Remembering Kevin Rafferty

Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi looks back on his encounters with the late director of The Atomic Café and Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

I remember when Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty’s documentary The Atomic Café came out. A found-footage film about the threat of nuclear war that was simultaneously hilarious and chilling, it was a big deal. Everyone was talking about it. I went to see it with my friends. It seemed like a film that had always existed, that needed to exist, like a Platonic form that precedes its manifestation. There was something essential about it.

Years later, I met Kevin at the Munich Film Festival. He was, to me, a legend. He was there with his wife, Paula, and his daughter, Madeleine, who was just a little girl at the time. He was attending the festival with Blood in the Face, his documentary on American neo-Nazis. They seemed like a fringe group, out of touch with reality. It’s weird that the film is even more relevant now than it was back then.

We liked each other. We stayed in touch.

He told me about his early ’90s documentary Feed before it came out. It featured behind-the-scenes found-footage taken from live television feeds of various presidential candidates, including Bill Clinton, during the 1992 presidential primary. I loved that film. It pulled the curtain back on what these politicians were really like (i.e. when they didn’t know they were being filmed). It was irreverent and illuminating and funny all at the same time. It was the perfect antidote to the advertocracy that politics had become.

When Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 came out in 2008, he sent me a link. He had gone to Harvard and I had gone to Yale. Even though I hated football, I loved the film. It was essentially a talking-heads documentary that told the story of a legendary Harvard vs. Yale game that took place in 1968. It was so simple and yet so engrossing, and it said a lot about American culture.

When I moved to New York City, we met up at his favorite bar. He told me about an extremely ambitious long-form project he had been working on for years that attempted to tell the story of the 20th century using only archival footage and no narration. He had recently abandoned it after being told by the TV executives involved that they would only air it if he added narration. I was horrified that he had shelved it. I knew it was probably a masterpiece and I asked him if I could see it. In my fantasy, I would help him finish it. He half-heartedly agreed. But then we got into a stupid argument about something unrelated and harsh words were spoken and we didn’t talk again for several years. And I never saw that film.

Kevin Rafferty at the March 2017 Metrograph premiere of Caveh Zahedi’s The Show About the Show. (Image courtesy of Caveh Zahedi.)

Years later, when my web series The Show About the Show premiered at the Metrograph, I invited him and he came. He seemed to genuinely like the film, as did the friend he came with, an attractive blonde who worked at the New School, where I also teach.

Two years ago, I decided to heal all of my relationships. I wanted to make peace with everyone I’d ever had a falling out with and Kevin was on the list. So I reached out to him. We met at a bar. He barely remembered the falling out. He was incredibly kind and sweet. I told him about my recent divorce and the ensuing loneliness and somehow the subject of his friend who worked at the New School came up. It turned out she was also single. He offered to try to set us up on a date of some kind.

A few weeks later, he called to tell me he was hosting a party and that he wanted to invite both me and his New School friend. I was excited, got dressed up, and went to the party. But his New School friend never showed up. He felt terrible about it, but I appreciated the effort. When we said goodbye, he said he wished that I liked to drink (I don’t drink at all) so we could hang out more, since that was his main way of socializing with people. I couldn’t know it was the last time I would ever see him, but the moment had that in-case-this-is-the-last-time-I-ever-see-you quality. It was awkward, affectionate, unspoken, tragic and humorous, all at the same time.

I hugged him, and got into the elevator. I went down to the ground floor and exited the building, processing my feelings from the night. But the main feeling was love for Kevin.

He was a great filmmaker and a completely original thinker. When I read that he had died, I wrote to Pierce Rafferty, his brother and co-director on The Atomic Café, to offer to help finish and put out into the world the archival film project he had told me about. Pierce got back to me the next day. He wrote: “I’m sorry but that project was not saved by Kevin.” I will always regret not seeing it when I had the chance.

Featured image shows Caveh Zahedi in conversation with Kevin Rafferty. (Image courtesy of Caveh Zahedi.)

Caveh Zahedi is an autobiographical filmmaker whose body of work attempts to tell the story of his life as it unfolds. His latest project is the daily podcast 365 Stories I Want To Tell You Before We Both Die. He is also working on the third season of The Show About the Show, a BRIC TV series in which every episode is about the making of the previous episode. His feature-length films include The Sheik and I (2012), I Am A Sex Addict (2005), In The Bathtub of the World (2001), I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1994), and A Little Stiff (1991). His short films and other series include Getting Stoned with Caveh, Bob Dylan Hates Me, Tripping with Caveh, and I Was Possessed by God. A box set of his films is available from Factory 25.