J McMerty’s new documentary to make world premiere in Spain

The director of the Elon in Los Angeles program chronicled the life of acclaimed artist Betty Gold, and the final product will be screened on Nov. 3 at the 2017 Mallorca International Film Festival.

In truth, the title of J McMerty’s new documentary, “A Year with Betty Gold,” is a bit of a misnomer.  

J McMerty’s new full-length documentary, “A Year with Betty Gold,” chronicles the life of acclaimed artist Betty Gold, who is best known for her large-scale metal sculptures. She began her career at a time when women were locked out of the art market — and rose to international prominence. 
To be honest, the insight that artist Belly Gold shares isn’t limited to the past year, but rather is drawn from her 82 years of life, including her many professional and personal peaks – of which there are many – and valleys.

Secondly, McMerty admitted that he filmed the project over the course of 18 months, and the editing process afterward lasted about the same.

Lastly, the full-length documentary highlighting the abstract California artist is right at an hour long. Likely trivial, but that’s much shorter than a year.

Jokes aside, “A Year with Betty Gold” has been a part of McMerty’s life for three-plus years, and he’s thrilled to finally share it – and Betty – with audiences worldwide. With two U.S. film festival screenings under its belt, the documentary makes its world premiere on Nov. 3 at the 2017 Mallorca International Film Festival in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

(On-campus movie enthusiasts can also catch “A Year with Betty Gold” on Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in Turner Theatre. It will be featured with Assistant Professor Nicole Triche’s short documentary, “All Skate, Everybody Skate.”)

For McMerty, he welcomes the opportunity to promote Gold, whom he calls “funny, charming and so very interesting.” In a Sept. 26 Instagram post to friends regarding his new film, McMerty exclaimed, “Betty Gold is someone you want to meet.”

And, for good reason, because Gold has lived an inspiring life.

Born during the Great Depression in Austin, Texas, she was crowned Miss Texas and studied elementary education at the University of Texas. Always creative, Gold followed her interests in art, and worked and trained under the tutelage of sculptor Octavio Medillan. During the half-century since, she traveled the world extensively — studying, lecturing and often turning ordinary pieces of steel into large-scale outdoor sculptures. Today the internationally known artist has work in more than 75 permanent collections around the world.

“The film is really a biography of her life, as well as a glimpse in mind of a contemporary abstract artist,” McMerty said. “She has lived this unbelievable life and I think people will come away from the film really liking her. If that’s the one reaction people have – ‘Hey, it was nice to meet Betty’ – then I’ll be thrilled.”

McMerty is likely trying to recreate for audience members the initial feeling he had when he was first met the vibrant, witty octogenarian.

McMerty discusses the benefits and challenges of Virtual Reality goggles with students in his “The Sundance Experience” course in January 2017. 
After moving full time to Los Angeles five years ago – to oversee the Elon in Los Angeles program – McMerty was introduced to Gold by a mutual friend. An enjoyable lunch date eventually led to a video project in Gold’s Venice Beach studio. After two hours of filming, McMerty could see the potential for something greater: an introspective dive into her life.

“When I came to LA, I knew I wanted to work on a long-term documentary, but I was looking for the right project. I wanted something that I would enjoy spending a lot of time on, and where I could learn something. I found what I was looking for in Betty,” he said. “I love art, but I don’t really know a lot about it. In this film, I really wanted to highlight what she was thinking when she worked on a project.”

With Gold’s buy-in, McMerty moved into her neighborhood, renting Airbnb locations nearby and frequently dropping by to film, grab a bite to eat, or simply go for a walk together. His regular visits established a friendship.

McMerty found himself enthralled with Gold’s large-form sculptures, which often stand 40 to 50 feet tall. And he called her process for cutting huge pieces of steel rectangles and putting them back together “a great metaphor for anything, really.”

“I was at her workshop every other day, it seemed. I watched her make pieces and watched her sell pieces. And we talked about her life. And her love life,” McMerty said. “She was married twice. But these men would not allow her to do art. But, at some point, she just wanted to live an artist’s life.”

McMerty estimates he filmed more than 100 shoots during the documentary, much of them in Gold’s workshop and upstairs living area. He also accompanied her to pick up steel materials as well as a sculpture dedication in Palm Springs. Once filming was over, he turned the editing process over to two Elon alumni: Laith Majali ’05 and Katrina Taylor ’04.

Having been so immersed in the project, McMerty noted how beneficial it was to have editors detached from the shooting of the film. “I think it brought a different perspective than mine to the film, especially Katrina’s,” he said. “It was good to connect this story with a female editor, too.”

Both McMerty and Gold find it fitting that the film’s world premiere is set at the Mallorca film festival. Palma de Mallorca is home to more than a dozen of Gold’s awe-inspiring sculptures.