William Greaves at
the Department
of Special Collections, UCLA

DAVID STERRITT: You have. You certainly have. What do you think ultimately was Bunche's most important contribution? It's a little different from what I asked before about what was the entry point for you.

WILLIAM GREAVES: Well, he is probably best known for his successful negotiation of four armistice agreements between Israel and her Arab neighbors, the thing that got him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. This was a milestone for the United Nations and, as a result, Bunche came to personify the spirit of the United Nations and the aspirations of all people for a peaceful world. In his Mount Tremblant, Quebec, speech he talked about the right of all people, irrespective of caste, class, religion or race, to "walk with dignity along the world's great boulevards." He came to be called "Mr. UN" because he worked consistently and effectively to empower the United Nations and advance its mission in the world. The most important contribution was probably the key role he played which helped to facilitate the peaceful transition of much of the colonized world into politically independent states.


As the Director of the UN Trusteeship Division, he set up the procedures that helped to make this possible and, even before that, he was instrumental in drafting the chapters of the UN Charter that laid out the basic principles of self-determination of all peoples. That document formed the legal groundwork for the decolonization of more than one third of the world. He is also considered to be the father of UN peacekeeping, because of the principles and techniques he pioneered in peacekeeping and in conflict resolution and peacemaking are still in use today by the United Nations and other international groups.

If I can add one more major contribution made by Bunche, it would be the fact that, in facilitating the emergence of the developing world as players in the international scene, and infusing some of the principles of the American Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence into the UN Charter, he helped to create a climate worldwide which was sympathetic to the American Civil Rights movement and permitted leaders like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer and others to function with a degree of impunity. This international pressure, with the eyes of the world focused on what was going on in America and its widespread racism, meant that Civil Rights could no longer be ignored by the federal government. America had to show the world, and especially the newly independent nations of the third world, that it was a reasonably democratic nation, one that they could deal with when they started talking trade with these nations. So this pressure certainly encouraged America to live up to its stated creed. I hope I've said enough.

DAVID STERRITT: To switch gears a bit, how does one go about planning, organizing a production like this-- not just in logistical terms -- but in conceptual terms -- "We're going to communicate so and so..., and at the end of this whole process we're going to have a film which conveys this information ." How does one go about planning and organizing all this?

WILLIAM GREAVES: Well, it’s a daunting task. One resigns oneself to very hard work. It’s all uphill. From start to finish. The research alone was an immense job. Fortunately, Sir Brian Urquhart’s new biography on Bunche was invaluable. I don’t see how we could have handled such complex political, diplomatic and historical material without this extraordinarily well-documented book and, of course, access to Urquhart himself, who was our chief advisor on the project, for crucial advice. In addition, we had a great team of scholars who met with us in person and went over the script with a fine-tooth comb. But no matter how much work goes into the scripting phase, and this is especially true of a documentary, it’s just a guide. I call it a bible. At best, we hoped to find a through line, a basic theme or premise for the film. Frankly, a documentary film is put together in the editing room. That’s the real world. After all is said and done, what audio visual materials do we actually have to work with? What archival footage, photos, newspaper clippings, maps did we find? How did the various interviews turn out? What’s the photographic quality of these various elements? There’s an infinite number of variables, permutations and combinations of images and sounds that you can use or not use. So you experiment and look for the most creative solutions. But in the final analysis, -- this is my personal experience -- having tried various alternatives and reflected on the results, agonized over them and lost a considerable amount of sleep trying to solve what in effect are a series of differential cinematic equations, one has to pull back, relax, take a deep breath, and just go with your intuition. You know what I mean? Forget the intellectualizing -- does this montage go with that sequence, or do we cut from here to there? Put Eisenstein and his excellent theories of film montage aside. You have all the information you need stored in your brain. How do you feel about it? Where are the mountain peaks? What is really paramount here? Which shots affect you on a visceral level? For example, the shot of Bunche’s grandmother, a very proper-looking lady, standing with her coat and hat on. Then we cut to the long shot of Bunche, a teenager holding a basketball, and he's annoyed about being discriminated against in a scholastic contest. You know, he’s on the verge of quitting school and his friends are waiting for him on the basketball court. But his grandmother stands there and you know she wants him to go back to school. And she stops him in his tracks.

Filming Archival Materials

I mean, that's the metaphor that I'm using for this sequence. The right visual metaphor will help you understand what’s happening on a subtextual level. So here is Bunche with this basketball, and there is Nana standing there -- this is Eisenstein here -- and intercutting between these images, the confrontation between the two of them is intense. That moment in the Bunche story of his grandmother stopping him from quitting school moved me tremendously, and I said, "If I can set up the action and the events that lead up to this encounter, it could be quite dramatic, powerful." We were able to arrange the sequences that immediately preceded it in such a way that you are really depressed that this talented kid is going to give up his studies, but then you see this determined, wise woman who stands in his path.