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When William McKenna moved here from Connecticut seven years ago, he wasn’t going to be a filmmaker.
“To be honest, I was going to get the hell out of the business,” says the 40-year-old video editor and rock songwriter. “Around 1990, I was getting thoroughly discouraged. I decided I had to find something else to do with my life. That’s when I started devoting more of my time to playing music.” After struggling for several years as a musician, however, McKenna “chased this girlfriend of mine down to D.C.” Once here, he “fell in love with video editing again.”
Now, McKenna edits news-video footage for the BBC, Reuters Television, and PBS’s Newshour, as well as entertainment and sports programs. He also works for America’s Black Forum, which is syndicated to more than 70 TV stations nationwide. The latter connection led to Black Olympians: A Golden Legacy, one of two documentaries that will be screened in a showcase of the filmmaker’s work this Saturday at 2 p.m. at Visions Cinema & Bistro.
An America’s Black Forum special, Black Olympians traces the history of African-American Olympic athletes from William DeHart Hubbard, who competed in Paris in 1924, to the group of Olympians that was about to depart for Sydney when the 45-minute program first aired in August. Narrated by sportscaster James Brown, the documentary features such notables as Jesse Owens, whose prowess in Berlin in 1936 challenged Hitler’s racism, and John Carlos and Tommy Smith, who outraged conservative Americans with a Black Power salute in Mexico City in 1968.
“I was strictly the editor on that,” allows McKenna of Black Olympians, “but the producer saw how hard I was working on it, and he gave me a producer credit.”
The other film is one that McKenna directed, Breathing Together, an impressionistic 30-minute portrait of the String Orchestra of New York City (SONYC). The documentary shows the members of the 22-musician troupe rehearsing Chris Theofanidis’ Visions and Miracles, a contemporary piece that sounds like a cross between Steve Reich and Aaron Copland, and discussing their approach to music. “It’s like an expanded string quartet,” McKenna explains, “and they work without a conductor.”
The source of the film’s title is a player’s remark on how the orchestra performs together: “It’s one gesture, one breathing.”
A member of SONYC saw some of McKenna’s short films at the New York International Independent Film Festival a year ago and asked if he’d be interested in documenting the troupe. “I was very keen on it,” the filmmaker says, “because I’ve developed a love of classical music over the last 10 to 15 years, and what they are working on is pretty inspiring.”
McKenna continues to write, compose songs, and develop film and video projects. Recently, he’s written scripts for short fiction films and auditioned some actors; he wants to make another documentary. He’s also working on “personal-essay-style art films.”
“Maybe I need to be more focused and spend more time on one particular thing,” he says, “but that doesn’t really matter to me. I’m enjoying myself.” Mark Jenkins