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The Filmmaker Elda Hartley (1911- 2001)


The late Elda Hartley was a filmmaker, who, although she worked in the film industry all of her adult life, did not make her own films until she was 56. In 1965 she and her husband, the cinematographer Irving Hartley, were traveling in Japan with the world-renowned spiritual thinker, Alan Watts, when she decided to make a film on Zen. Against her husband's wishes, she took control of the camera and shot a film on her own for the first time. The results were so good that she won a Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival. This launched her third distinct career in the film industry, subsequently producing more than 80 films concerning the world's spiritual traditions and personal growth. Some of her most popular films are: The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith (viewed on a Bill Moyers special), Zen: the Best of Alan Watts, and Voices of a New Age (which was a PBS Special).

Hartley began her life in film as a movie actress, quickly becoming disillusioned with the lack of educational value in Hollywood movies. Her second career in the industry encompassed the next thirty years, when she and her husband made hundreds of travel, training and promotional films for corporations. During this time, she did everything but the actual filming, including managing accounts, writing scripts, doing public relations, and selling. In the early days, she and her husband also reared four sons.

Life Story

I interviewed Elda Hartley in 1996 in her sprawling Connecticut home when she was 85 and still going strong. Vexed about expending a great deal of energy making a film about altruism and prison reform and failing to find a producer, she was almost, but not quite, prepared to give it up and start a new project. Unlike her contemporaries, who were cloistered in expensive retirement communities, eagerly awaiting a phone call from relatives, Hartley was filled with ideas for new projects.

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Elda Hartley