Local filmmaker produces “character-driven” documentaries
by Emily Blake
Mar 23, 2017 | 2002 views | 0 0 comments | 172 172 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Garret Harkawik frames a shot.
Garret Harkawik frames a shot.
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WILMINGTON- Local documentary filmmaker Garret Harkawik describes his films as “character-driven” documentaries. He has featured a range of eccentric personalities in his work, from Robert Fitzpatrick, who spent a significant portion of his life savings warning people about the end of the world; to Greg Packer, who for 20 years sought to be quoted in news stories, subsequently becoming one of the “most quoted people in the media;” and most recently, Ed Dames, who specializes in the psychic technique Remote Viewing, once used by the CIA.

Harkawik was living in Brooklyn, NY, when he and his wife Lauren decided to move to Vermont. Wilmington was a “totally random” decision, a result of putting an ad on Craigslist asking if anyone in the Vermont area had a house they could rent. They received a response from Wilmington and have been living in the valley since 2011.

“Living in the city working in film, I never had any time to work on my own projects,” Harkawik said. “Since moving up here I’ve completed four short films. It definitely was huge in terms of having more time and more inspiration.”

Moving to Vermont also made Harkawik realize how much he could create by himself without the help of a team.

“Working in film you’re so used to having a lot of people involved, a lot of people on set,” Harkawik said. “I work as a freelancer, so I’ll direct stuff, and you’re on set with like 30 people doing these tiny little jobs. Moving up here I realized I don’t need all that. I can do all that on my own.”

As a character-driven documentary filmmaker, Harkawik’s focus is on highlighting the character rather than the broader idea of a given topic.

“Where my films kind of differ from what a lot of people think of as a documentary is that I typically don’t make films about a topic,” Harkawik said. “I’ll make a film about a character, probably tied to a topic, but it’s always telling the story of a person.”

Harkawik’s latest documentary, “Remote Viewing Memories,” was inspired by a VHS called “Psi-Tech, The Impossible Challenge” that he found in a thrift store. The story is about Ed Dames, former military psychic, and the history of his company Psi-Tech, which specializes in a “mind technology” referred to as Technical Remote Viewing. After doing more research, what Harkawik originally intended to be a “little five-minute, weird video” about Ed Dames turned into a longer project.

“I ended up finding all these old news reports about (Dames),” Harkawik said. “Coincidentally, the CIA released a whole pile of a million declassified documents having to do with paranormal stuff, and I found a bunch of his old documents from when he was in the CIA, like the worksheets he would fill out. I just found this treasure trove of crazy stuff, so I ended up making a pretty straightforward 25-minute documentary.”

Harkawik said this was the first time that most of a project was the research.

“I didn’t actually interview any of these people, it was all found footage,” Harkawik said. “Everything I had was part of the research.”

“Remote Viewing Memories” is a contrast to his previous documentary, “No Needle, Just a Haystack,” in which he spent three years engaging with the subject of the film.

“It’s a totally different experience,” Harkawik said. “With (‘Remote Viewing Memories’), I don’t know any of these people - they’re strangers to me.”

“No Needle, Just a Haystack” follows Readsboro artist Nick Zammuto and his endeavors as a musician. Harkawik said he had been a fan of Zammuto’s work for years prior to starting the project. When he moved to Vermont and first reached out to Zammuto about an interview, he was excited to learn that Zammuto lived in Readsboro. Harkawik said he visited Zammuto and his family at their home about once a month to work on the documentary.

“It’s definitely the most ambitious film I’ve worked on,” Harkawik said.

Harkawik finds inspiration for his projects organically, trusting that he will just stumble upon a character he’d like to create a documentary about.

“I feel like I don’t really pick the story, the story picks me,” he said. “Once I realize I have a film I want to make, it’s kind of all-consuming and it’s all I think about.”

However, Harkawik admits there is a common thread throughout his work, noting that his first real documentary was about a man who believed the world was going to end on May 21, 2011.

“Obviously, if you look at my films there is a theme of people who are slightly delusional,” Harkawik said. “My new film is about a guy who thinks he’s a psychic and also thinks the world is going to end, so I think there is a theme of people who have sort of weird perceptions of reality.”

Whether or not Harkawik actually believes what the subjects of his documentaries believe is irrelevant. His goal is not to debunk their claims or paint them as detached from reality, but rather to explore how these characters really see themselves.

“Obviously I don’t believe these people (in ‘Remote Viewing Memories’) are psychics,” Harkawik said. “What’s more interesting to me is whether they believe they’re psychics. Do they actually believe they have these powers? When I do deal with these people I never try to debunk them — I’m more interested in what their lives are like.”

Because Harkawik didn’t interview anyone from “Remote Viewing Memories,” he had to consider his ethics as a filmmaker and how those ethics tie into his work.

“It is sort of this ethical dance for me, where I’m dredging up all this stuff about their lives and putting all this stuff out there,” Harkawik said. “But it’s already out there, I found it all online. I don’t want to create something that’s just merely a tabloid of ‘look at these weirdos doing this crazy stuff.’ I want there to be a point to the film.”

Harkawik acknowledged the importance of ethics in any documentary filmmaker’s work.

“The best documentary filmmakers are the ones who have developed their own style, and their ethics are their style,” Harkawik said. “If they have their own set of ethics, they’re probably a good filmmaker.”

As a freelancer, Harkawik said he directs “all kinds of different stuff” when he’s not working on his own projects. He has worked as a writer, director, producer, and editor for companies like Hasbro and Microsoft. Harkawik has also worked as a film teacher at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Film and The New School’s graduate documentary film program.

“I don’t really have a niche,” he said. “I do stuff locally, I do commercials for businesses and whatnot. I just finished up a commercial for a company outside Albany that makes scientific measurement instruments, so I do a lot of different stuff.”

Harkawik has established himself in the industry. He said he has a lot of repeat clients and that he’s “at a point now where it’s mostly word of mouth” in terms of finding new freelance work.

Harkawik is also a composer. He wrote the score for “Remote Viewing Memories” after having taken a break from composing for a while. Harkawik said he has always loved music and was in various bands in high school. In college he began working on his own music.

“In college I started doing a lot of sample-based music, like taking other songs, chopping them down, and remixing them,” Harkawik said.

He has released two LPs of sample-based compositions, “Mutually Assured” and “Thoroughbred,” both of which can be found on iTunes.

Right now Harkawik is focusing on of “Remote Viewing Memories,” submitting it to film festivals, and figuring out a release plan for the film. When thinking about what’s next, he isn’t quite sure yet, but is always open to new inspiration. “I’m always open to stories that are out there, so I try to keep my ear to the ground,” Harkawik said. “I’m in the process of figuring out what I want to do next. I have a lot of vague ideas, it’s just a matter of which one will catch my attention the most.”

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