Wild Human: Q&A With ‘Moundsville’ Co-Director David Bernabo

Moundsville (PBS) was born at a dinner party in Pittsburgh in 2017. I was yearning to do something deeper than daily journalism about America, American history, and small towns that were being superficially treated by our media and culture. At a dinner party, I proposed the project as a film to David Bernabo, a Pittsburgh artist who had already made a bunch of documentaries. Dave said yes. We got a $4,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Arts Council and started traveling to Moundsville. Dave did all the technical, visual and musical work, while I handled sourcing, research, interviews and marketing. We got along. The adventure worked out.

Dave grew up around Pittsburgh, and after working a corporate job, quit to devote himself to all kinds of art. He makes films, plays guitar, dances and paints. I’ve seen him make music out of plants. He’s made over 200 musical albums. He’s also pretty good at basketball. Da Vinci on the Allegheny, I call him. I love Dave’s esthetic sensibility. He is one of the purest artists I’ve ever met. “It’s a wonderful feeling to contribute more mini worlds to this world, regardless if 10,000 people get to check it out or if I’m the only audience for it,” he says.

Here’s a Q&A with Dave:

What got you into filmmaking? An accumulation of things. In high school, friends and I started attending the Carnegie Museum of Art film series, seeing Iranian and Italian films. Antonioni’s Red Desert blew my mind. In undergrad, my friend Steve Tsou invited me over for frequent movie nights, which introduced me to the brilliance of Bresson, Ozu, Abbas Kiarostami, and Wong Kar-wai but also Every Which Way But Loose and Gremlins 2. I made some not great films in college. Carnegie Mellon had a filmmaking club, and you could borrow a $30,000 digital camera whose capabilities would be dwarfed by the latest iPhone. But my first film arose from documenting my art practice. I had been working on paintings, but was inching into more installation art. I was filming experiments in my art studio–had a studio in the Mine Factory building for five years until our rent was tripled by vulture landlords–with smoke and light and movement. This interest in documentation grew out of a two-channel video that my then studiomate Emily Walley and I made for the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The process of making that installation was a blast, and I was curious about how other artists worked. The resulting documentary was Ongoing Box: A Film About Process, my first film in 2013.  

What motivated you to make Moundsville? Well, there was a certain John W. Miller who came up with the idea. I was making a ton of documentaries in 2018–I finished the edit on five feature-length films that year. So, when you suggested Moundsville, it sounded like a fun idea. I had never made a documentary film with someone else and rarely worked outside of Pittsburgh, so the film seemed like a good learning experience. Also, I tend to view art making as social–it’s certainly not financial. So, it was a great way to build a little community of new friends and contacts.

I get a lot of questions about the soundtrack of Moundsville. How did you make all those funky sounds? I’m a big fan of an original soundtrack for documentaries, as opposed to stock music. The goal was to make something a bit quirky. The instrumentation consists of instruments that were passed down through my family (accordion) or that evoked a sense of nostalgia (toy piano). 

Why is there no banjo in Moundsville? There is banjo in Moundsville, but the banjo notes are transformed into a series of layered drones by crossfading the decay of notes into each other.

What kinds of lenses did you use? The original concept was to use a bunch of camera lenses from different eras to represent different decades reflected in the film. Author Sherrie Flick gifted me a few lenses and I had a few others. So, there are Canon and Minolta lenses from the 50s to now. The results of the approach are open to critique, but I do love the images taken with the Daguerreotype Achromat lens, which is a new lens that riffs on the first photographic lens made for the Daguerreotype camera. You can see the edges blur and the scenes settle into a lovely softness.

You grew up in Pittsburgh. Did you go to small towns as a kid? What was your perception of them? My dad’s family settled in Bolivar, PA after coming to the States from Italy. I have a vague memory of the town–a few blocks of commerce, houses, and a hall where we had family reunions. I remember shadows of a tree on the face of a building. At that time, I wasn’t aware of socioeconomic concerns, though. I think the awareness of small towns, deindustrialization, and the hope of new economic opportunities grew later in life. My wife had a lot of family in Shamokin, PA, a beautiful town also greatly impacted by industrial decline. Road trips and driving backroads brought me through a number of small towns. I like the mystery of a place that is unknown to me since there is always so much to learn.  

How did that change making the film? It’s good to go into a film like this with an awareness of certain things. 1) You are not the expert on the lived experience of this town. 2) Different interviewees have different experiences, and one approach to documentary filmmaking is to present those different experiences as transparently as possible. I also like providing conflicting opinions in a film. It might provide the audience more room to find their place in the film. Also, being empathetic to a person’s experience and argument is useful in the editing stage. I try to avoid manipulating or corrupting someone’s words.

What’s your favorite part of the film? That’s hard to choose. I really enjoyed filming Steve Hummel’s Archive of the Afterlife. I also love watching things being made, so filming at Shutler Cabinets was great. That was one of the easiest sections to edit, because there were so many interesting steps to assembling a cabinet, and we had a lot of time to set up nice shots.

Who’s your favorite character? Another tough question. Everyone in the film is so thoughtful, how can you pick a favorite interviewee?

How important are ghosts in the film? Like any historical analysis of a place, this story is indebted to ghosts: ghosts of founders, industries, and aspects of the environment. The Mound, built by the Adena people, literally looms over every person and building and road and gas station and reuben sandwich in Moundsville.

What’s your favorite reaction to the film? I can’t remember specific responses–pandemic brain. I’m glad some people loved it. I’m glad some people hated it. It’s proof that people are actively watching and assessing the film and seeing how the conveyed information fits into their understanding of Moundsville.

Is there anything you’d do differently if we had to do it again? Documentaries are such a product of a time and place. I always like presenting documentaries as a history instead of the history. A documentary about Moundsville made in 2025 would probably be very different from our film. If we were to do it again, I’d buy a better tripod, but I think we made a nice snapshot of Moundsville at that time.

What are three films you’d recommend people can watch to discover the rest of your work?

Eating & Working & Eating & Working is a film about food labor. The film spends a day with eight food workers, which was a lot of fun for me. I think it’s one of my most successful films in terms of blending social justice work and documentation of process. It’s the first film where I dove deep into the sound design. It was a delicious film to make. 

Wild Human is my most personal and vulnerable film. I was edited it concurrently with Moundsville but the tone is very different. It’s at times a bit smarmy, sometimes a bit detached, but mostly wide-eyed with wonder for this world.

The Vacation is a culinary tour through Italy. And it’s free to watch! I have made six films about food, so it’s a subject that has ushered me through various filmmaking learning curves. I also learned how to cook somewhere along the way.

What are three other pieces of non-film art people should know about? I make a lot of music–over 200 albums at this point. Watererer is my main band creative outlet. We released three albums since the pandemic started, but unfortunately had to cancel our first album release show in March 2020. Watererer is the most advanced music that I’ve written and the level of playing of my studio bandmates is really out of control. I’m super lucky to be around these musicians. It’s an incredibly fun collaboration that affords me many hours to tinker on the mixes and arrangements by myself. It’s both social and hermit-like.

I love working with choreographer Maree ReMalia. In 2019, I was in Maree’s piece A Letter Compiled from All Letters. I danced in it, made the music, and collaborated with Gigi Gatewood on the video elements. We did three iterations of the piece, and I think it turned out to be a wonderful work. Wonderful cast of dancers and collaborators. 

I’m really happy with my sculptural work from a few years back. Blaine Siegel and I had a two-person exhibit at the massive SPACE gallery in Pittsburgh. I’d love to work on this scale and with these materials again. 

What are your favorite movies/tv shows about the Rust Belt? I loved Amanda Kolson Hurley’s book Radical Suburbs, published by Belt Publishing. It’s about how certain suburbs were originally built as utopias. But also, much more. I love Les Blank’s films. There are a few examples that would count for the Rust Belt theme, like “Sprout Wings and Fly” from 1983. 

You’re a very prolific artist. What motivates you to make art? Lots of things. Much of it is social. I tend to hang out with people that I’m collaborating with, and hanging out with a shared purpose is such fun. Also, I love the physicality of art objects. I tend to collect what I’d consider a modest amount of LPs and books, and each one is a world unto itself. It’s a wonderful feeling to contribute more mini worlds to this world, regardless if 10,000 people get to check it out or if I’m the only audience for it. 

What are you doing now? Well, today, I just finished the edit on a book of interviews with and about composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny. I’m sending it to press this week. I made a documentary about “Blue” Gene that premiered in 2020, a few months before he passed away. “Blue” performed with Iggy Pop, Robert Ashley, Carla Bley, and Laurie Anderson at different points. He’s one of my favorite composers and musicians and the kindest soul. This book collects the extended interviews from the film. It’ll be available via my bandcamp page at some point this spring.

John W. Miller

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