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Robert M. Young, filmmaker who indulged his wanderlust, dies at 99

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Robert M. Young, an eclectic director whose documentary subjects included civil rights sit-ins and sharks, and whose feature films included one about a Mexican American farmer who kills a Texas lawman and another about a woman who takes revenge of his attacker, died on February 6. in Los Angeles. He was 99 years old.

The death, which occurred in hospital, was confirmed by his son Andrew.

In an interview with Directors Guild of America in 2005, Mr. Young recalled what drew him to cinema.

“I wanted to be in life,” he said. “I wanted to have adventures, I wanted to live in the world.”

He largely achieved this ambition.

In the 1950s, he made educational films with two partners, including “Secrets of the Reef” (1956), an underwater documentary made at Marineland Studios in Florida and on a reef near the Bahamas, which chronicled life cycles octopuses, seahorses. , lobsters, jellyfish and manta rays.

In 1960, he was hired by NBC News for its new documentary series, “White paper.” That year he directed “Sit-In” about black students whose protests led to the desegregation of downtown Nashville lunch counters. The following year he worked on a report on the Angolan war of independence against Portugal, for which he traveled hundreds of kilometers with the Angolan rebels. The Portuguese government was not satisfied with the report.

“They filed a formal protest,” Mr. Young told American Film magazine in 1982, “and said that if I ever went to Portugal, I would be tried.”

Days before the show aired, he said, NBC forced him to cut footage of the fragments of two American-made napalm bombs that had been dropped on Angolans.

His latest project for “White Paper” concerned a poor family, the Capras, living in a slum in Palermo, Sicily. But NBC pulled it days before it aired in May 1962. The problem was obviously editorial liberties taken by Mr. Young and his co-producer, Michael Roemer, including the decision to stage a scene in which the central character seemed being in labor, which the network says violates its journalistic standards.

Mr Young said he staged the scene because he was leaving Italy before the woman gave birth; his solution was to add a warning. He refused NBC’s requests for changes and was fired.

Mr. Young believed that NBC had destroyed the negative, but that someone had surreptitiously made copies, which were shown at film schools and festivals. His son Andrew and his wife, Susan Todd, produced an updated documentary, “Children of Destiny: Life and death in a Sicilian family” (1993), on four generations of Capras, which intersperses images from his father’s film.

Mr. Young followed up his cinematic wanderlust with a documentary series for the National Film Board of Canada on the lives of the Netsilik indigenous people in this desolate territory that we now call the territory of Nunavut.

Mr. Young was one of several camera operators on the 24-part series and the director of “The Eskimos: Fight for Life”, which he filmed on the ice floe during a winter camp in Netsilik for several weeks. It won an Emmy Award after airing on CBS in 1970.

“Early Eskimo filmmakers used zoom lenses and tripods,” Mr. Young told American Film. “They were trying to become anthropologists and stayed behind. What they got were profiles. But when a man looked at his wife, I wanted to see her face and her face. I would shoot up close. I used cameras like the Eskimos used the harpoon.

Robert Milton Young was born on November 22, 1924 in the Bronx. His father, Al, was a film editor who in the 1920s helped found DuArt Film Laboratories, which processed and printed feature films, documentaries, newsreels, television news footage, and commercials . His mother, Ann (Sperber) Young, ran the household.

At his father’s urging, Bob studied chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to prepare him for a career at DuArt. He entered MIT at age 16, but did not like his classes and dropped out in late 1942, during his sophomore year, to enlist in the Navy. He joined the photographic unit and filmed behind the scenes for two years in New Guinea and the Philippines.

After his release, Mr. Young resumed his education at Harvard, where he studied English literature and made his first film, about a turtle crossing a road. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1949.

Mr. Young began working in feature films in 1964 as director of photography for “Nothing but a Man,” directed by Mr. Roemer, about a black couple (Ivan Dixon And Lincoln Abbey) dealing with racism in the Deep South.

In 1977, after working on several National Geographic specials, he directed “Short Eyes”, a prison drama adapted from Miguel Pineroand “Alambrista!” “, the fictional story of a Mexican man who illegally crosses the border into the United States to earn money to support his wife and young daughter.

John J. O’Connor from the New York Times rented Mr. Young’s use of documentary techniques to convey the frustrations his protagonist encounters in his quest for a better life. “Mr. Young,” he wrote“captured, with breathtaking freshness, an old, old story of almost unbearable pain. »

“Alambrist!” » won the Caméra d’Or for best first feature film at the Cannes Film Festival.

Edward James Olmos, who had a small role in “Alambrista!” », was producer and star of “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” (1982). He hired Mr. Young to direct the film, based on the true story of a farm worker fleeing a 1901 manhunt after killing a sheriff in Gonzales, Texas.

“Bob Young is to me obviously one of the best, if not the best, American filmmakers we’ve ever had,” Mr. Olmos said. wrote in A.Frame, the digital publication of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in 2019. “But we don’t all know that.”

“The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2022. “Alambrista!” was added in 2023.

Among Mr. Young’s other films were “Dominique and Eugene” (1988), with Ray Liotta and Thomas Hulce as fraternal twins with different mental abilities; “Triumph of the Spirit” (1989), about a Greek-Jewish boxer (played by Willem Dafoe) who fights in matches at Auschwitz, where the film was filmed, for the amusement of his Nazi captors; And “Ends” (1986), which starred Farrah Fawcett like a woman who thwarts a rapist’s attack and takes revenge on him.

After a screening of “Extremities,” Mr. Young recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he saw a woman in the audience crying. She was the victim of a sexual assault, she told him angrily, adding: “That’s not life. In life, women don’t get by.

“I’m not just interested in mirroring life,” he told her. “I want to take people into an experience that can ultimately be enlightening or revelatory.”

He told the wife about his daughter Melissa Young, who had been sexually assaulted for three and a half hours in a Greenwich Village apartment. She couldn’t fight back, he said, but she told him that “she was very proud of herself and for surviving.”

In addition to his son Andrew, Mr. Young is survived by his daughter Melissa and another daughter, Sarah Young, both from his marriage to Ellan Ulery, which ended in divorce in 1975; his wife, Lili (Partridge) Young, whom he married the same year; their sons, Nick and Zack; and nine grandchildren. His brother, Irwinwho died in 2022, led DuArt after their father’s death in 1960 and helped nurture young filmmakers like Spike Lee and Michael Moore.

In 1965, Mr. Young and Peter Gibelheir to the Gimbels department store chain, dove into the waters off eastern Long Island to film a short documentary called “In the World of Sharks.”

They and a third diver descended into a cage designed by Mr. Gimbel. Mr. Young then swam freely outside the cage with a 35-millimeter camera, capturing remarkable close-ups of a school of swirling 12-foot-long great blue sharks, one of which attempted to bite him .

“It could have been a macho movie, but it’s not,” Mr. Young told American Film. A shark hit his camera with its eyeball. Another time, he tried to go to the surface and hit his head on the belly of a shark.

“It was like hitting a waterbed,” he said.

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