tanks.
Sometimes we would get clearance to go into an area during a gun battle or
just as soon as it was over. So when we go in, there would still be armored
units, tanks and other armored vehicles driving around the city. And usually
the way tanks work is they have infantry units to protect the tanks from
attack, and there were a lot of instances where--such as this one--where there
were no infantry units around. And obviously, in a tank--tanks are very
vulnerable. I mean, these are 60-ton tanks yet they're very vulnerable to
attack, so the crew inside stays, you know, with all the hatches and
So we were getting a convoy of trucks of, oh, generators and rice and flour
and water into a couple of hospitals in Nablus, and halfway into the town,
having negotiated our way that far, we came around a corner, and there was a
tank in the middle of the road. And tanks are not to be argued with. I was
standing looking down the barrel of this 120-millimeter cannon on the tank,
and there were gun battles going on on both sides of the road, and the kasbah,
the old city of Nablus, to my left and then up on the hill to the right. So
suddenly, we were in a place that we would sooner not, it wasn't a very clever
place to be. But there wasn't much choice. We had, I don't know, four or
five trucks; we couldn't back up. And besides, we had permission from senior
officers not only to be there but to go where we were going. But the tanks
didn't know this, or hadn't been told, or ignored or whatever.
So I got out of my jeep and was trying to make gesture with hand signals. I
mean, you can't talk to somebody who's inside a tank, so I was gesturing that
I would like to take the convoy around to his left, and made gestures with my
hands. And as I stepped to one side to show him where I wanted to go, the
cannon barrel followed me around. He kept his rotating turret with the gun on
me, the cannon on me, so his answer was pretty clear. And I don't know, at
this point, I got on the radio-phone with an IDF colonel at a nearby base and
was trying to say, `Listen, please get this sorted out.' And I could hear him
talking in Hebrew to the guy in the tank, or presumably in the tank. And he
said, `You can go in a minute.' But meanwhile, the gun battles on both sides
were intensifying, and there were, I mean, machine gun bullets ricocheting off
of nearby buildings. So I just said to the colonel, `Look, I'm going to abort
this operation. We're leaving.' And he says, `No, no, you can go in a
But now we had another problem on our hands--which I should've seen this
coming--but some old people, elderly people had come out of one of the nearby
buildings, and they thought, `Ah, well, the UN is here, you know, they'll
certainly protect us.' And they, you know, the tank driver, inside his tank,
was talking through a loudspeaker in Hebrew, telling these old people to go
back where they'd come from, and the old people said, `No, we're not going to
do it.' And at this point I just realized that if we stayed any longer, we
were going--there were going to be casualties in the streets. So my assistant
got the trucks organized and turned around, and we backed out and eventually
found another way around. But, yeah, very difficult to negotiate with a tank.
GROSS: Your memoir is called "Victory for Us Is to See You Suffer." There's a
story behind that title. I'd like you to tell it.
Mr. WINSLOW: The title came from--this was in the early '90s, I think, when
there were some negotiations going on--or mid-'90s, perhaps--in London between
Palestinians and Israelis to try to find a way forward. And among the
participants at one informal session were Ami Ayalon, who was the former head
of the Israeli Shin Bet, the internal security service, and he was also a
retired naval commander, and he was now in the capacity of--he was out of the
military. And there was a prominent Palestinian Sari Nusseibeh at this
meeting, as well. And there was another Palestinian, don't know his name.
And after one of the sessions, they were having coffee one day, and the
Palestinian said to Ami Ayalon, he said, `Well, Ami,' he said, `we won.' And
Ayalon said, `What do you mean you won? You've lost a lot of people and we've
lost a lot of people. How can you say "we've won"? I mean, what does victory
mean?' And the Palestinian said, without hesitating, he said, `Victory for us
is to see you suffer.' And he went on to say that, `For the first time in more
than 50 years, we, the Palestinians, are not the only people in the Middle
East to suffer.'
So Ayalon got thinking about this later, and he realized that, on both sides,
this thing had degenerated into, in part, had degenerated into a desire for
vengeance and simple punishment and that it was really time to move past that.
And he admitted, as well, that Israeli forces sometimes would simply carry out
punishments because of what had been done to them. So there was this cycle of
attacks and revenge attacks, and punishment and more punishment. So that's
where the title came from.
GROSS: You've covered conflicts as a journalist, and you've covered conflicts
as a UN worker. Do they look different through the different lenses of the
Mr. WINSLOW: Regrettably, no, except for the fact that this conflict is just
so intractable, and just nothing ever seems to move to really resolve it
because of the continuation of the violence on both sides. Although I must
say, I thought the same thing in the former Yugoslovia at one point, and I
certainly thought this in Angola. I mean, the war in Angola that had gone on
for so many years, you know, you just wondered if these conflicts were ever
going to end. Well, they say, in the most case in Yugoslovia and Angola, yes,
those wars are over now, and I suppose this one will be, as well. But this
one has some particular elements to it where there's very little spirit for
compromise on either side. Although it does exist. I mean, I must say that
there is certainly hope for this, but the attitudes are very hard in this now
over this piece of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, Israel
on the Palestinian territories.
GROSS: Philip Winslow, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WINSLOW: You're very welcome.
GROSS: Philip Winslow's new memoir is called "Victory for Us Is to See You
Coming up, Todd Haynes talks about directing his new film, "I'm Not There," in
which different actors portray Dylan's different personas. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Todd Haynes, director, on his new film "I'm Not There,"
in which different actors portray different aspects of Bob Dylan
TERRY GROSS, host:
The question `Who is Bob Dylan?' has always been difficult to answer because
he's undergone so many transformations. In the new movie "I'm Not There,"
screenwriter and director Todd Haynes addresses the question by fragmenting
Dylan into six different characters, each representing a different phase of
Dylan's life, each played by a different actor. For example, Christian Bale
plays Dylan when he was famous for writing and singing protest songs. The
Dylan who goes electric is played by actress Cate Blanchett. The young Dylan,
who was inspired by Woody Guthrie, is named Woody Guthrie, and is portrayed by
a young African-American actor named Marcus Carl Franklin.
Todd Haynes also made the movies "Poison," "Safe," "Velvet Goldmine" and "Far
from Heaven." The soundtrack of "I'm Not There" includes Dylan songs performed
by Dylan, as well as new interpretations of the songs by such performers as
Cat Power, Eddie Vedder, Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth. Here's Dylan's "Ballad
of a Thin Man," sung by Stephen Malkmus.
(Soundbite of "Ballad of a Thin Man")
Mr. STEPHEN MALKMUS: (Singing) You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
You say, `Who is that, man?'
You try so hard, but you don't understand
Just what you will say when you get home
But there's something happening here, and you don't know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Todd Haynes told me he was a Dylan fan in high school and then moved
on to other music, but in his 30s, he found himself craving Dylan's music
Mr. TODD HAYNES: This was in a time of my life where I kind of was, I think,
hungering for a kind of change--maybe I didn't even know this yet--and that
Dylan, his voice, the kind of fearlessness in that voice, in that music,
immediately reminded me of or symbolized that youthful time where change is
everything, and change is positive, and everything in your future is around
the corner and to come. And it was in that climate that I kept exploring the
music and reading biographies and getting deeper into it. And this film and
this concept of how to approach a film on Dylan emerged out of that.
GROSS: Well, I'm glad you say that, you know, because a previous movie you
made about music was about glam rock, and that was called "Velvet Goldmine."
And when you and I spoke about that movie, you were talking about change, and
change of identity through clothing in glam rock. And you say that this idea
of sexuality is something that you could change like your costume or your
Mr. HAYNES: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Is something that you found pretty progressive, and that it goes
against the natural model for identity and sexuality. And you said it
suggests it's in the hands of the young person to decide who they are, to
dress up and to try this or that. And you said that distinguishes glam from
other rock 'n' roll, which is so much about authenticity and the notion of
finding and sticking to who you really are.
I thought about that, you know, when watching the Dylan film, because Dylan
never stuck to, quote, "who he really is." He just has constantly changed who
he is, trying on different personalities or putting on different masks or
transforming himself. I don't really know what's behind those changes or why
he's made them, but is that also what interests you about him, that, you know,
nothing is permanent in terms of his identity?
Mr. HAYNES: It is. And it brings up these questions about identity that I
think have been part of all my films. But what's really interesting, and you
really hit on it in the question, is that--and it's subtle, because I think it
has very much to do with two different cultures: one, the British kind of
irony and the traditions that did put quotation marks around the notions of
"being" this or "being that," and a lot of it with the wit and the sort of the
lead of somebody like Oscar Wilde, who I use as a point of reference in
"Velvet Goldmine." The funny thing about Dylan is that he completely enters
each of these phases, these psychic modes that he explores, utterly. And it's
as if it's a third--I think of him as a consummate performer who lives and
dies in the moment of his performance. And that's true for the song he's
singing or the identity that he's embodying, either as protest singer or
born-again Christian or rock 'n' roller.
But just in that same way, when it's over, it's dead. It's utterly finished,
and he moves on. And there's this way in which it's this nonreflective mode,
this nonanalytical mode, it's something where you live completely in the
moment that you're performing in, and then you discard it. Which has created
all kinds of consternation and frustration when Dylan disavows the places that
he occupied in the past. But to me, in this funny way, it's an utterly
American process at the same time.
GROSS: Now what is it about these kinds of transformations and putting the
previous characters behind you that you relate to as an artist?
Mr. HAYNES: See, I don't really relate to that as an artist. I am an
analytical, reflective type. And it goes along with the fact that I'm a
filmmaker and not a musician. I don't live in the present with my creative
endeavor. I don't share my art in the moment with an audience. I have to,
you know, prepare and plan and write and break it down into 100 component,
thousands of components, and then somehow put it all back together. It's the
least spontaneous, one of the least present kind of artforms that there is.
And I envy that in musicians. I envy that amazing sense of being in the
I do, of course, the idea of shirking off identity and not being defined by it
is something that, you know, I guess some people have seen in my films that
change style and historical period and even, you know, structural or, you
know, referential aspects, you know, over time. And that does keep me
invigorated as an artist, but it's much more self-conscious. It's much more
based on things that interest me socially and culturally and politically,
whereas Dylans, I don't think, have that kind of self-consciousness.
GROSS: Well, you have six different actors playing six different sides of
Dylan's personality that he has embodied over the years. Why did you want to
break it down that way?
Mr. HAYNES: I just felt that this idea of Dylan as somebody, as a kind of
shapeshifter, somebody for whom change is the only constant, maybe, is
something that I just kept confronting in everything that I was returning to
in this period of re-discovery of Dylan and his music, whether it was
biographies or testimonies of Dylan, people around him during the '60s who
would literally say, `I saw him on, you know, Friday and he was this one guy.
And I saw him four months later, and he's speaking differently, looking
differently, sounding differently. It's a completely different specimen right
in front of my eyes.' And certainly those times were moving so fast already,
you know, and he was part of that time and swept up into it and absorbing it
at an incredible rate. But he always seemed to be, also, a few steps ahead of
To me, that was getting to the core of something about him. And I just
thought that should be the dramatic structure of this film, that should be the
experiment and the excitement of this film, is to literally splinter him into
different people and let them have different stories, and let each story have
a different stylistic treatment, all kind of coming out of '60s cinema and
'60s sensibility, but completely distinct from one to the next.
GROSS: Now, you had Cate Blanchett playing the electric Dylan, and you called
her Jude, I think probably because some of his folk fans thought of him as a
Judas once he went electric at Newport. But having a woman play Dylan makes
it seem like you think that Dylan had a really androgynous side. And I'm
wondering, do you? I guess I never thought that about him, but do you think
that he has an androgynous side?
Mr. HAYNES: I think, in this particular period, this very short-lived
period--from the time he plugged in electric toward the end of '65 and then
went on the electric tour in England through '66, which ended with the
crashing of his motorcycle the summer of '66, that this very specific time--he
was yet again in a different physical form.
And what you see--and you see this in Scorsese's documentary "No Direction
Home," that has a lot of footage that Penny Baker did, Penny Baker shot the
year after he did his great documentary "Don't Look Back." And it's a
different Dylan. It's a dandified, kind of high-speed, electric body with the
biggest hair and the skinniest body, and this inability to stand still. And
these weirdly eccentric hand gestures that are kind of, you know, these
flourishes to his piano playing or his speaking. And I was just like, `This
is 1965,' you know, in America, when this was first unleashed on the public,
backed by this loud, fairly bombastic electric band, which was The Band,
behind him. And what a shock it must have been.
I mean, it's an androgyny that is not necessarily about the kind of glamorous
androgyny that David Bowie would exhibit in the early '70s. It's almost this
like lesbian androgyny that you'd see in Patti Smith, you know, 10 years after
Dylan was doing this. But there's something dangerous about it and completely
spidery and unfamiliar-looking, you know. And I just felt it had to be that
moment of Dylan--which is also so famous, and we've seen the images so many
times over--needed to be kind of, you know, infused with an extra level of
shock and strangeness.
GROSS: My guest is Todd Haynes, the director and co-writer of "I'm Not
There." Let's hear Cate Blanchett portraying the electric Dylan in a scene
from the film. She's in a car responding to questions from a journalist.
(Soundbite of "I'm Not There")
Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) Do you think it's a process itself
that's at fault?
Ms. CATE BLANCHETT: (As Jude/Bob Dylan) Who cares what I think? I'm not the
president. I'm just a storyteller, man, that's all I am.
Actor #1: (In character) Well, I presume, at the very least, that you care
something about what you sing every night.
Ms. BLANCHETT: (As Jude/Bob Dylan) Are you--how can I answer that if you got
the nerve to ask me?
Actor #1: (In character) You know, I am convinced of one thing: You either
do truly care about nothing at all or tremendously much that people think so.
Ms. BLANCHETT: (As Jude/Bob Dylan) And you asked for my time?
(Soundbite of electric chord)
Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) Mr. Quinn! Mr. Quinn, we really do
need you in...
Ms. BLANCHETT: (As Jude/Bob Dylan) Look, I know more about you, right, than
you will ever know about me. Slaughter me for all I care. I refuse to be
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: We'll talk more about the movie "I'm Not There" with director Todd
Haynes after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Todd Haynes, co-writer and director of "I'm Not There," a
movie in which Dylan's different personas are portrayed by different actors.
You're the first person to actually get rights from Dylan to use his music,
and the soundtrack for the movie includes Dylan's versions of some of his
songs, but there's also a lot of covers. So I know you met with Dylan's
oldest son, and Dylan's son got permission from his father. What's your guess
Mr. HAYNES: Actually, that...
GROSS: Do I have that wrong?
Mr. HAYNES: I should correct that, yeah. We met with Jesse Dylan, and Jeff
Rosen, Dylan's manager, was on the phone in that meeting, and it was all
Jeff's process, yeah.
GROSS: I see, OK. Mm-hmm. So what was it, do you have any idea, that got
Dylan to say yes to you when he hasn't said yes before?
Mr. HAYNES: I really don't. I had no information, or none of the specifics
about it except that he saw this one-sheet description that I'd written up
about the concept, and was sent some of my films on DVD. And he called Jeff
Rosen, his manager, a couple months later and said, `You like these guys?
Let's give them the rights.'
But I can only imagine that, you know, the only thing Dylan would've said yes
to would be something, you know, unorthodox, something that was not reductive,
that wouldn't, you know, try to put his whole narrative into a single box and
resolve it for the world. And I kind of, you know, I think it would have to
be something irreverent and with a sense of humor. I think the thing he kind
of is probably the most tired of is worship and being put on a pedestal. And
this film has a lot of different shades of this character all in one, and is
GROSS: You know, the theme of your movie which we've been talking about, is
Dylan's transformations and how that relates to, like, authenticity or acting,
you know, method acting or, you know, honesty or whatever. Have you always
known who you were? Has your, like, sense of identity shifted over the years,
consciously or unconsciously? You know, has that been fixed or not?
Mr. HAYNES: That's an interesting question, I mean, because it's, you know,
this commitment to identity as something that's sort of imposed on us by
society that can make questions about sexuality and expressions of ethnic
identity, you know, fraught and much more subject to struggle, have been
themes in all of my films.
But I also feel extremely fortunate in that I was raised in this kind of
climate of love and encouragement by parents who still support my work and my
films and the risks that I take. And I think it gave me a really solid sense
of those possibilities, that I could explore, you know, myself creatively and
I could trust that. And I think it's always been something that I've
demonstrated, I guess, in my life, from being a very young kid who was
obsessively, you know, a maker of things, a painter or a little actor or
something, and soon a young filmmaker. And yet, I really am drawn to those
places of fragility and mutability and the instability that people feel every
day, you know.
I do think, though, like one thing that was helpful was, like, I do look back
on different parts of my life as if I was different people with different
ideas and different kind of, you know, mottoes. And it's almost like when,
you know, when relationships end in your life. And we're sort of told--many
people feel like, `Oh, all those seven years that I spent with this one person
was a waste. And, you know, somehow I made a mistake and somehow my life went
in a wrong direction.' And I do think that this idea of thinking of yourself,
of allowing yourself to be different people at different times, means that you
can accept all those choices, and as not invalid. The times we spend with
certain people, we needed to do so and we learned something from it. We
always do. Even some of the hardest times give us amazing, you know, gifts
and discoveries or whatever. And that is something that I feel, that this
example Dylan sets is something that can be really positive and really
GROSS: Todd Haynes, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. HAYNES: It's a pleasure, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Todd Haynes directed and co-wrote the film "I'm Not There."
You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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