The unconscious mental voyages to weird places and with stranger people, the daytime rambles that are only slightly more rational — I’ve always been good at dreaming. To my chagrin, but not my surprise, I was recently informed that my biggest red flag is that my head is often off somewhere in the clouds. Yet, despite all this dreaming, in college I find myself a tad bit lost: How do people discover their dream jobs? In this column, I endeavor to not only stumble upon my future career but maybe yours too…
In honor of the recent screening of “All Static & Noise” here at Tufts, today we will meet David Novack, the producer and director of this new, exposing documentary. The film is a collection of testimonies from family members of Uyghurs who have been detained and from survivors of Chinese ‘re-education camps.’ Their stories bring attention to the brutality of state-sponsored oppression of the Uyghur population in Western China.
How Novack found himself in the position to help build an international platform for Uyghurs to share their stories began back in 1982 at the University of Pennsylvania. He was studying engineering, singing with choirs and performing in music pits, when he met his wife Nancy, who was a film major and more recently the film editor of “All Static & Noise.” After a quick stint in the pharmaceutical industry, Novack immediately sought out a different career path: One that would stimulate the “music side” of his brain.
“I came across a music video in 1985, … and I was listening to the sound of the drums in this piece of music, and it became clear to me that there was an engineer behind the creation of that sound,” Novack said.
So, off he went to Berklee College of Music for music production and engineering. For the next decade, Novack worked in sound mixing for film; however, he always knew he wanted to someday produce. The first story he found was inspired by the history of his great-great uncle, a famous Jewish liturgical musician in Ukraine. This inspiration would become his first documentary: “Songs of Odessa.”
“[After “Songs of Odessa”], I sort of had this two-sided thing again, where I really liked filmmaking and I had been learning the language of film through mixing,” Novack said.
While the “Songs of Odessa” took Novack to Ukraine, his next expedition led him to the U.S. Mid-Atlantic. A pitch that began as a “positive reality show” about researchers (the market, more focused on reality TV like “The Bachelor,” wasn’t ready) turned into a human rights documentary that exposed the dangers of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia and Kentucky: “Burning the Future: Coal in America.”
“The nature guy in me who was very much connected to my father — who was a landscape architect and botanist — said, ‘Wow, this has landed in my lap for a reason. I am meant to make this film. And I’m going to make this film,’” Novack said.
I know that Novack’s career path has been a winding one, but we are learning that following passions often is, so stick with me. These experiences along the road were the catalyst for Novack’s strong filmmaking drive and “solidified not only the filmmaking process, but [his interest in] making films that have some connection to human rights, … bringing awareness to things that are going on that people don’t know about.”
Another career pivot occurred when Novack became a professor. He has now produced four films, and he teaches graduate and undergraduate film as well as sound studies at a university in Lisbon.
“I decided that … I would teach sound and film so that I could share my knowledge and continue to grow and continue to do research in the sound sphere, but with a little more liberty in time,” Novack said. “There’s more freedom of time in academia than there is in industry, for sure.”
From sound engineer to producer to professor, Novack’s career is not a sedentary one.
“You know, I feel like these things call to me. People ask, ‘What’s your next film?’ I don’t really know yet,” Novack said.
While traveling in China, at the request of the U.S. Department of State, to share “Burning the Future: Coal in America,” Novack met Janice Englehart, who became his co-producer of “All Static & Noise.” From the get-go, the new film was about human rights and more general changes in China.
“We learned of what was escalating in Xinjiang and the Uyghur Region. The more I dug into it, the more I realized it really had to be a film of its own,” Novack said. “That’s how the paths are — not linear, right? Our career paths are often not linear nowadays. They don’t need to be linear. I think a linear career path is a thing of my parents’ generation.”
I asked Novack if he was living his dream career. It was a question I was scared to ask because career satisfaction feels deeply personal, and I also worried if the mere concept of living our dreams bordered on being too cliché. In any event, to share our journeys is vulnerable, so I thank Novack for sharing with us today. This is what he said:
“I don’t feel like I'm living my career dream because I don’t think that really exists. I think we can have career dreams, [but] when we are in them, … we’re usually thinking about other things that we really want to get done,” Novack said. “I honestly don’t think [a dream career] exists [for me], because I love to do everything.”
Based on our conversation, I know that as an audience we can expect more Novack-produced films in the future (maybe even fiction?), but for today I would like to end with “All Static & Noise.” Here is what you should keep in mind before watching:
In 2017, Communist Party leaders gave a speech at Xinjiang University, which “painted Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in the Uyghur Region as ‘terrorists,’ guilty of ‘separatism.’” Novack expressed his disapproval of this censorship.
“[The official] said that people have to speak the party line, and anything else — anything outside of what is permitted to be said — is static and noise, and all static and noise has to be eliminated,” Novack said.
In referring to itself as “All Static & Noise,” the film is a revolution. It is a declaration that, despite the risks, noise will be made. Spreading awareness helps amplify the brave voices that speak out for freedom and safety. With that said, I will keep you posted on when “All Static & Noise” comes back to Boston.
Wishing you luck in all your dream-catching endeavors…