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Aiyana Elliott talks about the local connections behind 'The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack'

By Richard von Busack

AIYANA ELLIOTT'S The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack grew out of her childhood experiences in Santa Cruz and her conflicted relationship with her father, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Aiyana, whose name means "flower that blooms eternally," came to Santa Cruz in 1973 as a 4-year-old. "My mom and dad and I were passing through there, and we stopped in Santa Cruz hostel. Later we returned, and Mom and I lived up Santa Cruz Mountains, when I was about 8," she recalls. Aiyana's mother, Martha, left for trips to Mexico and the Philippines, but Aiyana stayed behind through her high school years and a year at Cabrillo College.

"During this time, my stepfather, Jerry Kay, provided a lot of stability to me and enabled me to appreciate my eccentric parents," Aiyana says. "Jerry also loved and admired Ramblin' Jack--that was part of the reason I was able to appreciate my dad." Kay ran the General Feed and Seed on Commercial Way.

The young director-to-be performed in Charles Dewald's theater group for the young. "I did Shakespeare and adaptations of the classics. Also I acted under the direction of Wilma Marcus [at Cabrillo College] and at Marcia Taylor's Actors Theater at the Art Center. And I was a serious movie buff, going to the Nickelodeon and the Sash Mill. Jeff Lipsky, who is distributing my film through his new company, Lot 47, brought out a lot of the films I fell in love with at the Nickelodeon--Stranger Than Paradise, for example."

"I didn't set out to make a personal film, to talk about our family," Elliott continues. "I was just trying to tell my about my dad's life on tour, but things kept happening that led the film into a more personal direction. I'd interviewed my mom--she was very comfortable, speaking to me as if there was no camera. And the interview with Nora Guthrie also started pushing things more in a personal direction. I didn't feel like I had an agenda I wanted to talk about--it was just a matter of trying to get time with my father. Some of our troubles communicating were just logistical things; his life is really hectic."

And yet The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack seems to be one of the most eloquent expressions in film yet of a literal child of the '60s, confronting the figurative children of the '60s. "I feel like it's a film for my generation," Elliott says, "particularly for my generation in California, and especially my generation in Santa Cruz. I had very unconventional parents. Speaking for myself, all I ever wanted, or thought I wanted, was a normal family. My parents' generation were very much into breaking a lot of traditions and conventions. They led amazing lives and are very interesting individuals. Like a lot of people of their generation, they shamelessly pursued themselves, at the expense of providing some of the structures ..."

The film isn't an axe-grinder, though there is one moment of friction where you can hear Aiyana cutting off her father's remark from the stage about the movie, yelling for him to shut up and play. "I was just trying to tell him that was OK," Aiyana says. "It was one of the first scenes we'd shot, and I guess he felt he had to address me, or his feelings of guilt. It was kind of awkward and embarrassing for him, and I was trying to tell him it's OK. You know, most people in writing about this film say that I'd never known him as a child, that I was trying to get a piece of him on film. It's true to an extent. But I feel like I knew my dad well. There was a lot of closeness between us, and I went on the road with him a few times a year when I was growing up. He just didn't live with us."

Unfortunately, Aiyana Elliott, who is working on an upcoming feature film, will be staying in her new home in New York when her documentary opens in the movie theater she loved as a girl. "I wish I could be there in Santa Cruz when [the film] opens. I was just back in California from New York, and I'd forgotten how beautiful it is out there. I swam in the ocean and a whole school of dolphins came out and joined me." As for her father, who lives about 100 miles north of the Monterey Bay: "He's been very overwhelmed and moved, and also overwhelmed and embarrassed by the personal side of the film. In sharing the film together with the audiences, I've come to appreciate him even more."

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From the August 30-September 6, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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