Remembering Legendary Documentarian, Nancy Buirski

Today, on the first anniversary of her documentary Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy’s release, FF2 is proud to spotlight Nancy Buirski! An acclaimed director, producer, and writer, Nancy was not only a talented documentarian, but a pillar of the indie film community. Though sadly Nancy passed away last year, just after Desperate Soul’s release, we remember her today for her commitment to sharing powerful stories which may otherwise have gone untold.

Written, directed, and produced by Nancy, 2022’s Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy explores both the social context and behind-the-scenes creation of the film Midnight Cowboy. The revered 1969 film represents not only an American classic, but the one and only X-rated movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The X rating was in part due to the film’s open depiction of gay relationships, as well as its realistic, gritty view of modern America. 

In her review of the film, FF2 contributor Julie Musbach praises Nancy’s ability to examine the film “from a variety of perspectives—aesthetic, cultural, historical, and sociopolitical” as well as singles out the director’s editing prowess specifically. Midnight Cowboy is an integral part of American film history—a thing of legend—and, as Julie continues, “In making a record of this accomplishment, Nancy Buirski keeps the legend alive.” 

Click image to enlarge.

Nancy Buirski was born in Manhattan on June 24, 1945. After graduating from Adelphi University, Nancy found her start not as a filmmaker, but a photographer. For many years, she worked as a photographer and photo editor for The New York Times—her selection winning them the 1994 Pulitzer. That same year, she even published a book of her own photography, titled Earth Angels: Migrant Children in America. The collection contained over one hundred photos of the children of migrant workers. Always interested in exploring true, upsetting, yet ultimately important human stories, Nancy shows intimate moments of these children’s daily struggles with each image.

In 1998, Nancy collaborated with Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies in founding the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Full Frame is an international documentary festival based out of Durham, North Carolina which describes itself as deeply committed to both fostering conversation and accessibility within the world of documentary filmmaking. After its creation, Nancy herself ran the festival tirelessly for a decade. However, as the early 2000s came to a close, Nancy found herself pushed to not only exhibit documentaries, but to make them herself.

In 2011, Nancy made her documentary debut with The Loving Story. The film follows the history of Mildred and Richard Loving, and their fight against the state of Virginia to legalize their interracial marriage. The documentary, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, premiered at Nancy’s own Full Frame Festival. It went on to win an Emmy, and served as the source material for the Academy Award nominated blockbuster Loving. Nancy also worked as a producer on that 2016 film.

Two years later, Nancy completed her sophomore project, 2013’s Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil le Clercq. Coproduced by CBS, this documentary tells the story of ballerina Tanaqui le Clercq whose promising career tragically was cut short after a bout of polio left her paralyzed.

The editing of the film matches visuals and music beat for beat in its own stunning choreography.

 In her review of the documentary, FF2 Editor-In-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner praises the film over all as being “gorgeously produced.” She goes on to spotlight Nancy’s specific contributions to its editing; commending the “masterful job” of “melding video clips, photos, & personal remembrances” to tell this story. My own viewing of Afternoon of a Faun left me with the exact same sentiments. The editing of the film truly shines as it matches visuals and music beat for beat in its own stunning choreography. Sweet moments allow photographs to flutter innocently across the screen, while moments of shocking realization crescendo into terror.

In 2017, Nancy Buirski turned her attention to racial injustice for her documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor. Nancy would explore this theme again with 2020’s A Crime on the Bayou. The first film specifically delves into Black women’s lives in the Jim Crow South—their struggles, their resilience, and their collective power to create change. The Rape of Recy Taylor chronicles Recy’s Taylor story. A Black woman raped by a group of white teenagers in Alabama, Recy fought for justice for herself at a time when speaking up was a dangerous and revolutionary act. In her review of the film, FF2 contributor Stephanie Taylor calls it “not only poignant but powerful, informative and empowering.” Stephanie continues, “It is a gut-wrenching piece that must be told and seen. It’s a well-rounded film that tells an ugly truth beautifully.”

In an interview with FF2 contributor Lesley Coffin, Nancy described her motivation to make this film: “I want people to acknowledge the role African American women had bringing [the issue of sexual violence] to the forefront.” Continuing on about the crux of the film, Nancy said, “The key was showing how Recy Taylor is the first link of a long chain that moved us along the civil Rights movement and right into today…That’s what’s so important, getting her justice was a function of so many women who eventually become the powering tool of the civil rights movement.” The Rape of Recy Taylor won the Human Rights Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Both Nancy’s talent and sensitivity with her subjects were nearly unmatched.

Over the course of her documentary career, Nancy Buirski won an Emmy and a Peabody award and showed her work at international festivals. She was also a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences as well as a member of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences. Nancy’s tragic, sudden death on August 29, 2023 marks an extreme loss for the entirety of the film community. Both Nancy’s talent and sensitivity with her subjects were nearly unmatched, as may be seen by her great successes. When asked by Stephanie for advice for all the many women filmmakers out there, Nancy responded with a frankness which inspires: “I would just say just make your film and don’t let anybody tell you no.” Thank you, Nancy Buirski, for never taking no as an answer, and making each and every story right.

© Reese Alexander (6/23/24) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read Julie’s coverage of Desperate Souls, Dark City and the following Q&A with Nancy here. 

Check out Stephanie’s interview with Nancy here…

…And Lesley’s interview with Nancy here.

Read Jan’s review of Afternoon of a Faun here.

Read Stephanie’s review of The Rape of Recy Taylor here.

Watch the trailer for Desperate Souls here.

Visit Nancy’s Wikipedia page here.

Explore the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival here.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Nancy Buirski arrives at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC to screen her newest documentary BY SIDNEY LUMET. Image Credit: RW / MediaPunch (4/22/16)  Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2RN53D7 BY SIDNEY LUMET had its world premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for a “Golden Eye” award.

Middle Photo: Jon Voight as “Joe Buck” hustling in Times Square in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). Copyright WARNER BROS. All Star Picture Library. Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: RYDA9E (= https://www.alamy.com/jon-voight-midnight-cowboy-1969-image240623978.html)

Bottom Photo: Filmmaker Nancy Buirski (with her friend Megan Ketch) at the premiere of AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ at the JCC Manhattan. Image Credit: Jason Smith (2/3/14) Everett Collection / Alamy Live News. Image ID: DRXE1X

NOTE: Jan Lisa Huttner’s cropping/photoshopping of Alamy’s original images is solely for use by FF2 Media LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY ALAMY!

Tags: A Crime on the Bayou, Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, Desperate Souls Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy, Earth Angels: Migrant Children in America, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Loving, Nancy Buirski, Recy Taylor, Reese Alexander, The Loving Story, The Rape of Recy Taylor

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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