Filmmaking | Interviews

The Other Side of the Camera

1 Apr , 2002  

Written by Abigail Harmon | Posted by:

Cameraman Keith Hartgrove talks about the heart attack -- and the documentary -- that changed his life.

Reprinted from the Boston Film and Video Foundation’s Inter-Visions

Many filmmakers know what it is like to be behind the camera or in creative control of a film, but have you ever considered what it takes to reveal the nitty-gritty details of your life in front of the camera? To have a documentary scan your life, your family, and your history? Keith Hartgrove recently made the transition from twenty-year veteran cameraman to subject of Jay Fedigan’s documentary, "The Angry Heart," and sat down to explain why.

Jay Fedigan and Keith Hartgrove met years ago through mutual work connections. When Fedigan eventually went out on his own, he continued to hire Hartgrove as a freelancer. While their relationship remained amiable, it did not grow close until a post-production dinner in New York turned into an obvious racial incident. Fedigan, extraordinarily disturbed by the experience, spent the five-hour drive home thinking about the difference between being black and being white in America.

A few months later, Hartgrove had his second heart attack, and the racial differences once again struck Fedigan like a blow to the head. Hartgrove and three other members from the same church entered the same hospital on the same night, and only Hartgrove survived. He believes it to be largely due to his close relationship with a doctor who called his cardiologist and ensured a higher level of care than the other men received. His community, on the whole, shares his opinion. The following is an account of how this experience became "The Angry Heart."

Abigail Harmon: How did you end up being the center of a documentary?

Keith Hartgrove: Well, from that ride with Jay and my heart attack happening, (it) really hit Jay like a ton of bricks. He said, "We really have to do something about this, we have to make a statement. We have to make a statement about racism, discrimination, and health disparities. We’ve got to do something. And I really want to do this film." About three weeks after I got out of the hospital was my first interview (laughs). Jay came to my house with a film crew, guys that I had worked with. The audio guy, Ken Lacouture, is a good friend of mine, we’ve done a lot of jobs together. Steve Dahlgren is a really great camera guy and just a great person. They volunteered their time to the project, because Jay told them "We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to make a statement, we’ve got to try to get the message out to people." He’s very convincing.

AH: When he first approached you, did you automatically say yes?

KH: I said yes to Jay right away because of what had happened, and the way it happened.

AH: The incident? Or the heart attack?

KH: Not just because of the heart attack, but because Jay was so adamant about the whole racism thing, the slant of health care disparities. He said, "We really need to do this and you need to help me," and he convinced me right away. I just said "sure," thinking that we’d do one interview and that would be the end of it. But Jay and I… I don’t know how many interviews I did, probably seven or eight. Maybe even a dozen times we sat down and he just got me to pour all this emotion out, about my experiences in life. He’s kind of easy to talk to because I knew where his heart was, and I knew that he really wanted to do something that would stand up over time and that people would get something from. And that energy, that made me want to work with him and be touched by it. And I said okay, but I never really thought that he’d finish it. I really never thought it would be finished.

AH: Why?

KH: I don’t know. I thought that after Jay’s initial frustration was satisfied, that the video tape would sit on the shelf and there wouldn’t be any market for it. Nobody wants to hear about racism. No white people are going to want to watch this movie. This is a video that probably would do okay in the black community, but it’s no news to them. Everybody that’s African-American and lives in Roxbury, Dorchester, or Mattapan has had at least one experience like that, so there’s no market. Jay proved me wrong. He went about it in such a meticulous way. I was really blown away by it.

AH: Was it strange being on the other side of the camera?

KH: Absolutely. I hate it. I hate being on the other side of the camera. I became a cameraman to be behind the camera, because that’s where I feel comfortable. I’m very good at that camera work thing, but being a subject is not something I feel good at… I don’t feel comfortable. I’m doing it now more, talking more to large crowds of people, hoping that all I can give them is what I know first hand. Just talking to each person individually rather than a crowd of people, ‘cause that’s the only way I really know how to communicate, but it’s not easy. And it’s not easy not to show how much pain, not just physical pain but the emotional scars and not wanting to show my weakness. Because I really feel like it’s weakness, although Jay tells me it’s strength, that I must be Herculean just being able to sit out and tell people and show people what it is I’ve had to deal with over my lifetime.

AH: I don’t think it’s easy to have your life represented by somebody else. Do you think he did a good job?

KH: I think he did a great job. I honestly feel like he showed me in a true light. I mean, what you see on-screen is who I am. I didn’t think that anybody would ever even be interested at all.

AH: Then why did you do it?

KH: He made me. Also, the other thing is that I really feel like I was saved for a reason. Maybe the fact that out of four people out of one church being in one hospital on the same floor at the same time, and I was the only one that was chosen to live, has affected me in a way that’s made me strong enough to do this.

AH: That’s a nice thought

KH: A very difficult thought. It’s so hard for me. When I say that, it hits me right in the chest; I get teary eyed, I cry. It’s not easy for me to let you see that, (but) I can’t help it. Because I really feel like, out of all the people who could have been saved, He saved me. Can you understand how that would break me up? How that would tear you up when you know that the Lord chose you? It does something to me.

AH: Well, you’re using it. Which is important.

KH: I have to. I’m driven by it. Just by that one thought, that I’ve been touched and chosen. I don’t like it, believe me, I don’t like it. I don’t want to see my face in the paper. There’s a brochure out that is marketing the piece and I go on the Internet and there I am.

AH: And now on Inter-visions?

KH: Yeah. I never wanted any of that. It’s not easy to accept, because I really am a behind-the-scenes kind of person. But I know that those other three people want to be remembered. I know that they are looking down on me saying "Go ahead, do it for us."

AH: So it has changed your life. I think in the film, you said you were not going to church as often before your second heart attack.

KH: I went, but I didn’t go.

AH: You were not as involved, you were not a soloist.

KH: I never wanted to sing solos. But the second day in the hospital I was singing praises for the rest of my life. I didn’t really intend to do solos, but it happened. People seem to get some inspiration from me singing the song, "God, I Have So Much to Thank God For." I had a hard time getting through that song. Ever since this whole experience I had never cried before, I mean as a man. Now I cry all the time. The emotions flow like water, and hopefully it touches somebody.

AH: It has changed you physically, it has changed you emotionally and spiritually. Were you a teacher before?

KH: No.

AH: How has it changed your career?

KH: Well, before I was just a freelance camera guy. I didn’t work every day, I didn’t even work every week. Freelance work is like that. There’s a wealth of it, and then there’s a famine. It goes back and forth. My doctor told me after I got through the surgery and everything, he said, "You’re very lucky to be alive, but you’re never gonna work again… You’re just gonna have to learn to survive on Social Security and Disability, ‘cause, you’re never gonna work. You’re not well enough to work, ever." The next week, I went home and I went to the church because I wanted to formally go before the Lord and thank Him for my life. And two of the elder mothers of my church met me at the altar and they prayed with me, they taught (me) a couple of prayers. And they prayed with me and they touched me. And while I was kneeling at the altar, I said to the Lord "You know God, I’m not the kind of guy to sit home and do nothing. I need something to do that’s gonna be worthwhile. That’s gonna touch other people and make a difference in their life, I want to be your tool." When I kneeled I was in a lot of pain, (but when) I got up from the altar, the pain was at least 50% diminished. I got out of church a lot stronger than I was when I walked in.

At home, there was a message on my answering machine from one of the film teachers at Madison Park, and he said, "Your name popped into my head." And I hadn’t seen this guy in ten years. He said, "You know, your name has popped into my head, Keith, and I can’t think of anybody else. I need you to come and take this position in television. Teaching television production to my students." What had happened the week before was that a student assaulted him. Knocked him out. And they felt that he was in jeopardy, that it was not a good place for him to be in the classroom at that point after being assaulted so they created another position for him in the school for one year and they needed someone qualified to come in and take his place. They told him, "You find someone to do your job and you can do this job." So he called me and within two weeks I was in the job teaching. I just did what I love to do, which is camerawork. I got to teach it to kids and give them the enthusiasm that I have for it. And make a difference. And that first year of teaching, there was a student there who had really been a thorn in everyone’s side and I just loved that girl. I taught her, but more than taught her about camerawork and production, I taught her how to get along in life. And she probably would not have graduated if I hadn’t taken her under my wing. If I hadn’t counseled her. If I hadn’t been more of a father to her than her own father.

AH: A lot of students need that personal touch.

KH: They need somebody to say I care. They need somebody to say I believe in you. I had teachers tell me, "You’re not going to be anything. You’re going to be a bum. Don’t expect that much out of life." It really diminished me. So it was my turn to just turn things around and I really felt blessed to be able to do that. And I fought with guidance counselors for this girl and I fought with her English teacher and I made her do a lot of work and she would bring the work to me. And if I didn’t like it, I knew her teachers weren’t going to like it, so I’d make her do it over. And I fought all year with her. She was one that was very abrasive. She would curse a teacher out at the drop of a hat. And I found out why. She had nothing to look forward to, as far as she was concerned. Now, she has graduated and she’s going to Roxbury Community College. And working. She’s got her own apartment now. I know that it was a blessing for her and for me to be put in that position. That only lasted a year, and then I was pushed out of there. And I went to another school and taught there for a year. And now I’m back at Madison.

I’m teaching communications to 9th graders. I teach Web page design, graphic art, printing, and television production. I have to give them a flavor, a bird’s eye view of what those vocations would be like. And if they chose one of those vocations, what they would be doing over the course of the next three years. And that’s a very important position because I get to influence kids towards a career, and think about their futures. And think about what they really want to do with themselves. Start setting goals. As an 8th or 9th grader you don’t think about starting goals or think about your future. You just go through life (as if) everyday is just another day. And you have the rest of your life, which is forever long. And it isn’t really true. It’s a fallacy that they grow up with. And I have a chance to change that.

For more information about ‘The Angry Heart,’ visit www.theangryheart.com.


For more information about 'The Angry Heart,' visit www.theangryheart.com.