The Visual and Environmental Studies chair’s office in the Carpenter Center looks as one might expect it to: stylish and modern, with soft light spilling in through expansive windows, minimalist white walls, glass tables, shiny metal details, and pops of color here and there. Robb Moss, the current chair, sits in the corner of one of the square black leather couches, and rests his cheek in his left hand.
“The chair of VES is like the chair of any department,” he begins. He rattles off various elements of the department: its diversely talented concentrators, the Carpenter Center art installments, and the Harvard Film Archive. The chair, simply, “is involved [with] trying to make all that run as smoothly as possible.”
Moss is the chair, sure, but he is also a professor of film and a documentary filmmaker. It’s refreshing that he stands out from his surroundings. In a navy fleece vest, dark pants, and hiking boots, Moss appears more practical than his aesthetic office.
“I think my filmmaking life is comprised of different parts, and some of it’s teaching, some of it’s making, some of it is just my relationship with the field,” he says.
Moss speaks quickly in undulating tones; the open room helps to carry his voice. But what he lacks in volume, he makes up for with conviction. A few minutes into the interview, I learn that he can’t say which movies he’s liked most in the past year; he never thinks in terms of favorites.
He’s also equally proud of all of his films. “That’s like asking someone which child they love more,” he says. “They’re all different, and depending on what mood I’m in, I can be proud or unhappy about anything I’ve ever done.”
I’m meeting him in the context of his Harvard office, but Moss’s filmmaking career has taken him from Fukushima to Ethiopia. His films, including “The Same River Twice” in 2003 and “Secrecy” in 2008, have been shown at the Sundance Film Festival. He collaborated with history of science professor Peter Galison on “Secrecy,” and they’re currently working on a project called “Containment,” which addresses the issue of containing nuclear materials. Three of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature—Jehane Noujaim ’96, Joshua Oppenheimer ’96-’97, and Richard Rowley ’00—have publicly thanked Moss for helping shape their work.
“I make a film as a way to try to understand something, grapple with a certain kind of problem, a certain kind of issue,” he explains. Those issues aren't simple. “Secrecy,” for example, delves into questions of national security, confidentiality, and democracy.
Other documentaries by Moss are more essayistic and personal. “The Same River Twice” is concerned with “the kind of shiny beautiful-ness of being young.... It’s about what you do with your life and your values and how things stay the same and change,” he explains.
Despite his successes, Moss does not hesitate to express the difficulty in filmmaking. “It’s a lot easier to critique other people’s films than to make your own,” he says. “It’s very good to make your own movie because it humbles you.”
Part of the trouble is bringing ideas to fruition. Nonfiction filmmaking, in particular, presents an unyielding set of ethical challenges. Moss describes an experience he had filming in Ethiopia at a refugee camp in which he had received permission to film from the owners of the camp—“western doctor types”—but his actual subjects were the refugees.
“I’m filming a woman who’s very weak, and I’m just making an image of her,” Moss remembers. “It’s not an interview, I’m just sitting next to her, and I’m filming her. And she uses some of her remaining energy to button her blouse, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh.’” A weighty pause. “‘What am I doing?’” He lets his question sink in.
At the heart of the dilemma is what Moss calls “intercepting people’s actual lives.” He says it’s an issue that comes up in his classroom all the time. “It’s not that [documentary film] is corrupt. It’s not that it’s evil,” he explains. “It’s just complicated. Ethically complicated. Every time you go into the world with a camera, it’s ethically complicated and worth noting.”
So what advice might Moss offer to aspiring documentary filmmakers? “Advice sounds like life-coaching, and that’s not what filmmaking is,” Moss responds. “Advice seems from the outside, and filmmaking is so much from the inside. It’s so complex and personal and thorny and difficult and emotional and intuitive and analytical. All these things that make it really impervious to advice.”
Having struck out with favorites and advice, I turn our conversation towards something Moss really cares about: his teaching. “I can say that I’ve been teaching for a very long time,” he says, “and still, when the door shuts, and it’s just the 10 students and the teaching assistant and myself thinking about film together for three hours, I’m still—I’m very happy.”