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WIU Professor Interviewed in Documentary by Former Student

March 21, 2022

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MACOMB/MOLINE, IL – An interview with Western Illinois University Film Professor Richard Ness is featured in a documentary about Iowa actress Jean Seberg, which will premiere on WQPT-Quad Cities PBS at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 27.

The film, "Jean Seberg: Actress Activist Icon," was produced by Emmy Award winners Kelly and Tammy Rundle, of Fourth Wall Films, and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Garry McGee, of McMarr, Ltd., who is one of Ness' former students.

Ness' interview features him as a film historian.

"My involvement with this film dates back more than 30 years to the beginning of my teaching career at Iowa State University, when I showed the film "Breathless" (A bout de souffle) in my film history class," said Ness. "I mentioned that actress Jean Seberg had grown up in Marshalltown, about an hour away from the university. One of my students, Garry McGee, was surprised that he lived in Iowa and had never heard of Jean Seberg, so he started doing some research and proposed making a documentary about her."

At age 17, Seberg was chosen from 18,000 aspiring actresses worldwide to perform in Otto Preminger's 1957 "Saint Joan," and starred in Hollywood films "Lilith" with Warren Beatty, "Paint Your Wagon" with Clint Eastwood, and the blockbuster "Airport" with Burt Lancaster. She is best known for her performance in "Breathless."

Seberg's offscreen civil rights activism, and her financial support for a program by the Black Panther Party to feed homeless children, made her a target of the FBI's COINTELPRO, and their plan to "neutralize" her initiated a downward spiral, leading to her mysterious and untimely death in Paris.

While McGee was one of Ness' students, he was able to get significant interviews with Seberg's friends and family in Iowa, some of whom are no longer living.

"I think it was when Garry came to me and told me he had put in a Freedom of Information Act request to get Jean's FBI files that I realized this was turning into more than just a typical independent study project," said Ness. "Garry completed a version of his film in order to receive a grade, but always felt like there was more he needed to add. Every few years after he graduated he would contact me about his progress on the project, which included trips to France to conduct more interviews."

McGee eventually teamed up with Kelly and Tammy Rundle to complete the documentary. An earlier cut of the film, "Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg," was screened at WIU a few years ago.

"Of all the student projects with which I have been involved over the years, this has been the most rewarding -- and also the longest," said Ness. "It's always great when you can inspire students to get excited enough about an aspect of a course to want to pursue it further on their own. It's also a reminder of why students need to show up for class, because they never know if they day they skip is the one that would have changed their life."

The documentary was an official selection at Raindance, the largest independent film festival in the U.K., and had its London premiere last November. It will screen at the AM Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA in April.

"She was a person, like all of us, who made good choices and bad choices," said McGee. "There were things that happened to her that she didn't deserve. Jean was just trying to do what was right. You see a consistent thread throughout her life of reaching out to people who had fewer opportunities than she had."

To see the film's trailer, visit

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