By Erin Saunter
Midnight Cowboy (1969) is the story of two outcasts — a naive young hustler and an ailing conman — who form a friendship in the squalid streets of ’60s New York City. The film, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, was a catalyst for using cinema as a way to shed light on the turbulent reality of the ’60s.
The 2022 documentary Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy details that moment in history and explores the lasting impact this gritty and groundbreaking film has had on cinema culture and society. Its director, Nancy Buirski, is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian who has always been passionate about exploring the intersection of art and information. In 1998, she founded the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.
Both Midnight Cowboy and Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy are showing at the Independent Picture House. Nancy Buirski is coming to IPH for a talkback following the Aug. 25 screening of her documentary. In anticipation of her visit, she shares her thoughts on the enduring impact of Midnight Cowboy:
What made you want to pursue this project, more than 50 years after Midnight Cowboy was released?
It’s the relevance of what’s going on today. History repeats itself, and I fear we haven’t learned enough, which is why I made the movie. Midnight Cowboy spoke to the universal human condition and shone a spotlight on serious issues like homelessness. More than ever, it’s hard to ignore how prevalent these issues continue to be today.
What can viewers who have never seen Midnight Cowboy expect from the documentary?
If younger audiences aren’t familiar with the turbulence during the 1960s, what we’re experiencing today is very similar. This film changed people’s views of society and had a way of opening up people’s emotions. You had the Vietnam War going on and a host of other political and social issues, and people were beginning to speak up in ways they hadn’t before.
Can you share a bit more about the lasting impact this film has had on the industry?
I think everyone interested in film cares that film can make a difference. Midnight Cowboy is one of the greatest films made in the latter half of the 20th century. Although there are a lot of indie films made today that touch on these topics, this was a unique film for the time period. Movies like this weren’t made back then by studios for mainstream audiences. When Midnight Cowboy first came out it had an X rating. This is the history of filmmaking and about a film that opened doors for a very different look at the world.
Do you remember the first time you saw Midnight Cowboy?
The first time I saw the film, it knocked me out. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on the screen. When I started this project, everyone I connected with shared how much this film meant to them. It changed their lives, and its resonance lasted.
Be sure to join us for an engaging conversation with director Nancy Buirski following the Aug. 25 screening of her documentary Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy.