By Pamela Burke/January 27, 2012
I was sad to hear in October, 2010 that Berkeley independent filmmaker Gail Dolgin had passed away after a long and valiant battle with cancer. Gail was an old college friend of mine whom I remember fondly from an adventure-filled journey we took many years ago on our own Grand Tour across Europe.
We lost track of each other after that trek, but it would always be remembered as the trip of a lifetime, driving some 10,000 miles in a tiny Renault in search of the paintings we studied in our art history classes at the University of Pennsylvania. We scoured every nook and cranny where we thought we could find them. Gail was in love with art, photography and everything the eye could absorb.
Gail became a well-respected documentarian working in northern California. During the last years of her life, Gail was producing and directing the documentary, “The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement,” a portrait of 85-year-old barber James Armstrong who was an activist during the battle for civil rights. In the film he looks back on that struggle as he witnesses the election of the the first African-American president. Through Gail’s interviews and directing, his story brings to life that tumultuous time.
Gail’s daughter, Amelia Nardinelli, remembers that during her mother’s final days she summoned up all of her energy and held a production meeting with her co-director Robin Fryday and Judith Helfand, an award-winning filmmaker whose company Chicken & Egg Pictures supported the film with a grant.
She was there by their side strategizing about everything from filming additional scenes to finding meaningful songs. Amelia says, “They assured her that the 18 minute work in progress was a wonderful short and that Gail ‘had done it.'”
All of them thought the piece had the “soul of a feature with the power of a great short.” Robin and Judith promised to see the film to completion. With Gail in agreement, they changed the format from a full length feature to a short. That short took the next year to complete with the blood, sweat and toil of her daughter, friends and partners.
It was exciting to hear this week as the Academy Award® nominations were being announced that this 26 minute film had been nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject along with four others. What an ode to Gail and all the people involved in the creation and completion of this work.
With the same kind of exuberance, Gail had made “Daughter from Danang” with co-director Vicente Franco. It won the Sundance Grand Jury Award and also a 2002 Academy Award nomination, later airing on PBS’s primetime series “American Experience.” That film documented the journey of an Amerasian girl going to meet her mother in Vietnam after a 22-year separation.
Gail heard about the daughter’s plans to take this emotional journey back to Danang and six weeks later was in Asia. You’ll see Amelia talking about her mother’s passion for this project here.
Her daughter says that stories of people like the women united in Vietnam and the barber’s struggles in Alabama inspired her mother and will inspire others to “keep on keeping on.” Amelia is thrilled to be going to the Oscars® in February and will be sitting in the seat that her mom would have sat in.
How terrific that this project came to fruition along with the help of the WDN (The Women Donors Network) and that Mr. Armstrong’s journey and the memories of those times will be preserved because of Gail and her team’s perseverance and talent.
Website: The Barber of Birmingham