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IC Documentarians

Eclectic Expert

For Jon Nealon '93, it began with a cross cultural romance in a refugee camp.

The 2004 documentary film Goodbye Hungaria premiered at the 2004 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and has recently been acquired by the new English-language news channel Aljazeera International, which plans to run it this winter as part of its Witness documentary series. The first project produced, directed, and shot by Jon Nealon ’93, it follows the story of a male Palestinian refugee and a female U.S. volunteer worker in a refugee camp in Hungary. Nealon followed the two as they struggled to make life better for those trapped in the camp, despite the international bureaucracy that surrounded them. The pair fell in love, and eventually they moved to New York City to start a life together.

Sharu and Abed Al Sahil, the young lovers in Goodbye Hungaria

The film was Nealon’s project from beginning to end—stumbling onto the idea, deciding on what it would be, filming, all the way through to editing. “Goodbye Hungaria was a film for the sake of the film,” says the filmmaker. “It was never about money or making anyone else happy, just about making the best film I could make. Those opportunities don’t come up very often. Meantime I just try to find projects that are good.”

It’s best, he points out, at those times when “the work that pays and the work that’s good happen to be the same thing.”

Nealon got hooked on movies early and came to IC to major in film. “There, being exposed to different documentaries, I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to go with docs. They’re exciting and interesting. And to have a career in documentary, where you can become expert at various topics, is rewarding.”

Nealon makes his living as a producer, editor, and camera operator, often working for Oxygen Media in New York, and does his own work on the side. He became popular as a freelancer “by word of mouth, building up a reputation and contact list. Through the years you work with certain people, then they come into positions where they need people, and the other way around. I’ve also been able to hire a lot of friends I’ve made over the years.” 

Nealon is finishing up editing a documentary for PBS about a bias-related murder of a Sikh man, the first such murder that occurred after 9/11. In November he produced and edited an episode of The First 48, a homicide detective show on A&E.

His new independent project, on which Nealon is collaborating with his wife, filmmaker Jenny Raskin, is about the “videofreex” (video freaks), a collective of young people who during the late 1960s and early ’70s discovered video at the dawn of the medium. 

“This group found each other, got their hands on some equipment, and filmed throughout those years,” says Nealon. “Their story shadows the history of the culture at large. They produced a pilot for CBS television that was going to ‘revolutionize TV’; yet actually it was CBS’s covert operation to infiltrate the counterculture. The videofreex (VFs) pilot was totally different. But in the end CBS said, ‘No way.’ ”

Later the VFs went to CBS headquarters and “liberated” their own tapes. “They ended up moving to a cabin up in the Catskills, rigging a transmitter, and starting a pirate TV station. They broadcast every week—this was before cable, before lots of networks, when the media weren’t everywhere,” says Nealon. “They lived communally and made a TV show for the local town.”

The VFs broke up after the mid-’70s; they are now video producers, documentarians, a newspaper editor, a nurse. “None of them sold out; they all stayed true to themselves,” reports Nealon, who met one of them, Bart Friedman, now a successful video producer, at a screening of Goodbye Hungaria. “We had a beer together,” says Nealon. “He launched into this incredible story, and I realized this is a film waiting to be made. The quality of some of the footage, like at the May Day 1970 antiwar demonstrations in Washington . . . people are used to seeing shots by news cameras, but these are from the [VFs’] perspective; they’re down there getting clubbed by the police. It’s really visceral.”

Nealon plans to use the original footage to tell the stories, but much of it is fragile. “It needs to be saved,” says Nealon. “It’s been stored in attics and not well maintained. We need to raise a certain amount of money to preserve the footage. We’re taking this on as a long-term project; it will take a lot of time and care.”

Just like any good relationship, Nealon and Raskin are happy to be working together on the film. “We met on a project a long time ago,” says Nealon, “but we haven’t actually done a piece together. We’re hoping to create more work together on our own.” The two certainly collaborate well in other ways. Their twins, Bruno and Tess, were born on election day 2004.

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Tate MacDowell '93
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Jesse Zook Mann '02