Hollywood and glam aren't what all Academy Award
winning video producers want. Just ask David Kasper.

By Jen Schradie
Multimedia Producer magazine
March 1999

David Kasper grew up with a fascination for technology that was matched only by his passion for progressive politics.  Today, after 25 years as an independent video producer, he is as likely to be found reading Covert Action Quarterly as a media-production magazine.

By the early 1990s, Kasper had combined these interests into a powerful mix that not only won him an Academy Award for Best Documentary for a piece titled The Panama Deception, but also helped him build an independent organization called the Empowerment Project; train hundreds of video artists; and distribute thousands of his videos.   Today, he pursues these projects from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he lives in the woods in a circular tent-like sructure called a yurt.

"You get a lot of people who are in a similar situation: They win major awards and think they're God's gift to independent film," says Marty Rosenbluth, another independent video producer in North Carolina.   "The thing with David is that he doesn't seem to be affected.   He could have gone off and done TV commercials for Nike, puffing up his chest and saying, 'I won an Academy Award.' But he's still committed to principles of independent grass-roots media."

First Draft

Kasper grew up in Los Angeles, where he became interested in electronics at an early age, building crystal and short-wave radio sets.   In aptitude tests, he showed both technical and creative strength.   After he enrolled at the University of Southern California, Kasper's technical curiosity led him to take classes in cinema, television production, electronics and engineering.  In 1967, his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army at the height of the Vietnam war.  He was stationed in Thailand, where he used his communication-technology skills as a teletype operator.

Kasper doesn't like to talk about his time in the Armed Forces; in fact, questions about the experience cause the already soft-spoken producer to shut down.  But one thing is clear: Serving overseas inspired his politics.  "I got politicized as a result of the Vietnam war," Kasper says.  "They'd dehumanize and indoctrinate you.  They'd try to regiment you and control your behavior so you wouldn't question anything."            |

Kasper served for two years, then returned to USC.  He worked as an extra in films such as Elvis Presley's Easy Come Easy Go, as well as on television shows, including Batman and Ozzie and Harriet.  "I got to see a lot of what the entertainment industry is like," Kasper says, "but I never really have been interested in pursuing that kind of media."

After graduating in 1970, Kasper worked in marketing for several film distributors.  As a sideline, he worked as an investigative journalist in radio, television and print.  But he was drawn to video production, which became more of an occupation as he freelanced in shooting, sound, lighting and editing.

Kasper's eyes light up when he talks about his fascination with videotape and cable television when they came on the market in the early 1970s.  He believed that they "could change the communications infrastructure and possibly have a very democratizing effect," he says.

Though he has worked with film, Kasper is unabashedly a video guy.  "I like the immediacy of it," he says.  "It's just more accessible.  That's the thing that attracted me to it.  Film is expensive."

In 1974, Kasper produced his first video documentary, Too Poor to Live Here, which showed how low-income people in Venice, California, were being forced out by rising rents and property taxes.  For the next eight years, he worked in community video and television.  Kasper then wanted to find a way to expose what he describes as the anti-democratic hypocrisy of American foreign policy.  "I try to deal with documentaries that tell the other side of the story," he says.  "I show things that are hidden and put things together in a context that [people] can understand.  A lot of what happens in the popular media is that you get all of these bits and pieces of information, but the whole story is never quite put together."

Then, in 1982, Kasper worked on a shoot with the Academy Award winning cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler.  The documentary followed a group of activists on a cross-country organizing tour to support a United Nations special session on disarmament.  One of the tour's organizers was Barbara Trent.  Kasper and Trent fell in love and soon began producing documentaries together.

"I had always been a community organizer," Trent says.  "But I realized, 'Wow, what an idea, to make a film.'  It didn't make organizing any easier, but it did make it more powerful."

Trent, now an established producer and director in her own right, says that everything she knows about video production she learned from Kasper.  All who know both Kasper and Trent volunteer how different their personalities are.  Whereas Kasper is reserved and quiet, Trent is talkative and outgoing.

Officials Business

Kasper and Trent made their first video together in 1983.  Bus to Topanga highlighted the need for a school bus for children living in a rural area.  The school children got their bus, but Trent and Kasper agree that it wasn't just the community's organizing or the screening of the video that made the effort successful.  They found that, under the watchful eye of Kasper's camera, public officials knew they were being scrutinized.  It helped Kasper understand that the process of making the video could be just as important as the finished product.

"With public officials, the fact that they're being covered and something's going to be told publicly about what they're doing and what their comments are can have an effect on what they choose to do," Kasper says.

A year later, Kasper and Trent took on a more ambitious project, producing a documentary, called Destination Nicaragua, about American peace delegations going to Central America.  By then, Kasper's technical expertise had become apparent to those working with them.

Gary Meyer, who served as production assistant on a shoot with Kasper in Central America, is now a marketing and sales director for TAO Media Systems, a maker of video editing systems.  He describes a six-week field shoot in Nicaragua in 1985 when Kasper was shooting with a three-tube JVC camera and a 6800 Sony 3/4-inch portapack deck.  "We were using dinosaur stuff by today's standards," he says.  "The equipment was sensitive to humidity, so it broke down with some regularity.  [Kasper] is very technically clever and would always get it working, even if it meant opening it up and tinkering with it."

Colleagues rave about Kasper's wide range of skill in all levels of production.  But it is editing that he enjoys most.  "He's an excellent, meticulous editor," says Joan Sekler, a Los Angeles-based board member of the International Documentary Association.  "He's a perfectionist, very methodical, very careful and very organized."

By the time Trent and Kasper went into producing on the Nicaragua video, they had developed a large network of production volunteers in Southern California.  They decided to formalize the group in 1984 by creating the Empowerment Project.  "We wanted to create a support center, not just for our production work, but for other people who were doing similar kinds of things," Kasper says.

Having an established organization also helped raise funds.  Kasper and Trent started the Empowerment Project out of their home in Topanga, California, and eventually moved it to a larger space in Santa Monica.

Sekler, who is also a former publicist for the Empowerment Project, says that Kasper helped keep the large and growing organization on an even keel.  "He had a calming effect on people," she says.  "He never yelled.  He never got upset.  He respected other people's opinions and was very appreciative of those of us who worked on it for free."

On to Panama

The next major Empowerment Project video, Coverup: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair, reflected Kasper's continuing commitment to exposing covert operations of U.S.  foreign policy.  Coverup won worldwide acclaim and set documentary distribution records by selling more than 10,000 copies, mostly through the Empowerment Project's own distribution network.

Then the project embarked on its biggest challenge: After the United States invaded Panama in 1989, Kasper and Trent heard reports of civilians being killed.  They investigated and decided to produce a documentary.  The result was a video written and edited by Kasper about 2,000 civilians who had been killed during the U.S.  effort to maintain control of the Panama Canal.

Like Kasper's previous documentaries, The Panama Deception is delivered in a form that Chris Sims, program director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, describes as "a classic style of documentary.  It's straightforward.  It is pieces like The Panama Deception, which are very political and didactic, that serve a purpose."

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed.  The Panama Deception won the Oscar for best documentary in 1993.  The win was remarkable not only because of the intensely political subject matter, but also because the video was shot on the 3/4-inch format.  It was later transferred to 35mm film for theatrical distribution.

"I think a lot of the anti-video discrimination is disintegrating, fortunately," Kasper says.  With a grin, he adds: "But I can remember coming across some people who said, 'Wait a minute—that's not a film.  That's a video."'

Just as the hype surrounding their Oscar win was at its peak, a quest for tranquility led Kasper and Trent to relocate the Empowerment Project from Santa Monica to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  In late 1993, they moved the their headquarters into an old rural school and surrounding country buildings far from town.  In 1998 the Empowerment Project media facility was moved to a more accessible location in Chapel Hill.

Power Principles

The Empowerment Project had an immediate effect on the Tar Heel documentary scene.  According to Rosenbluth, who works as a producer with Insightment Productions in Hillsborough, North Carolina, Kasper has "probably helped hundreds of independent filmmakers to make their own work."

He should know: Rosenbluth is producing a documentary about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and hired Kasper last November as videographer for a shoot in Israel and the occupied territories.  "On a limited budget, to have an Academy Award winning cameraman is quite something," Rosenbluth says.  "It made a difference in the quality of the work."

Kasper's influence has also been felt by scores of student interns.  "If the Empowerment Project had never come," says Amy Weller, a video editor and educator, "my big fear is that I'd be in TV news or advertising." Weller met Kasper when he spoke at an undergraduate documentary class she was taking at the University of North Carolina.  For six months in 1994, she interned at the Empowerment Project, which led her to a job as an editor at the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco.  Then she launched her own video organization for teenagers.  Kasper " [helped me] script my life perfectly," she says.

Kasper also organizes a variety of low-cost workshops in field production, editing, and audio and lighting techniques.  And he offers individual instruction, sometimes for trade; free self-practice on the Empowerment Project's equipment; and referrals for area producers or community organizations.

Kasper designed the Empowerment Project's full-service editing facility, which contains a Media 100 non-linear editing system.  Digital technology has enabled him to do audio mixing and other post-production that was not possible for a nonprofit organization in the past, he says.

Although they are no longer a couple, Kasper and Trent continue to lead the Empowerment Project.  And although the organization barely makes ends meet, Kasper still chooses projects carefully.  Charles Ausherman, a client from the Institute for Development Training, an international health organization, talks about an offer from the Discovery Channel that he took to Kasper.  "David turned down a very lucrative deal because his heart wasn't in it," Ausherman says.  "I'm glad he has that kind of principles."

Kasper is currently producing and editing a documentary with IDT, which exposes the negative effects of the United Nations' sanctions on the health and welfare of the Iraqi people.  Telling yet another story that he believes Americans aren't being told inspires rather than intimidates Kasper.  "It's ...  not always easy to make things happen," he says.  "But it's where my skill is if I'm going to do something meaningful and have some sort of effect on society."

Kasper still lives outside of town in a yurt, a round tent-like structure tucked back in the woods.  He enjoys sailing alone in his small Sunfish sailboat.  Yet he says with a smile, "I do have a TV and VCR.

Jen Schradie is a video producer and writer in Durham, North Carolina.

David Kasper can be reached at