WILLIE, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts,
Willie Jaramillo’s impish grin might haunt you. In
(1985), the documentary about his life made by legendary civil rights photographer Danny Lyon, he is in his early thirties and has been incarcerated, on and off, since his teens. Willie grew up in Bernalillo among many brothers. His friends and family inform Lyon and his camera that Willie is irrational and prone to violent outbursts, but the man we meet acts more damaged than dangerous. His mind is obviously addled — by drugs, by repeated beatings to the head, by a lifetime of losing people he loves to heroin overdoses, and by other, unnameable ways in which life hurts some of us more than others.
Willie is locked up and released several times during the movie for small acts of violence that we do not see. It is possible that Lyon has a calming effect on Willie, who he began capturing on film when he was twelve. Lyon’s black-and-white footage of Willie and his brothers and neighbors running around the barren high desert appears in an earlier movie, (1971), and is repurposed in The sun-bleached moving images are juxtaposed with the prison-cell walls of Willie’s present day. As a kid he is soft-spoken and bashful, hesitantly trusting of Lyon’s interest — a bit like a stray dog who has slept in the rain often enough to know howling won’t get him invited inside. Older Willie still seems like a little boy.
Lyon presents a screening of on Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Center for Contemporary Arts, followed by an onstage conversation between Lyon and Tey Marianna Nunn, director and chief curator of the art museum and visual arts program at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. The event is part of the Radical Southwest film series offered in conjunction with the New Mexico History Museum’s Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest exhibition.
Lyon, born and raised in New York City, attended the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. He emerged as a powerful artistic and journalistic voice as the staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lyon’s pictures of the protests and police brutality that occurred during the civil rights movement are among the most iconic images of the era. Later, he became a practitioner of Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo journalism,” joining the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club and publishing
a collection of photographs and interviews from his time with the gang, in 1968. He then spent over a year photographing the bleak conditions inside several Texas penitentiaries and subsequently published (1971).
Lyon and his family lived in Bernalillo in the 1970s. In the ’70s and ’80s, he turned his attention to documentary film, making more than a dozen featurelength pieces; his wife, Nancy Lyon, served as sound designer for Willie appears in 1977’s when he is in his late teens and obviously using drugs. In we learn that he gravitates to inhalants like paint and glue, and sometimes to heroin. His brother, Ferny, also likes to sniff, and friends note that it has started to affect his mind. (He has been seen around town talking to himself.) We meet another brother, David, and a much younger sibling, Randy, who is a peer of Willie’s nephew, Jamie, a jaded, beer-swilling boxer barely in his teens.
is unfussy, like an exceptionally well-made home movie, but the strength of the story arc indicates an experienced editing hand and a filmmaker who engenders trust in his subjects. It is a time capsule of Northern New Mexico, highlighting Bernalillo’s street fashion, parking-lot culture, and rhythms of speech. Women appear only in the background of the movie. We are told they are afraid of Willie — they don’t even want him to look at them.
It is within music that Willie finds moments of grace. The first instance of this is when he sings a hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” while sitting under a bridge on the banks of the Río Grande, just after revealing to Lyon that he had been present for the 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary. He gets a flat, faraway look in his eyes while talking about it, and seems to revert to a place of quiet paranoia and mounting anger. “Why aren’t you dead? You’re supposed to be dead,” he says people told him after the riot. The second instance of this grace is when he is hanging out with a friend, talking about people they used to know, and the 1964 hit “Because” by the Dave Clark Five comes on the radio. Willie knows all the lyrics. He sings along and does a happy, easy dance to the oldfashioned melody, and his perpetual expression of hurt confusion disappears. There is a man inside of him who is untouched by the depredations he has endured. Given half a chance, he might have been a crooner.
The last time we see Willie, he is being escorted to a courthouse. As soon as he is behind closed doors, away from the camera, we hear him melt down, thrashing against restraints and accusing the guards of trying to kill him. Lyon captures only the audio of this — perhaps because he wasn’t allowed inside, or maybe in an effort to maintain the dignity of this tragic figure who he watched grow up in the unrelenting glare of the New Mexico sun.
“Willie” screens at the Center for Contemporary Arts (1050 Old Pecos Trail), followed by a conversation with filmmaker Danny Lyon and Tey Marianna Nunn, at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12.