The diplomat’s documentarian brother

A diplomat and an independent documentary filmmaker: the two Negroponte brothers could not have followed more divergent paths to fame.

After John’s birth in London, his Greek parents moved the Negroponte family to New York City, where Michel was born and raised. John came to Yale after attending Phillips Exeter Academy and eventually became a high-ranking statesman in the United States government. He served as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, the ambassador to Iraq and to the UN, and the first ever Director of National Intelligence. He has now come full circle, returning to Yale as a research fellow and lecturer in international affairs.

John Negroponte has devoted his life to shaping global politics through dealing with the most powerful men in the world.

Michel, on the other hand, walks around New York with a handheld VHS camera, recording the stories of crack whores, the mentally unstable and the homeless. He has become a powerful voice for people who don’t have their own means of speaking out.

John Koch of the Boston Globe wrote, “Negroponte has a painter’s eye and a novelist’s reach.”

After studying film at Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1970s, his full-length documentary, “Jupiter’s Wife,” released in 1995, became an international success.

The film, narrated by Negroponte, begins with a monologue about Central Park, where he and his brother John “found native soil.” “Jupiter’s Wife” focuses on Maggie, a homeless woman who spends her life traversing the park’s 843 acres. She claims to have extrasensory perception and to be the daughter of movie star Robert Ryan and wife of the god Jupiter. Upon meeting Negroponte, she says she had been expecting him and has been communicating with him telepathically for several days. The documentary follows two years of her life, during which Negroponte tries to unravel the mystery of her past.

Negroponte catches glimpses of Maggie’s fabricated reality and uncovers her complex network of community, support and friendship. These insights are peppered throughout the film, as Maggie, the creator of this alternate world, reveals them nonchalantly. She constantly listens to a radio, for example, and at one point mentions that it is tuned to Jupiter’s frequency. She later describes her ESP as nothing more than “a finely tuned perception of other people’s desires and goals.”

Jupiter’s Wife leaves the viewer with a sense of the beauty of humanity and the value of individual people, no matter their idiosyncrasies.

The film was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, the Grand Prize for Best Feature Documentary at both the Vancouver and Santa Barbara film festivals, and an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Documentary.

Negroponte has followed this tour de force with similarly lauded documentaries including “W.I.S.O.R” — described by celebrity filmmaker Ross McElwee as, “The best science fiction documentary ever made” — “Children Underground,” “Orthodox Stance” and “Methadonia.”

Negroponte also had a hand in the “Hip Hop 4 Kids” dance films, acting as the company’s filmmaker. Titles include “Schoolhouse Hop, a film showing students having fun in the cafeteria.”

His most recent project, “I’m Dangerous with Love,” made its world premier Nov. 6, 2009, in Sheffield, England. It delves into the turbulent waters of addiction and rehab, activism and shamanism, revolving around the experience of Dimitri Mugianis. The central character fights his alcohol and drug addictions with an experimental treatment based on the ancient African hallucinogen ibogaine. It is a Statement 1 Controlled Substance in the United States, yet Dimitri, free of his dependence, devotes himself to illegally helping others fight their addictions by administering ibogaine. After one of his patients almost dies from the ibogaine treatment, Dimitri begins to question the morality of his actions and his motivation. He then seeks the guidance of traditional shamans in Gabon, West Africa.

“It’s a powerhouse,” described the Sheffield Doc/Fest. “Brutally honest, hilarious, incisive, heroic. Negroponte doesn’t just go the extra mile to capture story and character — he goes an extra light year and takes the audience with him.”

Negroponte takes pains to infuse his films with honesty — capturing footage alone with a handheld camera, for instance — and as such, his works lack the air of contrivance and sensationalism generally rampant in the documentary genre. The filmmaker is able to peer into a “secret world, expressed in a mysterious intricate language,” as he expresses in “Jupiter’s Wife.” Negroponte has made it his business to crawl into the darkest corners of the human condition and find the motivations behind madness, addiction, religion (and hip-hop). A far cry from his cold warrior of a brother.

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