Maureen Gosling (left) is currently finishing a documentary about the life and times of Oakland jazz and blues singer Barbara Dane (right). Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland filmmaker Maureen Gosling has spent her entire career capturing the lives of people so deeply embedded in their culture that their self-expression seems to spring from the ground itself. But looking back at her path, and her fateful rendezvous with legendary documentarian Les Blank, Gosling is most struck by the fact that her journey started with a series of unlikely circumstances and decisions.

The world of documentary film would be far poorer had she not followed that delicate chain, which led to her playing an essential role on dozens of movies as sound recorder, editor, writer, and eventually director. It’s been 50 years since the release of Blank and Gosling’s bayou companion pieces about Creole music’s Fontenot and Ardoin families, Bois Sec (Dry Wood), and Zydeco king Clifton Chenier, Hot Pepper, Gosling’s first cinematic achievements. 

Since then Gosling has crafted a series of extraordinary documentary adventures, including following Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski up the Amazon for 1982’s classic Burden of Dreams, and gaining the trust of the often sensationalized people of Juchitán, Oaxaca for 2000’s Blossoms of Fire, which marked her directorial debut. 

Her filmography brims with singular studies capturing communal expression and individuals obsessed with creative pursuits, both in the kitchen and on the bandstand. She didn’t experience any similar kind of epiphany as a young woman, though Gosling credits a college boyfriend at the University of Michigan with introducing her to the wonders of art house cinema in the late 1960s.

“I was obsessed with going to all the European films, Buñuel, Antonioni, Fellini, something that was left over from this boyfriend,” she recalled. “He said he wanted to be a film director, and it’s funny to think that’s where I ended up.”

In many ways, Gosling and Chris Simon’s 2013 portrait of Arhoolie Records’ indefatigable roots music champion Chris Strachwitz, This Ain’t No Mouse Music!, paved the way for the film she’s immersed in now. Toiling away in her office at the Fantasy Building in West Berkeley, she’s honing a rough cut of a feature documentary exploring the life and revolutionary times of 94-year-old Oakland jazz and blues vocalist Barbara Dane, The Nine Lives of Barbara Dane

Jed Riffe, Gosling’s filmmaking partner for the past 15 years, is the film’s producer. With Dane’s daughter Nina Menendez serving as archivist and Danny Glover as executive producer, Gosling has been able to focus on shoots capturing Dane in her element on stage at Freight & Salvage and in Cuba, while including tangents about her creative clan.  

“Nina amassed a treasure trove of photographs, recordings, videos, and letters,” Gosling said. “There are these incredible letters and correspondence from people like Marcel Marceau, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie, who sent her a telegram saying ‘Kill it, Barbara!’ There are so many chapters to her story. It’s hard to piece it all together.” 

Joining Clifton Chenier, Werner Herzog, Flaco Jiménez and Lydia Mendoza, the Dane documentary adds another portrait of a singular artist to Gosling’s gallery, an oeuvre that was ignited by a film festival advertisement in a movie magazine. 

As a film-besotted undergrad in Ann Arbor, Gosling had designed her own major focusing on social anthropology. One afternoon she happened to pick up a film magazine while sitting in on a cinema class that a friend was taking. Flipping through the pages she came across an ad for an ethnographic film festival at Temple University. She still sounds surprised that she ended up attending. 

“The person I was supposed to go with canceled at the last minute, but I figured what the hell and drove down by myself,” she said. “At that conference Les Blank showed films he’d made and I thought they were beautiful and poetic. I got my nerve up to talk to him and he got my address to send me some reviews. I found out later he liked to do that with pretty young women he met.”

About eight months later, she ran into Blank at an anthropology conference in New York City and surprised herself again by telling him she’d like to be his assistant, “though I had no idea what that meant,” she said. 

Her timing turned out to be impeccable. Depressed about the breakup of his marriage, Blank was considering scrapping a planned filming trip to Louisiana. But a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts came through and Gosling convinced him to proceed. She flew to Los Angeles to meet up with him and cameraman Sean Malone and they set out for Cajun country “in Les’s funky white van,” Gosling said. “I knew I couldn’t turn back.” 

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As a total novice, Gosling faced trial by carnival. Malone gave her quick instruction on using a Nagra shotgun microphone and she spent her first day hustling to keep up amidst the celebratory chaos of Black French Mardi Gras. Shooting from 6 am to 2 a.m., “he started the day chasing chickens, filming the whole ritual of people riding from house to house gathering up chickens to make a big gumbo,” she recalled. 

“Les said, we’re looking for the golden moment,” recalled Gosling. “I had seen his films and I knew what he meant, observing the beautiful nonverbal communication between people.” 

After six weeks of shooting they returned to Los Angeles and Blank decided to keep Gosling in the Flower Films fold, training her as an assistant editor. The plan was to head back to California, but they ended up in Oklahoma, where they spent two years documenting Leon Russell in his recording studio as his career blossomed. The resulting documentary, A Poem Is a Naked Person, took on a mythic aura as four decades of legal entanglements prevented it from being screened unless Blank was in attendance (his son, Harrold Blank, finally nailed down clearances that allowed it to be released on screened and released on DVD in 2015). 

By the early 1990s Blank was burnt out on the grind of raising funds and making films and Gosling was looking for other opportunities. Recruited to work on a film about the indigenous Zapotec people of Juchitán in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, she threw herself into the new project. On the first trip to Juchitán they did pre-interviews on a hi-8 camera and ended up cutting a 15-minute film for fundraising, Skirt Full of Butterflies

There are few places that time moves more slowly than in the world of documentary, where it’s not unusual for a film to spend a decade in intermittent production while the producers try to scrape together funding from grants, friends and over-extended credit cards. By the time Gosling, co-director Ellen Osborne and their Mexican crew got back to Juchitán, people there were newly outraged by a sensationalized article in Elle magazine that reported erroneously on many cultural practices in the matriarchal culture “and they associated us with the magazine,” Gosling said. “We were constantly putting out fires. This is something that’s happened to them many times over the generations, outside people come in with this idea of who they are. We made it part of the film.”

When the film’s original producer, worn down by grant rejections, decided to move on, Gosling picked up the project and raised the funds to finish it. 

Released in 2000, Blossoms of Fire premiered to a sold-out audience at the Castro (and Pacific Film Archives) as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Picked up by New Yorker Films for distribution, it won numerous awards and screened around the world. But raising money for new films didn’t get much easier. 

Gosling is still fundraising to finish the film about Dane, but a trailer can be viewed on the Arhoolie Foundation website.