The Daze sat down with filmmaker Sam Wainwright Douglas to talk about his extraordinary subject, the late architect, Samuel Mockbee. In life, Samuel Mockbee was a creator, an educator, and life-improver. In death, and now immortalized on film, he is an inspiration of hope and a reminder that we can all do our part to make the world a better place.
Citizen Architect has it’s world premiere Wednesday, March 17th at 7:45 at the Alamo Ritz and screens again Saturday, March 20th, 10:00pm at the Alamo Ritz.
AUSTIN DAZE: Who is Sam Mockbee?
SAM WAINWRIGHT DOUGLAS: Samuel Mockbee, who went by “Sambo”, was an architect, born and raised in Mississippi. He came of age during the Civil Rights struggle and realized that there was a lot of injustice around where he grew up and he always wanted to do something about that–to right some wrongs. He became an architect and in the 90s while teaching at Auburn University came up with this idea of taking architecture students out to rural parts of Alabama where there are a lot of communities in need and having these students design and build their architecture-to have them design and build homes for these communities. In order for them to get to know the people they are working with he had them live there for a semester, sometimes a year, and get immersed in the context and the place and let that inform what they were designing and building. The program, which became known as the Rural Studio, not only provided needed shelter that’s beautiful and striking and nurturing, but the students were having an experience where they were bitten with the passion for making the world a better place. And Sambo knew that at that young age such an experience would stay with them forever and they would continue to look for opportunities in their lives to do other things like this and would come out with so much confidence because they designed and built something for someone who loved and appreciated it.
AD: It’s amazing to think that now the idea of sustainable living is pretty much everywhere but back then it was such a radical idea.
SWD: His program really picked up a wave of sustainable design and putting social responsibility into your work and now 10/15 years later, it’s a big deal. When he started there were, I think ,7 or 8 programs at universities and now there are over 40 doing this work. It started a real ripple effect and has just really influenced a lot of people. He got a MacArthur Genius Award for doing this kind of work and he was just a real charismatic guy who people gravitated towards.
AD: How did you get involved in this project?
SWD: Sambo was a family friend. My dad was an architect and they did work together in the 80s. I grew up in Houston and he was around occasionally. I was in college when he started doing the Rural Studio and he took us out there one time and I experienced one of these buildings and just couldn’t believe that this fantastic house insulated with hay and made out of tar paper and donated wood, way out in the middle of nowhere, was designed for this couple that normally an architect would never work for. Sambo wanted to make architecture democratic and not only for the top 1%.
I found Sambo very inspiring. I was very green at the time, didn’t have much experience and no cache to raise money but I did some interviews. Before he passed away, he wanted me to meet this guy Jay Sanders who was teaching down there. Jay had been running around with a video camera shooting some cool stuff and thought that we would really get along and wanted us to meet and try and do something. Unfortunately, the first time Jay and I met was at Sambo’s funeral. We just decided to do it; to just make it happen. We didn’t have any money but I was going to make it. It was a real labor of love.
AD: Rural studio continues. Tell us about that.
SWD: The present state of the Rural Studio is in the film and we shoot a bunch of their projects and follow up with Andrew Freear who is the current director. He has really kept the thing going. The Rural Studio still does beautiful residences and has also expanded into doing huge community projects: massive community park with baseball fields and soccer fileds and skate ramps, churches, fire departments, playgrounds and heritage towers-it just goes on and on. It’s amazing.
AD: You can’t imagine anyone finding anything negative about what Sam did or his program. And yet there is criticism. Can you tell us what you found along the way? Was there any validity to it?
SWD: I think there has been criticism that “Oh, these students come into this community and they dictate what these people want and they just build a house and don’t really get the input.” And that’s completely not true. These great relationships form between the clients and the students and it’s very reciprocal. And they really do get to know the place. I think Sambo used to get criticism that he was anesthetizing poverty. Which is a pretty bold statement and not true as well. He really respected everybody he worked for and worked with and saw the nobility in everyone despite where they fall on the economic spectrum. In the film, Sambo says, “A lot of people criticize that I’m doing this well come on down and see and I guarantee nobody leaves without a smile on their face.” I think that’s true. I think there are people in the architectural world that can see it as paternalistic but in a lot of ways I think that is a rationalization for not doing anything. Sambo and his team went in there and did things in a gracious and respectful way.
AD: You knew your subject for a long time. As a filmmaker, was there anything you were surprised to learn either about Sam or the project itself that you weren’t expecting?
SWD: I went into it knowing I wanted to show a project from start to finish and see the relationships that form between the client and students. Music Man, (a client) was perfect for that-he’s fun and gracious and was living in abject poverty. His water was rain water that he would have to boil to get it sterile. His walls were crumbling around him. Despite all that he had this enormous zeal for life. So that was eye opening for the students and eye opening for me while doing the film. To think of this guy with this great attitude despite some of the hardships in his life, I think it really humbles you and makes you happy for everyday. It makes you want to have that reaction or and give that to other people around you-to be able to make them feel good.
The basic heart of this project for me since I’m not an architect, I’m a filmmaker, really boils down to the fact that Sambo was a really talented guy who wanted to use his skills and talent to make the world a better place and he did it and he inspired a whole wave of people to do it and I think that’s beautiful. We need more people like that and I wanted to share that with people. It’s that simple, universal message.
So many documentaries these days are so negative-they are about how awful our food is, how the water is going to kill us, and how we are all doomed. I think a lot of these movies are well made and are well meaning but I don’t see them offering much hope or solutions. Tackling systemic poverty in the deep south is a major hurdle to take on and here is a guy that did it and inspired others to and made a difference. People can make a difference so don’t give up.
AD: What’s next for you?
SWD: I really want to do a film on the first wave of American land artists. In the late 60s and early 70s these were people who were painters and sculptors that left the gallery setting and wanted to work with land and rock and earth and natural materials on large scales. They wanted to create sculptures that weren’t just objects but formed a piece of art with the sky and the mountains around them. They did amazing huge works–Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson in Salt Lake; Michael Heizer has a piece called Double Negative in Nevada. There is an artist named James Turrell who has been building this piece called Roden Crater for the past 30 years. They are all just phenomenal. The ambition they have to create this sublime experience is pretty amazing.
I also want to do a film on Texas dance halls and the culture and the food and the sense of community there. I think a lot of people don’t know that they still exist.
AD: And what’s the plan for this film?
SWD: Our world premiere is at SXSW. We have some other festivals come up and then we are going to have a national broadcast on PBS this summer. We are booking screenings at museums and universities theaters. We just want to get it out there as much as possible.
AD: Have any SXSW picks?
SWD: There is film called the Happy Poet about this guy trying to open up a vegan/vegetarian food stand and having to compete with hot dogs stands. It’s really hilarious and looks gorgeous. There’s a good movie called Lovers of Hate-it’s a good thriller with some comic edge to it. There is a great feature called Mars, by Geoff Marslett that’s animated and Geoff is an incredible animator and apparently this film has a whole new style of animation. Those are all Austin filmmakers. We have a lot of good people here. This town is kicking butt when it comes to making films.
AD: Tell us a little bit about the Austin “kick butt” film community.
SWD: There is a really talented and motivated strong community here. People work on each others’ films, they recommend people for each others’ films and go see each others’ films, and give feedback and comment. And everyone is just really warm and supportive and open. And it’s easy to get to know everyone that is doing good work here. We have a film school here where a lot of great people teach. We’ve got great directors like Richard Linklater who started the Austin Film Society. They give grants and put on screenings for feedback and program Austin Studios and so they are kind of the backbone of the film industry here and a place that people meet-the lifeline of what is going on. There is really a strong creative class of people here and they get things done.