Off the Cuff: Filmmaker John Scheinfeld
We sat down with alumnus John Scheinfeld, OC ’75, in cozy Azariah’s Cafe to talk about his time at Oberlin and his passion for film. The College hosted a screening of Scheinfeld’s documentary, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, last night in Hallock Auditorium.
What was your experience as a student at Oberlin?
I had a great experience here. I came from Milwaukee, WI, and I didn’t know a soul here. I wasn’t pigeonholed here like I was in high school. I really felt that my greatest growing as a person was done here at Oberlin. It was an encouraging environment to be independent, to be smart, to be a free thinker, all of which I was, but they didn’t appreciate me in high school. But here they really fostered that environment. So, in essence, I could be who I was and grow into who I was.
Did you know you wanted to make movies coming into college?
I did. I picked an absolutely perfect school that didn’t have a film program! But I think what I really wanted for a college education was a very rigorous academic environment and that was what Oberlin was and still is. I didn’t come here thinking I would get training to be a filmmaker. I thought I would come here to get training to be a smart, curious person and look at the world around me, and that’s what I was able to do here. I think my parents had taken me to a screening of Lawrence of Arabia when I was about 10 years old, and I remember just looking up at the screen and going, “Wow, I have to be in this business.”
What prompted you to make a documentary about John Lennon?
I was a gigantic Beatles fan growing up. You know, I loved the music, I’d read all the books, I’d read all the articles. But in 1997, the FBI declassified a whole range of documents, some of which were about John Lennon. I read about some of them, and I was like, “Whoa, I don’t think I knew that.” It’s very rare you can find a story about an iconic figure that no one has heard before.
Do you think your movie is more relevant in a place like Oberlin that has a strong activist atmosphere or in a place that doesn’t?
I think it’s most relevant everywhere because I think the people [who] most need it are the people who don’t pay attention. The people [who] most need to hear the anti-war message are the ones that are pro-war. Students at a place that are free thinkers, this will resonate more for them. I don’t think you can persuade anybody necessarily who’s so pro-war to suddenly become anti-war, but if you can start some dialogue, if you can provoke some debate, I think that’s great.
What did you want to accomplish in making this movie?
Lennon’s work speaks to me. I think I wanted to get across the fact that he was quite a courageous man in many ways.
How do you feel about your movie being shown here?
I’m always fascinated by how student groups will respond. I’ve done a lot of campus screenings, and I love being around that energy and free thinking that comes with being a part of the school. But it is something that took place 30 some years before any students were born, so I’m curious how they’re going to respond.
What’s your strongest memory of Oberlin?
I did most of my growing as a young man here, so I will always be grateful to the school for providing the environment to enable me to do that. I have great memories of some of the teachers here. It was the intimacy of the school that enables students to have that kind of relationship with faculty members.
Last question: What’s your favorite Beatles song?
Probably Lennon’s song “Revolution” because I think it spoke to the times. I think it spoke to who he was as a person. I think it speaks to so many things, and it’s a great rock and roll song.
Interview by Jackie Sojico