Joan Baez I Am A Noise is a documentary as unique, dynamic, and unconventional as its subject.
Directed by Karen O'Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O'Boyle, the film is an unflinching yet nostalgic chronicling of the legendary folk singer's life and career — beginning on the eve of her farewell tour and moving back and forth through time to explore her Quaker upbringing as the daughter of a Mexican and Scottish immigrants — as well as a snapshot of a woman coming to terms with the trauma of her past. Joan Baez I Am Noise also highlights a lifetime of political activism, including Baez's civil rights work alongside Martin Luther King Jr. (She famously performed "We Shall Overcome" at the 1963 March on Washington.)
"In terms of the archive, there was a massive amount. I've never faced that with a project to this degree before, nor had the others," says O'Connor. "Honestly, it was huge. It was a life, 60-plus years of music, activism, and all of it, and then the personal archive. It was incredible."
"We had to ask if we could tell the story without bringing in other voices and just use the primary material," explains Navasky. O'Boyle, who also serves as the film's editor, adds, "We realized the family story was so rich that we could use those voices to create a different perspective — as opposed to bringing in other outside voices. It kept that intimacy alive throughout the film."
A.frame: You rarely see three directors on a documentary project. What did you each bring to the project?
KAREN O'CONNOR: I brought some history with Joan. I have known her for 30-plus years, and that was an opening to [create] this intimate and immersive film. I had a way to talk with and interview Joan that might differentiate it from some of the other's more carefully curated pieces. That set a particular tone.
MAEVE O'BOYLE: I'm an editor by trade and wanted to get more into directing. I wore two hats on this project but mainly brought my storytelling and editing one. I used that as best I could to inform how we were going to direct, cover, and tell the story as we did. We also edited as we went along, so we talked about it, changed it, and shifted it as things progressed.
MIRI NAVASKY: Karen brought a vast amount of trust, and there's no way we could have done the film without that. It was a huge thing, and then Maeve brought this ability to go back and forth through time, making the present come as alive as the past seamlessly using stunning editing. I didn't know that much about Joan, so it was nice to have that outside perspective that I brought. I am an obsessive archive person and was a history major, and Joan had tons of journals, letters, and audio tapes, so I dived into those primary materials, plus her artwork. I was reading and going through that stuff obsessively and maybe even to an annoying degree.
For someone who has, at various times in her life, been pretty chaotic and freeform, I was impressed by how neat and well-coordinated Joan's archive was. We see it very briefly in the movie. Did that surprise you?
O'CONNOR: Joan knew none of it, by the way. She didn't know much about it until we took her into this space. Joan knew her family had saved things but had no idea of the extent, so when you talk about it being neat in person, it wasn't thanks to Joan; it was thanks to everyone else around her. In the scene in the film where she goes into the storage unit, it's real. She'd never been in there before and had no idea of the vast personal gold mine that was there.
NAVASKY: There was just so much archive. Her family documented everything. Her father audio-taped stuff, including tons of stuff that gives you a sense of their family. They also kept every single letter, and Joan's mother kept files and organized it.
O'BOYLE: That was a driving force in terms of the narrative arcs in the film, and we utilized the richness of the material to tell the story. We realized we could immerse ourselves in it and make it more immediate. The contemporary interwove with the past, becoming almost present in how they merged.
O'CONNOR: In terms of the heavy lifting of the archive and organizing it, we shared the roles. There was no separate division, and it could be fluid. We all directed, but I did more filming than Miri and Maeve, but any separation had value because there'd be another set of eyes looking at our favorite material. It helped us all make brutal decisions along the way. Regarding the archive, I would say Miri did the heavy lifting.
You mainly operated as a small unit, so I assume the production elements were also relatively lean regarding cameras and lighting, especially in certain intimate scenes with Joan's mother?
O'CONNOR: We didn't use lights at all. All the interviews use natural light. We wanted to be the proverbial fly on the wall in every scene. Even in the concerts, we're not trying to be a concert film, so we're at the side of the stage, backstage, or in the dressing room. Our idea was that we were embedded with Joan on the road and at home, and what would that look like? For the mom scene, it was me and a cameraman. That was it. That is a scene that definitely wouldn't have happened without my relationship with Joan. Her mother and what we call her "final vigil" only came out of the connection we had. The cameraman and I did sound together, so there was nothing else.
You mention the concert footage, which looks great.
O'BOYLE: There was a learning curve.
O'CONNOR: Wolfgang Held was our cameraman who did some of those great shots, and over time, we learned how to shoot those a little more cinematically. We tried to keep it all as naturalistic as possible and still make it as visually interesting as possible.
I loved the use of animation. It can be overused in documentaries and often in uninspired ways. Where did the idea to animate some of Joan's doodles come from?
O'CONNOR: Like you, I was very reluctant about animation. It can take you out of a film, and it's sometimes too much, but Miri and Maeve found a way. Maeve found this amazing Irish animation team called Eat the Danger, and together, they figured out how to make Joan's drawings come alive, rather than animate Joan's drawings per se. They saw it more than I did. At the very beginning, I wasn't sure about that at all.
O'BOYLE: When we found the drawings in the storage unit, there was an incredible trajectory. It spanned her entire life from the age of five, practically all the way up to the present day. There was a narrative arc that naturally existed throughout her art that we could bring to life. We wanted to keep it as close and authentic to Joan's work as possible, and the animators took that very seriously and essentially brought it to life, adhering to the beauty and essence of her work.
NAVASKY: We were worried about showing it to Joan, because it is her artwork. One of the important things to us was the psychological narrative running through the film and how to bring that to life in the same way and depth. Joan is such an intensely creative person that we wanted to be able to slowly capture this creative growth that has existed in her. What the animators also really captured in Joan's work was this playfulness, at the same time when there was dark stuff going on. But that's Joan. She is the mischief, the playfulness, the darkness. It was all omnipresent, and they managed to hold true to it.
How long did you have to film this? How many sessions was it? Did you sit down with Joan and tell her what you wanted to discuss that day?
O'CONNOR: This happened over a long period of time with lots of stops and starts. We started filming in earnest around 2017 or 2018. We would prepare and figure out what we wanted or needed to cover. There was lots of unused interview material. It was a long process, and I have no idea how many interviews we did. We also got hit by the pandemic, which complicated things. We tried to do some Zoom interviews, but that didn't work for what we were doing. It was also a long edit, because things changed, or we realized there were certain things we needed more of.
You also spoke with one of Joan's sisters, Pauline, who passed while you were making this.
NAVASKY: Even before Maeve came onto the project, Karen and I had been thinking about doing something about Joan, so some of those interviews were the precursor, even before Joan had decided to stop touring, actually. We were not even sure what the film was, but that ended up being an incredibly important interview. There were two major interviews where we sat down and Karen immersed herself with Joan in her life story. I think those ended up being the backbone of the film in some ways. Her sister was invaluable, and we wished that she had been with us through this whole journey, because the documentary changed so much over time. We thought we would be doing more of a verité film about Joan and didn't realize we would be doing this in-depth story about her past.
O'CONNOR: We didn't know Pauline was ill when we did the first interviews. Pauline was this incredible woman, and we thought we had more time with her than it turns out we had. Joan's other sister, Mimi, had already died, so talking to Pauline and Joan together was extraordinary.
O'BOYLE: Because the archival was so rich in terms of the family story, there was something incredibly poignant about having Pauline there at the beginning and also the trajectory of her mom towards the end of the film. You felt that visceral contemporary feeling to it, as well as living in the past, so it was a really interesting layer to have in terms of the storytelling.
NAVASKY: I think we struggled throughout making the film regarding how to represent each of her family members. For her late sister Mimi, we had to find it all through the archive, but we got her voice and her person in there. With Pauline, we had that interview, plus we found old audio recordings of her to bring her voice in more. Her father has audio recordings, because he was an incredible documentarian of his own, although he's behind the camera and on tape in most places. For Joan's mom, we luckily found some archive footage of her. The question we constantly asked was, "How can we make sure that it's more than just Joan's perspective, and ensure we're getting the full family in as well?"
While Joan Baez I Am A Noise documents an ending for Joan, the ending feels like a new beginning. How and when did you decide on how to end this?
O'BOYLE: Joan's beautiful lyrical line at the end of the film was Karen's idea. I wish it were my idea and I could claim it, but it wasn't. [Laughs] And it is wonderful. It does make you feel like we are at the beginning of a whole new chapter. We never wanted to finish it on a heavy note. We wanted to finish it like the opening of a new world. In this beautiful way, we also wanted to bookend it, so that we were in California at the beginning and the end.
NAVASKY: We did struggle. Several times, we were like, "Oh, it has five possible endings..." We left so much dancing on the cutting room floor, but Joan was dancing all the time. It's her way, her meditation, and a form of processing things. There were so many things we wanted to bring together at the end.
O'CONNOR: It's a film that's intense and funny, but it's bringing people to the end of what this piece of her life has been. You see in that ending that Joan has gone through a lot, been incredibly honest about everything, and come through it on the other side with a kind of peace. Without it being schmaltzy or sentimental, you want to feel that light and energy.
O'BOYLE: The merging of the past and the present was important. The audio tapes were merging with a contemporary feel, so finally, these two layers were married together. It was a breakthrough when we merged the past audio with the contemporary visuals. I remember that in the edit. It was an extraordinary moment where we thought, "Oh, yes, this will work."