Director of The Trials of Muhammad Ali Lovingly Remembered by Chicago Pal
I’m reeling from the sad news that my friend, the documentary filmmaker Bill Siegel, has died at age 55. Seeing all the posts about it today offers evidence of Bill’s impact on everybody he met. I first met him back in the nineties when I was bartending at the Rainbo in Chicago. Bill hailed from Minnesota and he would often come in with a Minneapolis friend in tow.
We shared our love of music and he always reached out for my year-end favorites. The bands Wussy and Bettie Serveert were two that he championed over the years.
Bill came to many Eleventh Dream Day shows, and it turns out the last I saw him was in August. Our band was playing the Neil Young album Zuma in its entirety at the Hideout in Chicago. There was Bill with that broad, almost conspiratorial smile. At our shows he often hollered out for the song Go!
Bill also introduced me to Paul Kahan (a winner of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef), inviting me to backyard bbqs at his home. Thanks for that, Bill.
The Cubs were another love. Bill had some nice season tickets and sent me many last-minute messages to join him for a Friday afternoon game. I wish I could have said yes more often.
Bill’s films earned him respect and honors. After working on the groundbreaking 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, Bill directed The Weather Underground (2003), which was nominated for an Oscar and The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013) which won an Emmy after being broadcast on the PBS Independent Lens series. The Ali movie in particular showed Bill’s skill and tenacity as both a scholar and filmmaker. A passion project that Bill worked on for more than 20 years, it explored a less-than-great chapter in the life of The Greatest – the period when Cassius Clay converted to Islam and was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years, and his eventual successful appeal before the US Supreme Court. In addition to the Emmy for Outstanding Historical – Long Form Documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali was nominated for Best Documentary by the NAACP. All of the above were produced by Kartemquin, the Chicago non-profit with which Bill enjoyed a long association
As much acclaim as Bill earned for his filmmaking, I mostly knew him from his day job, which was traveling around the country leading training seminars for Great Books. I was a middle-school teacher at Albany Park Multicultural Academy, and Bill used my eighth-grade class to create an in-house promotion for a new Great Books anthology in 2009. He brought a small crew in for a couple days filming me leading a group of students reading and reflecting on a fable about wolves and the Kurt Vonnegut story “Harrison Bergeron” using Great Books questioning methods. You can see the video— Click on the first “Watch students discuss.” I was honored later that year as a Great Books Teacher of the Year, and I wonder if Bill had helped sway that decision.
He loved his job, and had a true love for literature. I almost pursued the same gig with GB until I realized I couldn’t do the travel. Bill and I used to hang out at shows and talk about stories as much as music.
Bill helped me understand one important thing in education, and it’s surely true in documentary filmmaking, as well. The most important thing is not coming up with answers; it is knowing what questions to ask.
I’ll miss you, friend. You left too early.