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Les Blank: Director, Producer, and Cinematographer

Photo by Harrod Blank


Les Blank (1935-2013), is a renowned independent filmmaker, whose poetic work offers intimate, idiosyncratic glimpses into the lives, culture, and music of passionate people at the periphery of American society. Topics have included Cajun, Mexican, Polish, Hawaiian, and Serbian-American music and food traditions, Afro-Cuban drummers, Texas bluesmen, Appalachian fiddlers, flower children, garlic, and gap-toothed women.

Blank is perhaps best known for his feature-length “Burden of Dreams” (1982), documenting the chaotic production of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo” in the jungles of South America. Honored with a Criterion DVD edition and winner of the British Academy Award, Roger Ebert called the film “one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made about the making of a movie.”

Another of Blank’s best-loved works is “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers” (1980), a seminal food film featuring culinary pioneer Alice Waters and the Gilroy Garlic Festival. The film, notorious for its mouthwateringness, is traditionally shown in “Aromaround”, with garlic simultaneously roasted in-theater.

Blank’s most recent film, “All In This Tea” (2007), is a feature documentary following tea specialist David Lee Hoffman to the most remote regions of China in search of the perfect leaf. Hoffman single-handedly opens the government’s eyes to the value of their own tradition, ensuring the survival of small, artisinal growers (“. . .a delicious documentary!” –The New York Times; “. . .an entertaining portrait of an eccentric figure whose singular passion proves infectious.” – Hollywood Reporter).

“I can’t believe that anyone interested in movies or America…could watch Blank’s work without feeling they’d been granted a casual, soft-spoken revelation.” – Time Magazine

“Blank is a documentarian of folk cultures who transforms anthropology into art.” – New York Times (John Rockwell)

“A master of movies about the American idiom… one of our most original filmmakers.” – New York Times (Vincent Canby)

“A brilliant filmmaker”
– Rober Ebert

Major Retrospectives

Hot Docs 2013: Les Blank Retrospective
Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley CA 2012
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY 2011
Film Forum, New York, NY 2008 (Complete retrospective in 16mm)
FILMEX, Los Angeles CA
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
National Film Theatre, London, United Kingdom
Independent Film Week, Augsburg, Germany 1990
Cinematheque Francais, Paris, France 1986
Cineteca Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico 1984
Leipzig Film Festival, Germany
Sofia Music Film Festival, Bulgaria

Selected Feature Articles

New York Times
Los Angeles Times
Rolling Stone
American Film
Film Quarterly
Village Voice
Mother Jones
Several NPR and CNN specials

Selected Awards

Outstanding Achievement Award” Hot Docs 2013

American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award for outstanding lifetime achievement as an independent filmmaker.

Edward MacDowell Medal (list of previous winners)

Lifetime achievement from International Documentary Association.

British Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary (Burden of Dreams)

“Best of Festival”, San Francisco Film Festival (Burden of Dreams)

Special Jury Award, Sundance Film Festival (In Heaven There Is No Beer?)

Blue Ribbon, American Film and Video Festival (Dry Wood, Hot Pepper, Always For Pleasure, Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Burden of Dreams, Gap-Toothed Women, The Best of Blank, J’ai Ete Au Bal, Yum,Yum,Yum! and Marc and Ann.)

Selection of two films (“Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers” and “Chulas Fronteras”) by the U.S. Library Of Congress for inclusion in The National Film Registry (joining Fred Wiseman and the Maysles brothers as the only documentarians so honored)

Selected Grants

The National Endowment For the Arts
The American Film Institute
The National Endowment For the Humanities
The Ford Foundation
The Guggenheim Foundation
United States Information Agency


Distinguished filmmaker-in-residence at San Diego State University
Adjunct assistant professor in film at the University of California, Berkeley.
Louis B. Mayer filmmaker-in-residence at Dartmouth College
Directing fellow at the Sundance Institute in Utah


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences