“Afrosurrealist films can look as though they’ve been buried in earth and have come up through the ocean. Afrosurrealism might be a sous-realism, a realism beneath.” – Terri Francis
The Afrosurrealist Film Society screening series launched at Indiana University this past November with the films of Akosua Adoma Owusu. IU film professor Terri Francis, founder of the Afrosurrealist Film Society, invited the Ghanaian-American experimental filmmaker to screen a selection of her short films for a small community of faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates from the Departments of Communication and Culture, Gender Studies, African American and African Diaspora Studies, and American Studies, among others.
The films screened, including Me Broni Ba/ My White Baby (2009), Drexciya (2010), and Split Ends/ I Feel Wonderful (2012), explore issues of diasporic identity, experiences of location and dislocation, post-colonialist space, and hair politics. As Nzingha Kendall wrote in Black Camera, “Owusu takes full advantage of the filmic form to grapple with the paradox of representing the unrepresentable—blackness, memory, and displacement—in her films. This haunting, in a cinematic sense, can be detected in the way she deconstructs the relationship between sound and image through her creative editing and assemblage technique.”
In the conversation below, BFC/A Graduate Assistant Noelle Griffis discusses the films and the politics of the Afrosurrealist Film Society with Francis. Part 2 of the interview, coming next week, will focus on the “Just Another Notion: Short Films by Mike Henderson,” an upcoming screening at the IU Cinema, co-presented by the Afrosurrealist Film Society with the Underground Film Series and the Black Film Center/Archive, Friday April 3rd at 6:30 PM.
Noelle Griffis (NG): What is the Afrosurrealist Film Society?
Terri Francis (TF):The Society represents the applied aspect of my research on experimental film. It’s a way to meet new filmmakers, find material to write about, form community and curate. It’s also a dream space — my place of idealism and creativity. A vision of what matters to me and what I would spend all my time doing if I could. Having space where I could think about movies by making them, by scratching it out frame by frame.
From a pragmatic standpoint, I want it to be a flexible platform for the screening and discussion of black experimental film; to provide a home base for filmmakers who want to screen and discuss their work; and to encourage small-scale inexpensive filmmaking.
We do have a mission statement: The Afrosurrealist Film Society is an imaginary collective of artist-intellectuals engaged with film in its varied forms and transnational histories. Animated by Amiri Baraka’s rubric Afro-Surreal Expressionism, we seek, through our art and scholarship an entirely different world, full of the fantastic, that is organically tied to this one. We draw upon an electric mash-up of black folklore, history, consciousness and location in order to engage representations and refractions of reality through film. And we rely on the natural world for surreal venues that sustain contemplation, conversation and creativity. Black Liberation. And Beauty.
Baraka modeled his idea of Afrosurreal Expressionism on poet and storyteller Henry Dumas, of whom he wrote, “Dumas’s power lay in his skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one. The stories are fables; a mythological presence pervades. They are morality tales, magical, resonating dream emotions and images; shifting ambiguous terror, mystery, implied revelation. But they are also stories of real life, now or whenever, constructed in weirdness and poetry in which the contemporaneity of essential themes is clear.”
NG: Can you talk about the way that you became involved with Afrosurrealist Film.
TF: Experimental nonnarrative film is actually how I got interested in films and film study. That background informs how I look at any film. I studied in Paris off and on in the late 1990s and that’s where I discovered film and interesting things you could do with films and inspiring discussions that were happening with them. I saw Chris Harris’s thesis film at the University of Chicago when I got back from France and still/here became the first thing I wrote about beyond my dissertation. I liked that experimental film had a community and a live in-person conversation around it that was accessible to me – the filmmakers are usually there and experimental films look like something I could make and that I want to make. I’m interested in the visceral affective aspects of movies. I see them as sculptural and painterly as something that I can share space with, look at, think about and revisit. The film is actually a space of contemplation.
NG: How did the Black Camera “Close Up” on Afrosurrealist film come about? How did this lead to the film series?
The Black Camera issue was a natural scholarly evolution of my fascination with experimental film. I just really needed to see my ideas in print and put Afrosurrealism into the scholarly marketplace. In the 10 years since seeing still/here I developed an approach to writing about film that is grounded in close formal analysis. I started teaching Kevin Everson’s work along with Akosua Adoma Owusu and of course Isaac Julien, Cauleen Smith, Bill Greaves and more—in dialogue with Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and others.
In the Black Camera issue I drew on Robin Kelly’s work on surrealism where he argues that surrealism was always black. The Afro in Afrosurrealism is a reminder and a restoration. Scott MacDonald has an important essay “Desegregating Film History” about addressing the blind spots in avant-garde film history and how it’s organized around unacknowledged whiteness.
The poet Cathy Park Hong wrote a very strong piece on whiteness in avant-garde poetry. She writes that “American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment.” She is really critical of what she calls the “snake oil” of being “against expression” and “post-identity.” Her critique points out that “marginalized voices need a concept of voice, expression, identity and specificity to intervene and “alter conditions forged in history.” Asserting marginalized subjectivity and interrogating conventional history is the work of black experimental film. And that pretty much sums up my scholarly imperative.
NG: In addition to Everson and Owusu, who are some filmmakers that embody the Afrosurrealist spirit to you? Are there connections between these films and filmmakers in terms of aesthetics, politics, or vision?
TF: Neither surrealism nor Afrosurrealism is a style, a set of criteria, an ideology, a genre, or even a coherent exploration. It is not a movement. It is an imaginary, magnetizing loosely related sensibilities, and it certainly is a modernism connected to other forms of modernism such as the Harlem Renaissance, negritude, magical realism, and what Haitian novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis called marvelous realism. All are advance guard approaches to life and society from which intellectuals and artists drew inspiration as they sought to challenge convention. We have to be open to what’s next and the “what else” and not get stuck in a pre-determined diagnostic.
I’m drawn to films like Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah, 1987) that are grounded in a clearly defined reality but approach it diagonally. Like those early surrealist films, formal strategies in Afrosurrealism include non-narrative structures with the objective of finding unexpected associations. A film like Handsworth experiments with the film essay form to get at invisible structures in society. They can make us see what’s been right in front of our eyes all along, which is really powerful.
Also, Ja’Tovia Gary started making direct animation a couple of years ago – that’s frame-by-frame painting and scratching directly on the film. http://mononoawarefilm.com/workshop/2015/04/direct-filmmaking/ She is re-working some family home movies in that fashion for a feature film. It’s an incredible dialogue because it’s both enchanting and destructive. Christopher Harris uses an optical printer and hand processing which gives his films a bluesy and tactile look. Reckless Eyeballing (16mm, 2004) moves way beyond the usual criticisms of Birth of a Nation and gets into the structures of looking, desire and beauty that govern it.
I’m currently immersing myself in Richard Fung’s work on videotape for an essay in the “Caribbean Queer Visualities” collection with Small Axe and I’m thinking Afrosurrealism might be an interesting way to stretch his work or the other way around. He is a video artist from Trinidad and based in Toronto who does experimental work on identity. Dirty Laundry (1996) and Dal Puri Diaspora (2012) both examine migration, labor and affective bonds through identity and sexuality. His appropriation film Islands tells the story of his Uncle Clive’s role in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. He asks a great question there about whether islands are so obvious that they can never be really seen—and by whom, for whom? Fung uses home movies juxtaposed with fictional performances, historical footage and talking head excerpts to queer and query conventional ways of defining Caribbean, Chinese, or Canadian histories. His film Out of the Blue tells a very familiar story about a young black Canadian man who is falsely accused of a crime because he “fit the description.” It’s a film with a lot of talking – just talking actually but it somehow demands that you look at it for subtleties of framing and performance. Fung might not seem to fit into Afrosurrealism but the way he examines cultural identity and cinematic representation and Caribbeanness, as unsettled and produced speaks to the project.
Afrosurrealism is a no-theory. More of a poem than a syllabus.
Next week: Part 2 of the conversation will discuss more on the Afrosurrealist Film Society Screenings at IU, Mike Henderson’s visit, Blues Cinema, and More!
Francis, Terri. “Close-Up Gallery: The Afrosurrealist Film Society.” Black Camera 5 no. 1 (Fall 2013): 209-219.
Kendall, Nzingha. “Close-Up Commentary: Haunting in Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Short Experimental Films,” Black Camera 5 no. 1, (Fall 2013): 232-236.