“I just have to tell you, I’m so [expletive] angry, but I think that’s the point,” a woman told Celia Aniskovich ’10. They were at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and had just watched the world premiere of “Burn it Down!,” the feature documentary about Woodstock ’99 that Aniskovich wrote, co-directed, and produced for MRC Studios/Rolling Stone.
It was exactly the point. Through Aniskovich’s work, the woman had heard a forgotten story.
Considered a lesson in how not to run a music festival, Woodstock ’99 was a three-day event made infamous by overdoses, heat strokes, filth, looting, arson, assault, and even death within its 250,000-strong audience. But still another facet of the cultural warzone emerged as Aniskovich watched hours of archival footage and conducted more than a hundred interviews two decades later: while only a few incidents of sexual assault were reported, it’s estimated that hundreds occurred. “Burn it Down!” explores the idea that what occurred there was fueled in part by event management and a lack of focus on proper safety protocols.
“I didn’t know what the film was going to be about when I went in; I really didn't know the extent of the violence. This is a disaster, a festival that has been forgotten,” she says. “A lot of what unifies my work is stories that have been lost or forgotten but that brought up major issues. In large part, they’ve been forgotten because they are difficult. We don't like to confront these things. So, people who remember Woodstock ’99, maybe they remember it for the destruction of property. Or the literal fire at the end. But very few remember the rapes and sexual assaults.”
While exploring facets of forgotten stories may be what motivates Aniskovich, it’s the people who share their parts in them that inspire her.
“Any person who’s willing to sit in that chair across from me and do an interview inspires me,” Aniskovich says. “It is so, so hard to choose to do that. There aren't a lot of happy documentaries. My actual job description is someone who talks to people about the worst day of their life. They are making the choice to sit in that chair because they think that sharing what happened to them can help someone else.”
Aniskovich can trace her current career back to her theater experience as a Third Former, her Fourth Form Humanities class, and especially her Sixth Form independent study. For that, she moved to Dyersville, Iowa, where her then-favorite movie, “Field of Dreams,” was filmed, and interviewed residents about their lives to create a verbatim play.
Recently, her Sixth Form adviser, Courtney Jackson, emailed Aniskovich about “Burn it Down!”:
Do you remember asking me about whether or not you should take film studies as an elective your sixth form year? You were worried colleges wouldn't think it was academic enough. I remember looking at everything else you had done and felt like it was a natural progression. You were passionate about storytelling, and it made perfect sense. … Love seeing how your journey has continued down this path.
Even now, that kind of affirmation from her SPS days makes Aniskovich tear up.
“At 17, I don't think I even knew what a documentary was, but it was very clear that, at St. Paul's, I was trying to get there,” she says. “I had teachers pushing me in that direction, who were saying, ‘Do something different.’ All of my favorite books, all the books that have changed my life, were the books I read in classes at St. Paul's and are the reason I do what I do.”
In making documentaries, Aniskovich has found her power and her purpose.