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'Citizen Architect': a brainy doc from a Fort Worth-born producer

Citizen Architect

7 p.m. Aug. 27

KERA/Channel 13

Posted 11:46am on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010

Although Jeff Fraley has been involved with filmmaking for nearly 15 years, he was still a bit surprised when two aspiring documentarians dropped by his office seeking his counsel on a potential project.

"I guess I'm old enough to mentor now," laughs the 41-year-old Fort Worth native. "But this is the first film that I've ever worked on outside of my company -- the first time that I felt I needed to do what I could to get this film broadcast to as large an audience as possible."

The film in question is Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio, which premiers Monday night on PBS nationwide. (Locally, KERA will show the film Aug. 27.) "Sam Douglas, the director, and Jack Sanders, who is from Fort Worth as well, came into my office six or seven years ago with over 100 hours of footage," explains Fraley. "Since I had made an architecture film, Making the Modern [about Tadao Ando and the design of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth], I guess that qualified me as the resident architecture film expert."

Architecture hasn't been Fraley's only filmmaking focus; his first documentary, co-directed with Harry Lynch, was 1997's Bull Riders: Chasing the Dream. ("That was our business school, entertainment law school, and everything," he says.) Fraley and Lynch formed a partnership in Trinity Films and have since produced documentaries on Cuban artists and the Barnett Shale, as well as an IMAX film (Ride Around the World) about the global appeal of the cowboy.

"I am from Fort Worth, and we do love the whole art and cowboys thing, so maybe I'm drawn to it because it's in my blood," says Fraley, who calls Austin home. "You've got to love the subject matter you're working with or it can be a long day at the office. But our specialty is taking little-known, misunderstood subjects and presenting them to large audiences. I think maybe that's kind of our niche."

Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee, the central figure of Citizen Architect, falls right in line with this tradition of little-known, misunderstood subjects. Mockbee founded the Rural Studio at Auburn University in 1993. The program was designed to get architecture students out of the classroom and into the field, specifically rural Hale County, Ala., one of the poorest areas in the country. Each year the students would design and build a house for an impoverished resident using donated and recycled materials. Mockbee, who died of leukemia in 2001, was a strong believer in socially responsible architecture.

Says Fraley, "A lot of people talk and say they're going to do these great things, but Sambo did it. Sambo's the architect's architect. He is doing what Richard Meier and Frank Gehry and all those guys would want to do if they didn't have five vacation homes. He really believed it, he lived it, he preached it and he taught it. You don't meet many characters like that."

Director Douglas (Mockbee's son-in-law) and co-producer Sanders (an instructor at the Rural Studio) had collected a substantial amount of interview footage with Mockbee before his death, and eventually convinced Fraley to come aboard as executive producer of Citizen Architect. He offered guidance, helped find funding and distribution for the film, and was heavily involved with the editing process.

As for his next project, Fraley is reluctant to disclose too many details -- after all, not everyone in the film industry is above swiping a good idea -- but he says it will be a "documentary miniseries." For now, he's enjoying the national exposure for Citizen Architect, a film that has spent most of the past year building word of mouth on the festival circuit.

"It's been a really rewarding thing for me to be involved with telling the story of a man I really came to admire, who I never got to meet," Fraley says. " I became involved in this project after his death. So to be a part of a team that cements his legacy, personally exceeds the satisfaction I even have professionally."

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