Portrait: Rob Moss

Erin E. Miles

“While we consume movies, movies consume us,” states Rob Moss, the Rudolf Arnheim Lecturer on Filmmaking in the department of Visual and Environmental Studies.

“Yet films are difficult to make. It’s difficult to makes sense of the world,” he says.

Such words embody Moss’ ontology: he combines philosophical inquiries with pragmatic questions, managing to seamlessly unite an untainted wonderment at the possibilities of film with the practical, ethical, and moral concerns of being a filmmaker.

The first person in his family to attend college, Moss fell in love with film in the 1960s at UC Berkeley. Unwilling at that point to attend graduate school for filmmaking, Moss instead spent five years traveling and working. During that time, he came to realize how genuinely interested he was in film, and ended up studying film at MIT. He began working in non-fiction film, finding that “documentary filmmaking is a way to explore the world, a tool to think about the world.”

Moss came to Harvard nearly 20 years ago to teach. Rather than curtail or diminish his personal filmmaking career, Moss says that being at the University has provided for him “another way to be a part of the world.” He speaks of his relationships with his students as enriching and reciprocal, providing a constant challenge and dialogue.

To Moss, film is many things: at once personal and autobiographical. He says, “I often make films about things that are bothering me. I use film to see more clearly what I can’t see very well.”

He describes shooting in places such as Nicaragua and Ethiopia, and how he combined the images from those locations with the story of how he and his wife attempted to have children and finally adopted a child. He says simply of this project, “It helped organize a period in which I was confused about my place in the world.”

But while he uses film as a personal and artistic tool, Moss also recognizes and articulates the moral and ethical problems inherent to filmmaking. He recalls the tumultuous feelings he had while filming in the locations mentioned above, saying, “You’re making images of people who can’t say no to you, exoticizing people who are different and selling their images as a commodity.”

Still, Moss does not reject the idea of a fruitful relationship between making art and working towards social justice. He says, “Artists are interested in finding ways to extract from the world and build something that has an aesthetic and political component.” But then he argues from all sides, noting that what begins as art often becomes propaganda as it gains a more and more explicit political focus.

And yet for Moss, filmmaking is not simply an art fraught with controversy, mired in ethical issues, trapped by the marketplace. Films for Moss are also aesthetic and beautiful things. He evokes his early experiences with film, saying, “Film integrated everything: the political, the worldly, the aesthetic, the subtle, the sublime, the erotic. I saw everything, Goddard, Truffaut, Fellini, Buster Keaton; I’d go to the movies five to eight times a week.” Moss remembers how much this medium provoked dialogue for him and his peers. He says, “Films had the power to move us. We’d talk for hours about how it was put together, what it said about the world.”

Moss also outlines his worry for the fate of documentary film—a personal and relatively solitary art—in a capitalist nation, noting that “capitalism’s genius is taking forms that are meant to be transgressive and commodifying them.”

Whether when working to determine if narrative should be a part of a documentary film or when outlining the liminality of the filmmaking industry’s position as we move further into the digital age, Moss distinguishes himself as an artist-philosopher, deeply humble, concerned with both the theory and the practice of his chosen art.

And in the end, the words he uses are simple, direct. In describing his approach to his new project on government secrecy, he says, “We have to figure out how to tell the story. What can we touch? If we can touch enough of it, can we make a shape out of it? How do we unlock this part of the world? We use limitations as moments to invent.”