Tell Them Who You Are Cover
There is a song sung by Cat Stevens that can describe this 94 minute documentary perfectly well. It’s called ‘Fathers and Sons’. And do you want to know why this is so? Then watch this 2004 film Directed by Mark Wexler, and Starring: Haskell Wexler, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Billy Crystal, Verna Bloom, Milos Forman, Ron Howard, Julia Roberts, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, Sidney Poitier, Martin Sheen, Conrad Hall, Irvin Kershner, and Albert Maysles.

Tell Them Who You Are

Now you would have thought that making a documentary about your father’s life, would be a tough thing for anybody to do, right? But if your father is none other than Haskell Wexler! Boy-oh-boy – you’re in for a world of trouble.

Well, Haskell is set in his age you see. He is a two time Oscar winner with liberal leanings – he is very well known in his field – he was twice married, twice divorced – and has three children, two from his first marriage, and one from his second.

Now if you were the singular child from his second failed marriage – as the director / cinematographer of this film, Mark Wexler, is – do you honestly think that you would be able to pull this off? Especially if your father insists in giving you direction whilst you were filming it? Oh! And let not forget to mention the people you have to interview to accomplish this task as well! As there is Haskell (of course), Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Milos Forman, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, Sidney Poitier, Martin Sheen, Conrad Hall, Irvin Kershner, and many-many more.

Hmm. Let’s see, shall we:

Tell them who you are Mark Wexler? To give this film a personal foundation, Mark explains a bit about his own origins. How he was a somewhat conservative kid. How he has worked as both a photographer and as a cinematographer. How he has partaken in both political and personal documentaries. And how he would like to know a bit more about his own father to boot.

Tell then who you are Haskell Wexler? Haskell was brought up in a privileged environment, and with the assistance of his electronics mogul father, Simon, he managed to carve out a career from himself as a cinematographer.

However, at first, this did not go according to plan – as he did not have any form of emotional attachment to the films that he was making. But given time, Haskell cast aside his own 'privileged origins', gained a cohort in Conrad Hall, and made his way through the film world, and was involved with such projects as 'Canadian Bacon', In the Heat of the Night', 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', and 'The Thomas Crown Affair', to name but a few.

Tell me about your vision Haskell Wexler? Now of course I am not referring to Haskell’s color blindness, oh no. Instead, I am talking about his tempestuous nature, and how this has both helped and hindered him throughout his career. On a positive note, he has managed to work on such personal projects as 'Medium Cool' and 'Coming Home'. Whilst on a negative note, he was fired whilst filming 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest', and has caused some controversy with films such as 'Sahara' and 'Bus Rider's Union'.

Why controversy? Well...

Tell me about your politics Haskell Wexler? Haskell is liberal by default. Once he decided to choose this political stance, it appears to have curbed his outlook on life – both in a personal and professional way. Please note, this is not a bad thing in retrospect. But it has tinged his relationships at home and at work – giving Haskell a pious perceptive concerning his personal and professional relations.

Tell me no more? The result’s of Haskell’s life is bi-polar in nature. He has a strained relationship with his son Mark (which is getting better). He has regrets about his past relationships with women (especially Marks Mum, who has Alzheimer’s). And he has difficulty with his own mortality and role in life (even though he is still fairly active). To juxtapose this stance however, he is respected in his field – he has a legendary body of work – and he has a vocation in life that he loves.

Now to be completely honest about it, I was drawn to watching ‘Tell Them Who You Are’ in the first place, because I thought that it was a Billy Crystal movie. My bad. And although Billy was hardly in this flick at all, I have to say that this did not take away my enjoyment from watching this documentary one little bit.

For a start, it is multifaceted in approach, and elaborates on: (1) The life and times of cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. (2) The strained relationship between diametrically opposed father and son – Haskell and Mark – subject and documentarian. (3) The insight’s into a parent’s and a child’s perspective where filmic circles are concerned. And (4) The contrasting qualities of the many different approaches towards film-making.

Father and Son in Tell Them Who You Are

OK, I know that this may sound like a lot of stuff to take on board where a 90 minute documentary is concerned. But I have to say, this did not feel like a ‘lot of stuff’ when I actually watched it. Heck, if anything, I wanted more! Honestly, this program was so engrossing, that afterwards I did a ‘google’ to find out some of the facts which were alluded to in this film. 

Now is that a bad thing in retrospect? Me doing a 'google'? Shouldn't the documentary have provided all the answers for the viewer? Personally speaking – no – if anything, it only has to provide a solid foundation for the viewers to think for themselves. And that is what is so great about 'Tell Them Who You Are' – it makes you think – it makes you curious – and it makes you feel.

Haskell Wexler and His Family

Feelings are another aspect of this film too. Well – lets face it – can any one of us say for sure how much we know our own parents? Mark certainly doesn’t – and I think that is why the plethora of celebrity insights appear more pertinent in this film, compared to your normal ‘run of the mill’ celeb-roll-call spiel. Fonda – Sheen – Poitier – and Douglas, come across particularly well where this is concerned. Where as Lucas – Hall – Kershner – and Maysles, seem to tap into another side of Haskell’s demeanor... the creative part.

Oh! And that reminds me. This brings me to another very important question – can creativity and parenthood meld well together to a satisfactory standard? According to this film – no, not really – and I think that this is all to do with the nature of perception where innovation is concerned.

OK, I know that this may sound rather esoteric as a question goes. But how many people do you know out there, hom can juggle these two aspects in unison? OK again, this film does answer that question for us – Haskell’s one time collaborator, Conrad Hall. Nevertheless, it cannot answer what Haskell true feelings are when he and Mark Mum's (whom has Alzheimer’s) meet at the nursing home she resides in – which for me is one of the best parts of this film.

Haskell Wexler Cameraman

Overall, this is a must see documentary for anyone who loves tales of times past – a personal father and son journey – or insights into the celebrity underworld. This is documentary film-making at its finest.


TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE Reviewed by David Andrews on August 02, 2011 Rating: 5
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