January 15, 2003




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Jaime Kibben, 1947-2003
Activist filmmaker

By A.C. Thompson

Filmmaker Jaime Kibben was killed in an auto accident near Tel Aviv Jan. 11 while working on a documentary about Israelis and Palestinians striving for peace in the Holy Land. A longtime San Franciscan, he was 55.

Marin-based documentarian Michael Anderson was injured in the crash; at press time he was hospitalized in Israel in serious condition.

In a vapid era of fluffy docu-dramas and bogus reality TV shows, Kibben was committed to producing brainy documentaries that exposed injustice and challenged perceived wisdom. His body of work stands as a testament to his expansive heart. Among the films Kibben directed and produced are the shorts The Greening of Cuba, a look at the organic-agriculture revolution in Castro country, ˇYa no mas!, a Spanish-language slam on domestic violence, and The Will of Dean Snider, an hour-long piece on an experimental filmmaker preparing to end his life after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease.

I met Kibben in the late 1990s. I was mentoring jailed kids with a nonprofit organization called The Beat Within; he was shooting a short about the program. Equipped with a minicam, Kibben followed us into the locked-down world of a maximum-security juvenile jail and, defying my expectations, instantly developed a rapport with the teens, some of them accused of murder.

It was, I later learned, a classic Kibben production: serious subject, microscopic budget. But he didn't care. Kibben was happy giving the young men – "superpredators," according to the headlines circulating at the time – a voice.

"He could talk to anybody," remembers former colleague Elizabeth Farnsworth, a senior correspondent with PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Between 1990 and 1996, Farnsworth and Kibben traveled together relentlessly, filming 27 mini documentaries in 10 countries for the News Hour. "He was a very good newsperson. He cared immensely about the stories and the people. When the stories were funny he laughed. When they were sad he cried."

Ever the renaissance man, Kibben received an Emmy nomination for the musical score he wrote for Farnworth's 1990 PBS documentary, Thanh's War, which is about a Vietnamese American who returns to his native village.

Kibben also played behind-the-scenes roles on several fairly high-profile productions. Early in his career he was tapped to edit the dialogue in Errol Morris's acclaimed 1989 film, The Thin Blue Line, an investigation of the case of a Texas man wrongfully imprisoned on death row. More recently, he recorded sound for Live Nude Girls, Unite!, an HBO picture about San Francisco strippers forming a trade union, and Daughter from Danang, the painful narrative of a family bifurcated by the Vietnam War. Daughter won the Grand Jury Best Documentary prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

"I'll miss his fullness," said friend Vicente Franco, codirector of Daughter. "He was full of life, full of intelligence, full of emotion, full of fun. He was an enormous person."

Kibben is survived by his wife Jeri Lynn Cohen, daughters Julia Rose Kibben and Amy Rebecca Hess-Kibben, sister Roxanne Kibben, and brother Allin Kaufman Kibben. For information on memorial services and the Jaime Kibben memorial fund, go to kibben.org.

E-mail A.C. Thompson at ac_thompson@sfbg.com.