Afrosurrealist Film Society: Conversation with Terri Francis, Part 2 – Blues Cinema

“The blues connects all my work on home movies, Caribbean cinema and experimental film.”– Terri Francis

Last week, part one of my interview with IU professor Terri Francis, founder of the Afrosurrealist Film Society, focused on “Afrosurrealism” as a conceptual framework and highlighted the work of Akosua Adoma Owusu, the first visiting filmmaker of the series. In anticipation of our next visiting filmmaker, Mike Henderson, we’re picking up where we left off to discuss Francis’ work on “Blues Cinema” and the relationship between the blues and black independent filmmaking.   – Noelle Griffis, BFC/A

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Stills from Henderson’s 16mm films. Left: The Shape of Things (1981) Right: Three stills from Dufus (1970/73)

NG: In your Black Camera interview with Kevin Jerome Everson, “Of the Ludic, the Blues, and the Counterfeit,” you write, “Family Pictures” or “blues cinema” is about the various means by which African American cinema steps into the vacuum where real family photographs and home movies have been lost to migrations, floods, and the precariousness of black life in America.” Are your notions of “Afrosurrealism” and “blues cinema” related?

 TF: Well, I thought of blues cinema and Afrosurrealism at different times. And when I wrote about blues cinema I wasn’t really thinking of experimentation. I came across references to the blues in my research on Warrington Hudlin, Kathleen Collins and other independent filmmakers here at the Black Film Center/Archive back in 2007 or 2008. They meant to evoke a sense of the everyday and the ordinary and work I think. Hudlin used the blues to talk about a film he shot in New Haven. Later on when I started thinking about form, I found myself drawn to the bluesiness of a lot of black experimental films. Afrofuturism, alternately, doesn’t have that worn look generally – it doesn’t look handmade. I feel like most of the work I see connected to that is actually futuristic, slick, smooth and new looking because it is probably digital. Which makes sense since it is about the future and technology as a mechanism of futuring.

Frances Bodomo’s Afronauts might have been digital but then it is about a handmade space shuttle. So it’s in-between. But I guess everything is handmade at some level.

There might be something in Afrosurrealism about evoking a past. Kevin Everson’s films re-tell the past. His filmmaking walks a line between fiction and nonfiction that I think of as Afrosurrealist. When experimental films are doing their most exciting work they are delving into an interior, they are introspective and they explore the past an as imaginary.

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Century (Kevin Jerome Everson, 2012)

NG: How do you see these films by Everson and others as a form of the blues?

TF: I personally respond to the blues – films that look roughly textured, that weep, that mourn and long. Films evoke the ruined, labored or even wounded. Like they had been lost, buried or burned and still smoking. An aftermath. If I made films they would all look like we barely got away. The fact that the blues are rural might make us forget their radical experimentations with form and feeling. Blues musicians are easy to caricature because they have been so commodified and we can easily forget their depth even while citing them.

Mike Henderson’s 16mm films have a greater sense of absurdity and humor than the other films we’ve been talking about. There’s a strong DIY aesthetic that I just love and I’m fascinated by the descriptions of Henderson’s paintings as gestural, with large brush strokes, spread and layered thick, then scraped away. How would you do that in a film? I used “blues cinema” as a metaphor but Henderson is actually a blues musician with a substantial collection of experimental films. I’d love to hear him talk about the relationships between the lyrics, the music, the paintings and the filmmaking. But I don’t want to get too caught up in making him representative of blues filmmaking because that might be too literal and too easy. From what I’ve read he used out of date stock sometimes. He shot reversal. His films remind me of Blonde Cobra (1963) and Little Stabs at Happiness (1959-1963) where it’s guys playing around in costumes. Identity and the gaze. Performance. Big ideas but it’s “just another notion.” Henderson’s films seem both really well thought out but full of accidents and discoveries yet not embarrassing or vulgar. They seemed performative and introspective. The richness of the 16mm and all that is put in front of the camera contrasts with the elemental structure of something like Money Done or King David. The earlier ones recall Ken Jacobs and even Hollis Frampton more strongly than the later ones which are abstract in a different way. That’s at first glance. I’d love the chance to look at them more closely. I thought of Renee Cox’s photograph Yo Mama’s Last Supper and Robert Colescott’s painting Lightening Lipstick (which you can see at IU Art Museum) –the approach and scale of ideas. Other Bay area filmmakers came to mind – Melvin Van Peebles, Barry Jenkins and of course D. Scot Miller who wrote an important manifesto on Afrosurrealism is based in San Francisco. http://dscotmiller.blogspot.com/2009/05/afrosurreal.html. He first published that in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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Just Another Notion (Henderson, 1983)

I read that Henderson has an MFA in visual art but no formal training in filmmaking. Can that be true? To think of him in relation to indie filmmakers out of UCLA would be rich. The way he spliced his films apparently created some cool looking images but also some preservation issues. It’s intriguing how his films present issues of conceptualization – not only “what is this,” but also, how do we see and keep this?

NG: What are your plans/ideas/goals for the Afrosurrealist Film Society and its film series at IU?

TF: I plan to teach my Afrosurrealism course soon and it would be great to have the weekly screenings open to the public. The syllabus would include literature, music and plays – the arts are a necessary framework to the study of media and ideas, obviously.  Afrosurrealism, just like surrealism, is a multidisciplinary endeavor.

Meanwhile, let’s do a modest series. Two screenings with filmmakers present per school year would be fantastic. I’d love to bring in filmmakers who are nearby in the Midwest – Cauleen Smith in Chicago and Robert Banks in Cleveland, OH. We could meet in the BFC/A classroom and screen and talk. Easy peasy. Or we could collaborate with IU Cinema. And I’d love to have Chris Harris and Kevin Everson here. I’d also like to get scholars in the region who are invested in experimental film, like at Ohio State, into the conversation.

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Nicolai and Regina Series 01 (Cauleen Smith, 2012)

I’d want to bring together people on campus who are already interested in experimental film but also I want it to be a place where people can discover this type of filmmaking the way I did back in late 1990s in Paris. I enjoyed collaborating with Black Cinema House in the fall and it would be great to do more of that. The BFC/A could also connect with the Wexner in Columbus and SAIC.

But in terms of who would come to these screenings I imagine a core of Black Film Center/Archive and Black Camera staff, students, associated faculty, and graduate students in relevant departments. But there are a lot of people in film studies who are into experimental film including you so let’s build on that. My vision is for a group between 5 and 20 people varying throughout the school term.

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Upcoming Screening:

April 3, 6:30 PM, Indiana University Cinema

“Just Another Notion: Short Films by Mike Henderson”

Director Mike Henderson and archivist Mark Toscano are scheduled to be present.

Thank you to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive for providing all 16mm prints included in this series.

For more on Mike Henderson and the recent preservation of his 16mm films by archivist Mark Toscano (Academy Film Archives), check out Toscano’s post: “Will She Get Over It” on his blog “Preservation Insanity.”

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About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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