THE BACKDROP for Boulder Creek documentarian Bob Gliner's work is invariably someplace undergoing jarring social change: Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, Macedonia and, yes, even Silicon Valley.
A 16-week retrospective of Gliner's work is airing currently on consecutive Saturdays on Community Television. The hour-long documentaries represent the bulk of the San Jose State sociology professor's work since he began exploring the documentary form in 1984.
"I started doing this because I think documentaries can reflect better what's going on than print media," Gliner says. "If I wrote a journal article, for example, maybe only 500 or 1,000 people would read it; with television, you never know who's watching."
Gliner's films are low-budget and topical. He lets his pictures and subjects tell their own stories, and the results are raw, intimate portraits of everyday life. Because he parachutes into societies in flux and turns around his films quickly, Gliner creates works that feel more like in-depth news than art and are best viewed fresh out of the editing room. Nevertheless, his body of work grows increasingly valuable as his various subjects recur in the news.
As thousands of Kosovar refugees pour into Macedonia and threaten to disrupt the delicate ethnic balance there, Gliner's 1995 What About Macedonia? once again has become topical and perhaps even a little prophetic. It will be re-fed to public television stations nationally this week and will air locally on Channel 72 this Saturday at 8pm.
When Gliner was there four years ago, Macedonia had achieved a sort of ethnic détente, its visible efforts to integrate its Turk and Albanian minorities a stark contrast to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
But the Macedonian political economy was fragile then, as it is now. Gliner saw a skilled workforce reporting to work in idle Communist-era state-run factories and struggling to make the transition to some semblance of a market economy.
Now Macedonia is faced with a massive refugee influx when its own people subsist on the equivalent of $950 per year. Should ethnic strife spread into Macedonia, it would quite literally put the conflict on the doorstep of Greece and Turkey.
"Greece and Turkey are NATO members," Gliner says; "that's how this thing could explode."
Gliner films his documentaries in closed societies often without official permission. Russia: Off the Record and Viet Nam: At the Crossroads were filmed this way. Filming without permission means not having an ominous government escort and often leads to more honest and insightful interviews. Getting out of the country with the film is sometimes a problem, however. After filming in Vietnam, a communist customs agent seized Gliner's videos and watched them. Since he hadn't rewound the tape, all the official saw was b-roll, the touristy, scenic shots Gliner took for use in the final cut. Convinced there was nothing controversial on the tape, he let Gliner leave Hanoi.
All of Gliner's work was produced locally and originally aired on KTEH-54 in San Jose. Other titles in the series include Cuba on Its Own Terms, Defending America: The Price We Pay and Jamaica, No Problem.
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