Robinson Devor brings creative re-creations to the untitled Sara Jane Moore project, a San Francisco Film Society fiscally sponsored work.

Devor Mulls Odd Journey of Sara Jane Moore

Michael Fox May 11, 2011

Did you know that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science has rules about recreations in documentaries? If more than 25 percent of a film is reenactments, it’s disqualified from Academy Award consideration. Or so Robinson Devor tells me near the end of our conversation about his untitled Sara Jane Moore project. A visualist and a master of mood, Devor had just acknowledged that he didn’t work in the American tradition of documentary.

“There are many, many instances of documentary elements living in fiction,” he points out. “But it seems to be a different question and formula to have fiction live within documentary, and support or distort or personalize the truth. When you have elements that are not from the horse’s mouth, it becomes trickier.”

Devor chuckles at his choice of words. If you’ve seen Zoo, his stylishly austere and fact-based 2007 film about a circle of Washington men who favored carnal relations with equine companions, you get the joke. Devor notes with all seriousness that Zoo was almost 100 percent recreations. The Moore doc won’t be that “constructed,” but the Seattle-based director wryly admits that it might have been a good idea to assess the available archival footage before tackling the subject.

Sara Jane Moore, for those seeking to identify the San Francisco connection, tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel in 1975. She’d moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles several years earlier, married a doctor and moved to the East Bay town of Danville. Normal enough, but in those weird times she became fascinated with the heiress Patty Hearst.

“Moore was a brassy, outspoken woman in the early ’70s who had a lot of ideas that were hard to swallow,” Devor says. “So this whole issue of likeability and sympathetic heroes—as with Zoo, it’s human behavior. How a suburban woman leading a fairly placid life could in 18 months have a bullet flying at the President of the Untied States, to me that’s probably the greatest thing to explore.”

The more Devor reveals about Moore, who was paroled on the last day of 2007 after 32 years in prison, the more bizarre and interesting her life—and his film—sounds.

“It is a story of incarnations and paradoxes—how somebody can be two things at once,” Devor says. “It’s difficult to hear about anyone with contradictions. They teach you in fiction class: Make a person rich in contradictions. But when you have a human being [like that] in front of you, it’s hard to swallow it.”

Moore didn’t have two but three sides, beginning with a benign view of political theory akin to intellectual pacifism, Devor explains. At the same time, she ran with violent revolutionaries and embraced the necessity of inflicting casualties. And, believe it or not, she was an FBI informant.

“She was able to do those three things at once,” Devor says. “Does that mean you’re insane, or does that mean it’s possible? She has a very strong mind and very strong arguments for being parts of all three.”

Devor made two trips here in 2010 to film Moore, and his imaginative approach confirms his disdain for the standard documentary grammar of talking-head interviews.

“She would often meet with the FBI in cars around San Francisco, so we filmed her in the back of a ’72 station wagon on a lot of precarious slopes,” Devor confides. “Not to say that her testimony is on a precarious slope, but that the actions she was taking were precarious all the time.”

He also made a point of revisiting the scene of the crime with his subject. Specifically, the location where the Secret Service took Moore after her failed murder attempt.

“She was carried like a battering ram from Post Street through the St. Francis into the Borgia Room, this kind of ornate ceremonial hall,” Devor recounts. “She was thrown on the ground, her pants split open; she was half-naked and bloody. And that’s where we did the interview, in that space. It’s somewhat of a Shining spot.”

Devor was in town at the end of February with actor Patrick Warburton when the Roxie revived his 1999 feature, The Woman Chaser. He’ll be back for some pickup shots this summer, carving out time from two other documentaries he’s working on.

“It’s a fun challenge and a human challenge and a journalistic responsibility to look at both sides of the story,” Devor muses. “I’ve read many articles to [Moore] and had her take the opportunity to refute certain things. Once she came out in the public as an FBI informant, the press probably felt to some degree they had [free rein] to juice up the story, [and published] details to make the story seem outlandish. I will go out of my way to humanize Sara Jane Moore, and to show the forces that came to bear that caused her to act in the way that she did.”

Devor hopes to finish the documentary by the end of 2011.

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