When Eduardo Montes-Bradley set out to make a documentary about poet Rita Dove, he wasn't interested in information readily available in the public domain.
After creating more than a dozen films about famous writers, the Argentinian-born filmmaker and local resident has become a master at cutting through the superfluous to get to the human within. The result of his two-year journey to document the evolution of Dove from a young girl to a world-renowned poet can be seen for free this evening at the Paramount Theater.
Tonight's program honoring Dove for her contributions as an American poet will begin at 6 p.m. with a reception. This will be followed at 6:45 p.m. with the world-premiere screening of Montes-Bradley's film, "Rita Dove: An American Poet," as well as remarks by Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthews Band.
The free event is being presented by the Office for Diversity and Equity, Lifetime Learning, Alumni and Parent Engagement and the Department of English, College of Arts and Sciences. Dove, University of Virginia Commonwealth Professor in the Department of English, has been teaching at UVa since 1989.
"One of the reasons I moved to Charlottesville is because of the immediate possibility of tapping into the immense and very rich resources of intellectual life around the university," said Montes-Bradley, who is also a published author and journalist.
"The first film I did here was on Julian Bond, which came out last year. Although he wrote two or three poems in his life, he is not a poet, and I felt I really needed to get back in touch with literature.
"I was also looking to continuing to explore the African-American experience, which to me as a foreigner is an issue of great interest. To have someone like Rita Dove expressing herself in generational terms by talking about her father and grandfather in her poetry was, to me, like a triple jackpot.
"I got the writer I was looking for. I got the story I was looking for, and I had it all right here at home."
The film Montes-Bradley did about Bond is "Julian Bond: Reflections from the Frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement."
When Montes-Bradley turned his focus to Dove, he wanted to concentrate his efforts on her formative years.
"I make films because I want to learn, not because I want to teach," Montes-Bradley said. "My films are my thesis on the issues I pursue.
"I believe if you can dig into the past of an individual such as Rita Dove, what you would find is the recipe for the process of becoming the poet. What makes Rita Dove who she is? That's what I was interested in, because the rest you can find anywhere you want.
"Yes, she was the United States poet laureate, and poet laureate of Virginia. Yes, she won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and won the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts. We know all this.
"Now, did she prefer her daddy's ice cream or her mother's apple pie? That's something you can't Google; you have to see the movie."
Montes-Bradley said one of his first challenges was earning Dove's trust. It was vital, because by doing so he earned access to hundreds of photographs and 8mm films from the family archives in Akron, Ohio, where Dove grew up.
The still photos and home movies enabled the filmmaker actually to see Dove coming of age. Viewers will learn about the poet's early relationships with music, church and family and her first exploration of the world beyond her hometown.
"In the film, you will see Dove's family connections and what it meant to be a middle-class African-American growing up in a place like Akron in the 1950s," Montes-Bradley said. "How much was she aware or not aware of segregation?
"Then she goes to Mexico in 1968 and, on her way, she discovers the segregated beaches in Florida and Alabama, and she seems surprised by that. In Mexico, she realizes there are no lines of color, and that is very interesting to her.
"And then, one day, she just flies away to study in a small town in Germany. The woman who comes back from there is the Rita Dove we all know. The Rita Dove you are going to meet in my film is the one who went to Germany, not the one who came back."
During the making of the documentary, Montes-Bradley said he knocked on many doors hoping to get financial support for the project. When it wasn't forthcoming, he bankrolled the film himself.
Montes-Bradley's determination to create the film was fueled largely by his belief that the local community, as well as the world's community, should know about the wellspring from which Dove draws her poetic words and themes.
"I believe Rita Dove is way beyond the scope of many of her peers," Montes-Bradley said. "She sets her sights high and far, and she enjoys life like no other poet I have known.
"In that sense, she evokes the idea, the image, of what one might have of the ancient poet. A poet of contemplation, and not the stereotype of the tortured soul. Her poetry is a poetry I'd never heard of before.
"It's academic poetry, which is alive and doing very well in the U.S., but nowhere else. It's poetry that's created within the boundaries of the university and behind the walls of academia. It's not main street poetry.
"Instead of bringing the poetry into the prose, she brings prose into the poetry. She tells stories that are not isolated feelings, or cryptic. There's an extraordinary force of storytelling behind her poetry."
Montes-Bradley is planning to do his next documentary on the African-American experience at James Madison's Montpelier. But this evening, the focus will be on one of the world's great poets, who just happens to live among us.
"I took profits from my private projects to make this film about Rita Dove, because I believe the community needs, and has, to see this," Montes-Bradley said. "The film now has three of the best distributors in the world for academic material like this.
"These three entities will offer this film to high schools, universities and colleges all over the world. That makes me very happy."
The world-premiere showing of the documentary film "Rita Dove: An American Poet" will be presented at 6:45 this evening at the Paramount Theater. There will be a reception from 6 to 6:30 p.m. Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthews Band will speak during the event. The program is free and open to the public, but people are asked to register at www.theparamount.net.
Screening of “Rita Dove: An American Poet”
6 to 8 this evening