Les Blank and Maureen Gosling during the filming of Burden of Dreams.
In 1981, Maureen Gosling spent three months in Peru’s Amazon jungle, capturing filmmaker Werner Herzog’s obsessive quest to make the epic Fitzcarraldo. Gosling (B.A. 1971) was the editor and sound recordist for documentarian Les Blank, working on the 1982 film that would become Burden of Dreams.
Gosling and Blank captured Herzog and his crew trying to haul a 300-ton steamship over a mountain and interacting with Indigenous people who harbored profound doubts about Herzog’s motives. Actors whispered about quitting the movie. Two planes crashed, a border war led to the movie’s camp being attacked, and a lead actor became very ill.
“I was excited to be working around Herzog … but also apprehensive. I felt like the experience would be a real test of my philosophies, a direct confrontation with gut-level issues of human relations, art and reality, civilization and the natural world,” says Gosling, who worked with Blank for over 20 years and then directed many films of her own.
The scope of her work is vast: films with Blank about Louisiana, from Cajun and Zydeco music to jazz funerals and Black Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans; movies she directed about Indigenous Zapotec women in Oaxaca, Mexico (Blossoms of Fire), women textile dyers in Mali (Bamako Chic), and a portrait of American roots music record producer Chris Strachwitz, who recorded Cajun, Zydeco, Tex-Mex border, and Appalachian music (This Ain’t No Mouse Music).
Now 74, Gosling lives in Oakland, California. She recently premiered her newest film, The 9 Lives of Barbara Dane, a biography of a Detroit-born singer and activist, in October at California’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Bamako Chic screened in July 2023 at an international women’s rights and equity conference in Rwanda. Other films are being digitally restored and will be re-released.
“Each film is different, and each is a big learning curve—requiring you to become an ‘expert’ on the topic, from Cajun/Zydeco music, someone’s life, genetics to medical marijuana,” Gosling says in an interview.
“But what they share is that I care about the topic, issue, or person. … I am fortunate in my life to be able to work on projects that mean something to me. I have not had to compromise in my work.”
Maureen Gosling (left); Barbara Dane, the subject of Gosling's latest film, during a Vietnam War protest in 1964.
From Social Anthropology to Filmmaking
Gosling credits a high school boyfriend for turning her on to film, particularly European films they saw in Ann Arbor. “Wow, a film can be like that, I thought,” she recalls. Her feeling for the boyfriend dimmed; the passion for film burned bright.
She would go on to earn a degree at U-M in social anthropology, which she has to good use with the range of topics and cultures she has explored throughout her career. The degree also led to some important connections, including at an anthropology film festival in Philadelphia where she met Blank at a party.
She wanted to stay in touch, so she promised to send him his film reviews from the upcoming Ann Arbor Film Festival. When she saw him again at an anthropology conference in New York, he said he had received a grant to do a new film.
“But he was really waffling if he should go. He was depressed since his wife left him and was living with his best friend, who was his sound recordist. So he needed a new sound recordist.” Gosling urged him to do the film and offered to be his sound recordist.
So Gosling, who had never touched a tape recorder in her life, traveled to southwest Louisiana for over two months with Blank to make two films about Cajun and Zydeco music, Dry Wood and Hot Pepper.
“It was like jumping off a cliff. I knew I could never turn back,” she recalls. “It was absolutely fascinating—I was in Black French Louisiana, eating gumbo.” After that ended, she and Blank went to Leon Russell’s studio in Oklahoma, where they edited the Louisiana films and made a film about the singer-songwriter, A Poem Is A Naked Person. “We ended up staying there two years.”
Their lives continued to intersect. Gosling was living in Austin when she heard Blank was coming to film a movie about Tex-Mex border music nearby. So she helped him and Strachwitz film part of Chulas Fronteras. After Blank moved to Berkeley, California, because Strachwitz lived there, Gosling moved there as well. “This opportunity came, and I just jumped on it and kept going,” she says.
Mali, Paris, Germany, Cuba …
Life as an indie filmmaker has been a roller-coaster for Gosling, who never went to film school, one filled with scouring archives for vintage film, photos, and articles; filming around the world; and scrambling for grants and sponsors and showing at film festivals to seek distributors.
Some ideas sprout by mere happenstance and fortunate connections. Bamako Chic, for instance, was filmed in Mali, Paris, Harlem, Oakland, and Germany (where the damask for a fashionable fabric called bazin is manufactured). A friend of Gosling, who was living in Mali while pursuing her doctorate in art, did the research and knew who to interview. A woman Gosling knew was enchanted by a trip to Oaxaca and wanted to make a film, which led to Gosling assisting her and then completing the film. Gosling met a woman who knew the director of the Mexican Film Institute, which led to them becoming a sponsor.
Her new film about Dane merges Gosling’s interests in music, women’s rights, and social issues. The singer seamlessly moved through folk, blues, and jazz, a blue-eyed blonde who performed with entirely Black bands in the 1950s. Dane so impressed Count Basie that when the bandleader heard she was invited to perform with Louis Armstrong’s band in California but couldn’t afford the airfare, he paid for her flight from New York, sending a telegram that said simply, “Kill ’em.”
“Pick a 20th century social justice movement, and this unsung hero of American music was probably there,” she says of Dane, 96, who—thanks to singing in protest movements against the Vietnam War and one-time membership in the Communist Party—had accumulated a four-inch FBI film in her life.
The film also came about through a chance encounter. She had met Dane at Strachwitz’s parties in Berkeley. Dane’s daughter asked Gosling to edit a promo video for her mother’s new CD, released at age 89. Gosling also filmed the album release party in Oakland, traveled to Cuba for 10 days to film Dane’s concert and interview her son and grandson who live in Cuba, and ended up making a film. In making the film, she added another country to her travelog and another adventure to a life filled with them.
“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God,” Blank once wrote her, quoting Kurt Vonnegut. “I sort of like living that way; it led to some cool things in my life. Any adventure that produces a good story,” Gosling says with a smile.
Maureen Gosling comes from a distinguished U-M family. Her late father, Dr. Robert Jean Gosling, graduated from the U-M Medical School with a degree in physical medicine and rehabilitation in 1946. Her brother, Douglas Gosling, a master gardener at the forefront of California’s organic farming movement, studied at the LSA Residential College and graduated with a degree in botany in 1978. Her great uncle, Glenn Gosling, was director of the U-M Press from 1962–1972 and published authors that included Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. Her aunt, Shirley Gosling Moore, graduated from U-M’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance in 1957.
Photos courtesy of Maureen Gosling