Interview with Jackson Malle '99

Jackson Malle, class of 1999, recently spoke with us about the Willows' influence on his life in and out of school. He also updated us on his dissertation, which he's about to submit for review, and his debut film, which he expects to finish next year. 

What do you remember of the school’s early days? The thing that I remember most is playing with the other members of our small, tightknit class. Because the class-size was so small, and we all more or less participated in the same activities, I got to know everyone very well. I also remember going to the local park for physical education before they enlarged The Willows campus, which was nice because we got to experience the neighborhood and watch it grow along with the school, itself a vital member of the community. Most of my memories are of simply being with my classmates and teachers whether it was outside or inside the classroom, the park or music class, recording songs or playing dodge ball. Lastly, I would characterize the school at the time as being in progress, constantly trying to be better and to engage with the student body in the attempt to mutually create something amazing. So, in the early days it felt like a project, something that was in the works and being refined or honed by Lisa, the rest of the staff, and even the students themselves. In short, everyone was actively contributing to this greater unfinished process called The Willows.

What are your fondest memories of Willows? My fondest memory of the Willows is probably our production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" when I got the chance to play Atticus Finch. It was tremendous fun rehearsing with the other members of my class and staging the play, simultaneously learning all the aspects of a theater production as well as the craft of acting. I remember thinking it was funny that many of my classmates’ parents (including my own) were in the entertainment industry, which made it seem as though there was an added significance or weight on our shoulders to put on a good show. So, we all worked hard and took it very seriously. I remember memorizing my lines and running through scenes with classmates, which was a ton of fun as it culminated into the final production. I have many fond memories of expressing myself artistically and musically, doing arts and crafts and also playing in the school band. I played bass and saxophone at the time so it was incredible to get to incorporate my hobbies at home with the things I was learning and doing at school. I think that is a part of the holistic, all encompassing approach at The Willows where students learn to be imaginative young people that also have a work ethic and academic interest instilled in them—a way to have fun while enriching yourself as a person not just through subjects like math and science but also in art, music, and sports.

How has the Willows shaped your personal and professional lives? What about The Willows’ education has stayed with you? The previous two questions allude what the Willows meant to me as I developed into a young adult, but I want to emphasize that the man I am today is the result of my time at The Willows where a sense of self-confidence was instilled in me along with a feeling that I could make a valuable contribution not only to the school, but to the world broadly. These feelings began to come out in me during a summer program at The Willows where I explored creative writing with six or seven of my classmates. We wrote poetry and short stories, which we would share and workshop with others. Upon rereading several of my poems from that time, many of the themes include self-discovery and the feeling of working through some sort of blockage or inner turmoil. I came to The Willows from another school in Hollywood that was not a fit with my needs, learning style, or personality as a small child. I had a very difficult time there, which was reflected in my lackluster scholastic performance, and I feel like The Willows took a chance on me. I was not reading at the level I should have been and had some difficulty socializing with other children in large classes. In short, I needed the attention of faculty and access to resources at a more individual level. The Willows made me feel more confident in myself because of their ability to work individually and take every student on a case-by-case basis. I learned to take pride in my work both academic and creative, and also that I was a unique, cool and interesting person that people wanted to get to know and interact with. In essence, I grew up during my time at The Willows and became the person I am today due to the tenets of self-confidence and a feeling that I have a voice of my own. This is something that I continue to think about due to my recent experiences teaching undergraduate students at the university level where I strive to ascertain each and every student’s needs in order to adapt my teaching style to best suit them.

You’re working on your PhD in sociocultural anthropology. What inspired you to become an anthropologist? The first thing that inspired me to become an anthropologist was a conversation that I had with my godfather on the eve of my graduation from high school. My godfather is an academic, the chair of an English department, so he is familiar with both the discipline of anthropology and the university context. He asked me at my graduation party what I was interested in studying. I responded by listing a few of my interests including art, music, religion, spirituality, food and cooking, film, and European culture. He responded by saying that it sounded to him like I was interested in culture and human expression, therefore I should take an introductory class in cultural anthropology. The university I attended, UC Santa Cruz, had an excellent program at the time, so my first semester I took introduction to cultural anthropology. I fell in love with the class and began to study with my professor. She became my mentor who guided me through four years and prompted my bachelor’s thesis, which was my first experience with anthropological fieldwork of my own. In short, my upbringing in a bicultural household between Los Angeles and Paris coupled with my experiences abroad instilled a curiosity for culture that extends to my academic pursuits in anthropology. I received a bachelor's degree in cultural anthropology from UC Santa Cruz focused on the anthropology of food, culminating in an ethnographic project of the local organic farmer’s market and burgeoning Slow Food movement. I spent twelve weeks in 2007 conducting participant observation and in-depth interviews in order to analyze the experiences of local farmers. I concluded that it is a fusion of farming practice, rebellion, identity, and an activist responsibility to defend the wellbeing of the consumer and the environment that motivates them. During this time, my interests began to coalesce around environmentalism and the dynamic between state, federal, and supranational regulatory agencies. My graduate work in the Master’s program of French Studies with an emphasis on anthropology at New York University enabled me to both expand and hone my knowledge of the EU. I developed a rich background in history, economics, politics, and anthropology to anchor fieldwork in Europe. The final semester of the program was held in Paris during which time I did ethnographic research in Malakoff, a suburb of Paris in 2008. I conducted a life history based on multiple interviews with an elderly French resident to capture how individuals respond to processes of gentrification and structural violence attributed to a rising middle class. My fieldwork experience, undertaken in French, reinforced my scholarly interests and gave me the confidence to pursue similar projects in the future, which have crystallized in the doctoral program at SUNY Binghamton.

What is your dissertation on? How did you come to this topic? My dissertation is about the culture of film production. I conducted a year of ethnographic fieldwork among film productions in Los Angeles, New York, and Paris. I observed how film people—directors, screenwriters, producers, and actors—make movies and how they interact with one another in the context of a film shoot. In other words, I describe and analyze what the social relations are between these individuals, the labor that they engage in, and the culture of expertise that underpins their participation in the making of movies. This is an interesting project and one that is very personal to me because of the fact that I grew up in Hollywood and interacted with many of the same kinds of people that I encountered for my dissertation, an excellent opportunity for me to combine my passions for film and anthropology.

Here is my official dissertation abstract: My project is an ethnography of the making of a film from the perspective of catering chefs, producers, directors, and actors—an anthropological study of a contemporary “tribe” of moviemakers. Food and cooking were my points of entry into the world of film production. My ethnography contributes to a dearth in the existing scholarship by providing a behind-the-scenes look at the social organization, rules, cultures, norms, and purposes sited in a particular film production. Hence, my project is not about an anthropologist going to the movies, it is about the involvement in the making of movies: the study of filmmaking, not films. I also depart from existing scholarship in the centrality of food and cooking in my account due to my positionality as a catering chef, an active participant in moviemaking implicated in the ethnographic story, rather than a detached observer. The chapters to follow address the extent to which the making of movies is reliant on collaborative interpersonal networks sustained by intellectual and material architectures. The crux of my fieldwork is immersion in a specific “site”—the iterant mobile village within which a movie is made, divided into hundreds of “locations” or mini-sites–and the day-to-day operations that take place there. A recurring argument is that gastronomy and moviemaking are fascinatingly parallel concepts, anchored in notions of creativity, technicality, expertise, taste, and aesthetics.

What do you hope to do with your research? Do you see yourself staying in academia or moving into another field? Do you have advice for Willows students and alumni interested in academic research? We will see what happens in this particularly tense economic environment and highly competitive moment in academia, but I would love to continue to teach. Teaching is another passion of mine as I alluded to in my reflection on the effect that the Willows has had on my sense of self and my teaching philosophy. I would wholeheartedly encourage any and all Willows students to continue into advanced education at whatever level in whatever field. However, I caution that the road is long and the work rigorous. So, before making the decision to continue after college, you must be one hundred per cent sure that you are passionate enough about the subject and engaged enough mentally to see the arduous process through. You also have to be ready to sacrifice—time, money, social life, family, yourself—to the pursuit of the degree, and be able to put things aside if need be. It is difficult, and there are many moments where you question whether it is all worth it, but trust me it is and you are better off for the journey. When did you become interested in film? What filmmakers and films have inspired you? Does your film relate to your academic work? I have always been interested in film due to my family’s involvement in it: my mother is an actress and a director, my father was a producer, and many members of my extended family including my siblings were or continue to be in theater, film, and television. However, I have never worked in the medium myself until my recent experiences. I preferred to seek my own path, and an academic career always seemed more of an interesting and fulfilling prospect. My life, however, has come full circle as I find myself involved in film, only from a different angle. Documentary film is something I have always been interested in and it is a field that shares many commonalities with cultural anthropology. Ethnographic films are very much in the same vein as mainstream documentaries including those of Alex Gibney and Davis Guggenheim, whose work I have been inspired by. Because my ethnographic fieldwork situates me in the world of film production, I have learned things about moviemaking that I can apply to the other side of the camera, which is something I tried to play with in my recent documentary project.

Tell us about your film. How did you come up with your idea? How did you start turning that idea into a film? What’s your plan for the film? What’s your goal? My younger cousin approached me this past January with the idea, something he had been thinking about for years. We began to talk about and develop it until we eventually decided to shoot it ourselves. There was a sense of urgency because many of the people we wanted to interview happen to be in the later stages of their life, so we wanted to be sure to have access to them as reservoirs of archival information at the crux of our film. We filmed for ten days in the village where our French family comes from, focused on the industrial sugar beet production that was family-held for four generations. The north of France is ideal for the cultivation of sugar beets and our family’s farm was the largest. The documentary is essentially about the dynamic between the factory, the town, and the members of our family who were part of a complex reciprocal relationship known as paternalism, where benefactor CEO-type figures are entangled in family-like relationships with their employees. Everything is provided by wealthy patrons in positions of power including healthcare, education, municipal facilities, and housing. It is this relationship that we explore using interviews and archival footage of former factory workers, union organizers, administrators, and historians. It is a brilliantly executed film on the part of my cousin and something that I hope to share with everybody soon as he continues to edit. The plan is to find a French distributor and/or co-producer to maximize the exposure to the documentary and support our drive to get it into various European film festivals. At its worst, it is a visual tour of the region and the people who inhabit picturesque villages, many of which harken back to a prior time in the industrial history of France.
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