In 2004, when going through some old boxes in the family basement, I discovered that my great-grandfather had invented the Bolex camera. No one had ever mentioned to me that he had created a camera that linked some of the earliest amateur filmmakers of the 1920’s with contemporary cinematographers and filmmaking giants. Such luminaries as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Andy Warhol, as well as current digital age film students, have all used the Bolex.
The enigmatic Jacques Bogopolsky/Boolsky/Bolsey (JB), his surname changing with the decade and the country he inhabited at the time, was never part of my personal narrative growing up. It was while studying film that I became familiar with the man who had touched so many careers over the past 90 years.
Fast-forward 7 years. Thousands of hours of research, hundreds of contacts around the world, blood, sweat, and tears, and several producer change-ups later, the story has become so much more. It’s the tale of a Renaissance man trying to shape the world to his vision in a bitter fight against his own mortality. He fought tirelessly to create amidst the turmoil of his personal life and the backdrop of two World Wars, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression. When reading his timeline, it’s clear that this doctor/artist/ filmmaker/inventor amassed quite a list of inventions. Among these are still and motion picture cameras, pay phones, gas masks, landmine destroyers, military cameras and even plans to produce an electric car in the 1960’s. It’s a story that has seemingly disappeared, with historians grasping at straws after the mysterious disappearance of key documents.
What’s in these boxes is a long lost personal archive of a man’s life – the memories he recorded, the belongings that he chose to save and the words he wished to be known by. With these materials, I see a legacy of his own making. He portrays a life of creating film, caught on film, beginning 100 years ago.
JB wanted everyone to make movies, to photograph their lives, to create and capture a reality of their own and to record memories. It was a medium that was new to the general public at the time of his early inventions, but now, almost a century later, it’s something that everyone takes for granted. Today we record our lives on computers, video, and through social networking, all manipulated and representing an idealistic picture of our existence. Truth is obscured. Half-truths can be passed down to our descendants. An unfinished symphony. Was my great-grandfather’s truth blurred? Do I even know the half of it?
After graduating film school I took a few years to get some work experience and, truthfully, to build the nerve to attack this documentary with full force. How was I, just a twenty something young woman, fresh out of film school, and fascinated with stories of underdogs and the human condition, going to pull off a documentary that links an entire industry and a century of recorded images? After taking 3 years to come to grips with this overwhelming responsibility, I decided that the best way to move forward would be to take a leap of faith and jump in. Time was running out and if I didn’t tell the story, it would likely never be told. That was enough to give me the confidence, drive and determination to do what it takes. I loaded the pressure on myself and told everyone I could think of what I was doing. That way, I couldn’t back out later on. I quit my corporate job at a top talent agency and put my ego, independence, and possibly my sanity on the backburner, while blowing through my life’s savings. It was reckless, naïve and a bit crazy, but I knew then and still believe, that I will come out okay on the other end given the enormous support I have from family, friends and all those who have so much faith in this project. Even so, a good night’s sleep is hard to come by and worries can be all consuming. For me it just came down to, would I be okay not making this documentary? I had put it off for years, time was ticking, and I came to the conclusion that the answer was “No.”
There was no family fortune to fall back on, as JB had died suddenly and almost bankrupt. Therefore, I would somehow have to conjure up more money than I’d ever seen! After nearing burnout from frustration and lack of sleep, I joined forces with my producer, Camilo Lara, Jr., who stressed the importance of building a larger team, finding people’s strengths and dividing up the endless tasks. Camilo was exactly what I needed. A self-proclaimed film nerd, with an eye for beautiful cinematography, he has an insatiable drive and passion for the project. He soon connected me with his brother, Chris Lara. With Chris’ networking skills, we would assemble an even larger team.
As JB created some of his greatest inventions, such as the Bolex and Alpa cameras, in Switzerland, I wanted to make the JB project a US/Swiss co-production. After initiating talks with a respected Swiss producer, Werner Schweizer, I learned that he would be shooting parts of his latest documentary in Missouri. Camilo and I decided that not only were we going to fly to Missouri to meet with Werner, but we would immediately thereafter fly to Massachusetts, where JB’s archive is housed, and shoot a development teaser. With a teaser we would be able to give people an idea of where this documentary is going and what kind of never before seen archival material we have access to. We didn’t have much as far as crew or equipment other than the two of us, some work lamps, and a Canon 5d. In less than a week we had Werner on board to co-produce and were on our way back to LA to edit the teaser and work on funding applications.
Through the last several months of dealing with language barriers, culture clashes, and funding shortages, we have come together as a team and somehow created a momentum for this project that is thrilling. Earlier this year, I attended an IDA Q & A with documentary director, Doug Block. He said that personal documentaries can be extremely challenging, but when you are on to something and your story is working, strange things start to happen. You know you are on the right track. That is exactly what I see for the JB Project right now. With the long debated death of film being increasingly acknowledged, and companies no longer finding it profitable to sell film or film equipment, a funny thing has happened. I see a sudden surge of interest in the roots of filmmaking. For instance, Bolex lenses for iPhones are being developed, a silent film, “The Artist,” is in the theaters, and Martin Scorsese’s latest film “Hugo,” has won the National Board of Review for best film. “Hugo” highlights the importance of film preservation, and shows a young girl discovering long boxed-up materials that reveal her grandfather was a film pioneer. She sets forth with Hugo, to uncover his past. Sound familiar? I feel that the time is right to tell my great-grandfather’s story.
Right now we are launching an indiegogo campaign to help fund this project. Check out our link and consider supporting the discovery of an early film pioneer.
We’re looking for people to help with research, press, finding interview subjects, funding, etc. Please contact us at email@example.com if you are interested in participating in any way. Spread the word!
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Alyssa Bolsey – (Director)
In 2003, Alyssa’s documentary short, “Wild Horses,” was screened at the San Diego Girl’s Film Festival and was described by San Diego local news outlet, KPBS as “an insightful look at the artistic process.” In 2007 Alyssa graduated Cum Laude from San Diego State University with a degree in Television, Film and New Media, with an emphasis on directing.
Later, her fictional short “I. Hero” was featured in rotation on San Diego’s television show, “The Short List” from 2007-2010. She has directed numerous fictional shorts and spent several years working as an assistant at Creative Artists Agency. In 2010 she left CAA to focus her efforts on researching her current documentary feature, “The Jacques Bolsey Project.”