Oscar winner Kirk Simon 72F created films with a social conscience
In 2010, when Kirk Simon 72F won an Academy Award for his documentary short Strangers No More — a film detailing the struggles of refugee and immigrant children at a school in Tel Aviv — he devoted part of his Oscar speech to “the children who opened their hearts to us.” That shout-out exemplified his generosity of spirit and dedication to making mission-driven films. His filmography includes a National Geographic documentary about Jane Goodall (Chimps Like Us, 1990), an MTV reality series detailing the struggles of gay men and lesbians (Coming Out Stories, 2006), and an HBO, Emmy-nominated series that featured leading artists — Wynton Marsalis, Kathleen Turner, and Bill T. Jones among them — mentoring high school students (Masterclass, 2010–2014).
Kirk’s foray into filmmaking began in a Hampshire class with Jerome Liebling. He and a fellow student, Ken Burns 75F, collaborated on a short documentary about Old Sturbridge Village, a project Burns called “my baptism into the world of filmmaking and history.” From his student films to his final project — a profile of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas for the PBS series American Masters, to which he contributed regularly — Kirk probed topics with intelligence and integrity. He invited us to do the same.
I knew Kirk for 40 years, having met him in 1978 when I moved to New York from L.A. He and I were the same age, and when I began freelancing at the film company for which Kirk worked, he was kind enough to befriend me, the new kid in town. He introduced me to the work of the photographers he admired (and for whom he made prints), such as Helen Levitt and Aaron Siskind, whose works he purchased on my behalf and gave me as presents, thus beginning a lifelong interest of mine. Kirk also introduced me to Maker’s Mark, good wine, and many restaurants in the West Village, giving me the invaluable gift of his company. Eventually, I sublet his West Village apartment and lived there for six years (alas, he took the cat, after which the mice appeared, but Kirk, ever diligent, got me an exterminator).
As the years passed, his talent evolved, and he became one of the most productive, fascinating, and committed documentary filmmakers of his era, producing work that reflected his curiosity, generosity of spirit, tireless interest in people, and great kindness.
Kindness was his most pronounced and enduring characteristic, followed closely by honesty. I remember being in Jamaica, in the bar of my hotel, on the night he won his Oscar, and, exploding with surprise and pleasure, I bought a round for everyone, insisting that we all lift a glass to my talented friend and celebrate this much-deserved honor.
Kirk’s death was a terrible shock and is a terrible tragedy, for his family, his friends, and everyone else who had known him. He took a part of my own life — one of the best parts — with him when he went. Gone much too soon, but never to be forgotten.