The following biography and filmography were compiled by Lauren Pilcher of North Carolina State University
Robert M. Young is a successful director whose early and foundational work included a variety of educational and documentary films distributed for classroom use. Young avoided permanent employment by a particular company in order to maintain his independence and creativity in the educational market before later moving to work with narrative film.
Young was born in 1924 in New York City, New York. His father was a self-made film entrepreneur who made a life for himself and his family, beginning as a cameraman and in time opening and owning his own film laboratory. Young gained early filmmaking experience from time spent with his father as well as creative influence from his uncle Joe Young, who was a successful songwriter and entertainer during the World War I years. As he got older, Young’s father urged his son toward a career in Chemical Engineering so that he might further the profitable family business. Following this path, Young attended MIT. He was unhappy at MIT and when World War II started, he left after two years of study and joined the Navy. While in the Navy, Young decided that he wanted to make films. Deployed to the Pacific, he was a photographer’s mate. He spent a year in New Guinea and significant time in the Philippines. These new experiences opened his eyes to the world, and as a result, Young saw a disconnect between his experience and the realities he saw presented in many films. This sparked a desire within Young to use film to communicate stories and ideas he thought were not being told.
Returning from the war, Young began classes at Harvard and started working on various short films on his own time. He studied English Literature as a part of the first post-war class at Harvard. After graduating, he and two friends with film experience formed an informal cooperative called Ritter Young Lerner Associates in order to pursue their shared filmmaking aspirations. Operating as a cooperative, money was disbursed among the three according to need and projects pursued as opportunities arose. Each project was also shared among the three, with one taking the lead on the particular film at hand. As part of the cooperative, Young found filmmaking opportunity in the educational field. His two earliest films were Rules and Laws (1951) and It Takes Everybody to Build This Land (1951). Young gained recognition as a director when the two films proved successful. Encyclopedia Britannica, a prominent name in educational film at the time and the company responsible for distributing the two films, offered Young a job making educational films. Young turned down the position, preferring independence and freedom to pursue his own ideas and work.
In 1956, Young and his associates made a series of films about sea life for Marine Studios, a new park venture for the housing and viewing of sea creatures (later renamed Marineland of Florida). This series, Wonders of the Sea, was filmed and cut for television episodes, and eventually compiled into a feature length film titled Secrets of the Reef (1956). With a very small budget for the project (twenty-five dollars a week, as he recalls), Young and his two friends designed the program, built elaborate sets, and collected sea creatures, in addition to producing the film. Young gained further notice as a filmmaker after the release and distribution of the Marine Studios project.
Soon after, Young parted with his cooperative Ritter, Young, Lerner Associates due to differing interests of the members. After his departure, opportunities continued to arise, resulting in educational films like Life of the Molds (1958, Affiliated Film Producers, Chas. Pfizer, & Co., and McGraw-Hill) and In the World of Sharks (distributed 1966, Blue Meridian Co.). In 1960, NBC approached Young about making films for their new public affairs program NBC White Paper. Young was reluctant, wanting to maintain his independence, but ultimately decided the company’s funds and international access was a worthwhile opportunity. A formal contract, however, was never drawn between Young and NBC, allowing Young to pursue his own topics of interest.
Working with the company on a film by film basis, Young traveled to the south to film Sit-In (1960), an installment of the series exploring the sit-in movement taking place in the South. The film would go on to receive a Peabody Award. With the network’s approval, he then traveled to Angola with a close friend to film the beginnings of the nation’s civil war. The two walked four hundred miles and traversed Portuguese lines to film the Angolan rebels for Angola: Journey to War (1961). Young’s work for the series and the NBC network turned out to be short-lived after his film The Inferno (1961) was denied airing because the material was deemed too controversial by NBC. This film, completed with the help of friend Michael Roemer, follows a destitute family living in the slums of Palermo, Sicily. With the decision to not air the film, Young left NBC and his film was destroyed by the network. Years later, the film resurfaced. A NBC employee who had seen the footage managed to have the original duplicated before it was destroyed and later returned the lost footage to Young. The film has been screened since and was recut with new footage added by Young’s son Andrew to create Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family, which won the 1993 Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994.
After leaving NBC, Young began to move beyond the educational market to pursue narrative film work. He, however, entertained various educational endeavors when opportunity and his interests coincided. In 1969, Cornell University psychology professor James Maas approached Young about making a film on psychotic art and a collection he had amassed. Young agreed and convinced Maas there was greater potential for a film that focused on a particular painter featured in the collection, William Kurelek and his painting “The Maze.” With partner David Grubin, Young made a forty-six minute film about Kurelek and his story, featuring personal interviews with the relatively unknown painter who was residing at a mental hospital at the time. The film was cut to thirty minutes for classroom use by Houghton Mifflin and the extra footage never released. Recently, Young’s sons Nick and Zach have relocated and updated the extra footage, as well as added animation to create a feature-length documentary about the now famous Kurelek and his work, William Kurelek’s The Maze (2011).
In the late 1960s, Young directed and provided the camerawork for the Netsilik Eskimo Series (also released by CBS in 1970 as the feature length documentary Eskimo: Fight for Life; the film went on to receive and Emmy for best documentary of the year). The series was the final installment of the controversial classroom program Man: A Course of Study launched in 1962. The program was produced by Educational Services, Inc., after a merger in 1968 renamed Education Development Center, Inc., and generously funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The National Film Board of Canada also backed the program for Canadian release. Young’s work in the series followed in detail the lives of the Netsilik Inuit of the Pelly Bay region of the Canadian Arctic. After small scale distribution and circulation in 1967 and on a large scale in 1970, the anthropologist-devised program was ended in 1974 in light of congressional controversy over the supposed ideology of the filmed content.
Young also worked on a series of films for the National Geographic Society that was widely distributed for classroom use. With Wolper Productions, Young directed Men of the Serengeti (1972), The Last Tribes of Mindanao (1972), Bushmen of the Kalahari (1974), and In Search of the Great Apes (1976). The films are the most widely available of Young’s educational work.
Young’s career transitioned to making feature films after the 1970s. In addition to his educational and documentary work, Young made over twenty feature-length, narrative films. Some of his most memorable work includes writer of Nothing But a Man (1964), and director Alambrista! (1977) and Human Error (2004). His aesthetic in both markets focuses on teaching experientially, on audience submersion in a realistic situation, whether actual or fictional. Young’s direction follows the close, diverse details of personal realities, drawing attention to the interaction of various details as part of a complex whole.
At 87 in 2012, Young remains involved with film and still professes a strong interest in documentary as he works alongside his sons and writes on his own.
Rules and Laws (1951), Ritter Young Lerner Associates
It Takes Everybody to Build This Land (1951), Ritter Young Lerner Associates
Wonders of the Sea (1956), Marine Studios
Secrets of the Reef also Miracle of the Reef (1956), Marine Studios
Life of the Molds (1958)
In the World of Sharks (distributed 1966, Blue Meridian Co.)
Sit-In (1960), NBC White Paper
Angola: Journey to War (1961), NBC White Paper
The Inferno (1961), NBC White Paper
The Maze (1969), Cornell University, distributed by Houghton Mifflin
Netsilik Eskimo Series (1967), installment in Man: A Course of Study, Educational Development Center, Inc.
Eskimo: Fight for Life adapted from the Netsilik Eskimo Series (1970
Man of the Serengeti (1972), Wolper Productions, funded by National Geographic Society
Bushmen of the Kalahari (1974), Wolper Productions, funded by National Geographic Society
In Search of the Great Apes (1976), Wolper Productions, funded by National Geographic Society
IMDB bio/filmography - http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0950005/
It Takes Everybody to Build This Land (1951) -http://www.archive.org/details/ItTakesE1951
Human Error (2004) website - http://humanerrorworkshop.com/
The Maze (2011) website - http://www.themazemovie.com/tag/robert-m-young/
Interview with Young about Netsilik Series and MACOS featured in Through These Eyes (2004) - http://www.nfb.ca/film/through_these_eyes