JFK: The Home Movie that Changed the World – review

Image above: Presisent Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas; photograph colourised by Clayton Hickman

Exclusive preview at Chiswick Cinema of a new documentary by Chiswick originator and executive producer Steve Anderson, with colourisation by Chiswick artist Clayton Hickman, to mark the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination

Chiswick Cinema held an exclusive, pre-broadcast screening of the television documentary JFK: The Home Movie that Changed the World on Monday night (13 November) before it is airs on ITVX on Thursday 16 November to mark the 60th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas.

I thought I had seen every permutation of the story I could ever wish to see. Apparently there have been over 1,000 books written on the topic, 95% of which are conspiracy theories, which leave me cold. I will admit, I even fell asleep during Oliver Stone’s seminal movie JFK.

But this was different. It tells the tale of a Jewish immigrant to the United States, Abraham Zapruder, who was a home movie enthusiast, a middle aged garment manufacturer whose offices overlooked the route the president’s cortège would take, who had found a spot high up on a wall, where he could stand overlooking the road where the president would pass by.

As it happened, it was the spot where the president was killed. He saw it happen right in front of him and captured the moments from when the motorcade came round a bend in the road towards him, through the awful sequence when the president was shot three times, Jackie Kennedy crawled onto the back of the car and one of the security men climbed on to it from behind, in an attempt to shelter them, as the car sped up and raced away to the nearest hospital.

As the open limousine came towards him it was momentarily blocked by a big road sign and as the car emerged Zapruder saw the first shot jerk the president’s head forward, President Kennedy putting his hands to his throat and slumping over on Jackie Kennedy, and then his head exploding with the second shot.

Image above: President and Jackie Kennedy; image from JFK: The Home Movie that Changed the World

As revealed in an interview by Chiswick playwright and journalist Jonathan Maitland …

Journalist and playwright Jonathan Maitland interviewed executive producer and originator of the documentary, Steve Anderson, in front of an audience and as he pointed out, the footage had been seen on American television many times, but possibly never before in a cinema on a huge screen. It was profoundly shocking, even though you may have seen a version of that sequence many times before.

What made the documentary different was the focus on Abraham Zapruder, how he had come to America with his family at the age of 15, escaping pogroms in imperialist Russia. How he had never had a formal education and despite his success as a businessman he lacked confidence, which may have been why initially he had not taken his 8 millimetre camera with him.

He thought he wouldn’t get to see the president, that he was too short, he wouldn’t be able to get a clear view. It was his secretary Lillian Rogers who persuaded him to go back and get his camera. When he showed what he’d filmed to the FBI and to Life magazine reporter Dick Stolley later, they were amazed that he had captured the whole thing perfectly in focus, in a continuous, stable shot.

The documentary tells the tale of how Dick Stolley pursued Mr Zapruder, finding his number in the phone book and calling him every 15 minutes until he got hold of him, and how he showed up an hour earlier than other reporters so he could watch the footage with the FBI.

Abraham Zapruder respected Life magazine, he was a subscriber and knew it was very much picture-led. He trusted them to treat his 26 seconds of film in such a way that would show dignity and respect to the family. They did not use frame 3.13, the ‘head shot’ which we had just watched on the big screen. It was not shown on television in America until 1975 – 12 years after the assassination.

Inevitably there was a lot that the documentary makers cut out. Steve, who lives in Chiswick, is now something of an expert on the assassination of JFK.

I asked about the pressure Mr Zapruder had come under from reporters and he described how Stolley had taken an office in his building, separating himself from the pack, and how he had won over Mr Zapruder’s secretary Lillian Rogers, getting to know her and gaining her confidence while he negotiated with Mr Zapruder on a price for the footage.

The story is told from the perspective of those who were there – lots of young people who were teenagers or in their early 20s, who had turned out full of optimism and happiness to cheer on the glamorous celebrity couple.

One of Steve’s production team trawled through 2,000 bits of audio which had been gifted to the museum in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, finding an obscure nine minute radio interview with Mr Zapruder himself, which they had not even yet catalogued, and they spoke to his grand daughter on the effect it all had on him.

Another production technique that makes it more interesting is the colourisation. It is surprising what a difference the subtle colourisation makes. Zapruder’s film was in colour but Clayton Hickman (another Chiswick resident – of course!) added colour to the contemporary black and white photographs to match.

So if you are tempted to think ‘oh not another JFK documentary’, think again. It is worth the watch. Chiswick Cinema had to screen it twice on Monday evening to meet the demand. And now I am all out of Chiswick references – except that my neighbour Jeanette Smedley also worked on the edit. Now I think that’s it.

JFK: The Home Movie that Changed the World will be available to watch on ITVX on 16 November: itv.com