After Andover: Filmmaker James Longley ’90 Brings Invisible Cultures to Life Through Observational Documentaries

According to Longley, filmmaking provides another perspective on reality. Humans live within an invisible battleground of competing ideas, and as a filmmaker, he is working on providing another angle within that dimension.

Directed by James Longley ’90, the 2018 documentary “Angels Are Made of Light” opens with captured rays of sun, illuminating the landscapes of Kabul, Afghanistan. The film takes place during a relatively peaceful time in Kabul, and Longley attempts to capture the “ordinary,” such as the weary life of students and adults, displaying perspectives that might be unknown to a global audience.

“Human beings have a primordial fear of the unknown. In the United States, we tend not to know much about other countries and cultures, and thus we fear them. Empathy and understanding go hand in hand, and I have seen what happens when these are missing… Filmmaking—and the forms of filmmaking that are invented in the future—can do more than tell diverting stories; filmmaking can provide a surrogate experience of the perspective of others, thus helping to solve this very serious empathy and understanding problem that human beings have,” wrote Longley in an email to The Phillipian.

Longley is an Academy-nominated filmmaker and photographer, with two Academy Award nominations and an Emmy Award nomination. Longley’s interest in film started in early childhood—movies, theatre, and photography were a form of escape. When Longley was eleven, he met film director Werner Herzog and viewed his film “Fitzcarraldo.” Longley recalls that the production, which featured a steamship winched over a mountain in the Amazon rainforest, also piqued his interest in the film industry. 

“My parents were scientists, and we lived on an island off the coast of Washington state, at a marine biology research station, on the edge of a forest. The laboratory buildings were open all night, which gave me access to darkroom facilities. My father gave me a Nikon, and I used it until the shutter stopped working. I became a skilled photographer and darkroom printer as a kid because I had access to those facilities and found it fascinating,” wrote Longley.

At Andover, Longley spent hours recording a weekly radio show called “Sound & Vision,” where he reviewed movies with his friend and fellow film director, Robin Hessman ’90. It was also on Andover’s campus where he discovered an interest in the Russian language, one that later took him to Moscow, Russia and expanded his appreciation for cinematography.

“Russia was quite exciting at the time; Hessman and I were there as Russian language students, then as film students… During the language course in Leningrad, in 1991, I picked up a Soviet 16mm clockwork movie camera and some film and started taking it around, filming different spots in the city. I had always done photography, but this was the first time I started thinking about making movies, and trying to do it. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, at the film school in Moscow, we were already working on 35mm and making a fully-fledged documentary short film that went on to win a Student Academy Award. That’s probably what gave me the confidence to continue making films after college, ” wrote Longley.

Graduating from his Russian film school with an award and an even greater interest in filmmaking, Longley continued to pursue creating documentaries, and released his first long film, “Gaza Strip,” in 2002, which featured children affected during Al-Aqsa Intifada from a few years prior. The Al-Aqsa Intifada, also known as the Second Intifada, was a series of Palestinian uprisings against Israel, which began due to failed negotiations with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to [the British Broadcasting Company.] Longley mentions the film was made to give the Gaza situation the rightful media coverage he believes it deserved.

“As an individual filmmaker not attached to a company, this gave me an opportunity to show my audience a reality of which they were previously unaware, which I think is a decent reason to make a film, or to watch one. The freedom to speak the truth is a superpower that should be used on behalf of others,” wrote Longley.

After deciding to test out new waters by filming in Gaza and Iraq, Longley was exposed to new cultures and experiences. His time filming the Palestinian Uprisings and Iraqi societies made him become increasingly aware of the ignorance of Americans on Middle Eastern cultures and society, and he hopes to deepen the United States’ understanding of the Middle East through his documentaries.

“People in the United States generally lack basic understanding and empathy for Iraqi civilians. With my films, I am giving the audience a chance to develop the human feeling for others that they are missing. These are simple things, but they are often overlooked because they are not particularly commercial,” wrote Longley.

Currently due to Covid-19, Longley is stuck at home which has allowed him to focus on writing and other smaller projects. Looking towards the future, he believes that filmmaking is a growing craft, and that the power films have to enlighten and educate others will continually become more significant to today’s society. 

“As our ability to hack human sensory perception grows more subtle and persuasive… The need to use this ability for good will become more paramount. Films can reveal the world, or pull a veil over it. These are not neutral outcomes, because films are increasingly the way we know—or don’t know—about the wider world,” wrote Longley.