Calling attention to the backstage of intellectual practice: Professor Terri Francis and Archivist Andy Uhrich Talk Archives, The Quandries of Seeing Educational Films Anew, and Whiteness
In this interview Professor Terri Francis and Archivist Andy Uhrich discuss their upcoming participation in The Streets and the Classrooms: Educational and Industrial Films in an Era of Massive Social Change, a film series at South Side Projections in Chicago.
On Friday, May 1 at 7pm, Mr. Uhrich will present “Using Classroom Films to Teach about Race” at the South Side Community Art Center. The program consists of a selection of educational films from Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive collection, dating from the mid-twentieth century when IU was a major distributor of 16mm educational films. Professor Francis’s presentation on Saturday, May 9 at the Washington Park Arts Incubator is “For Educational Purposes Only: The Jamaica Unit Film Works, 1951-1961.” Her presentation is based on research she conducted at the National Library of Jamaica and subsequently published in Film History. Both programs are a chance to see rarely screened materials and to re-examine them with fresh frameworks.
Their conversation was recorded in the Black Film Center/Archive on April 22 and is published here with edits for clarity and length.
Terri Francis (TF): My thought was that this could be like a show-and-tell of what we are each doing in the Streets and the Classroom program that Michael Phillips (Executive Director of South Side Projections) put together in Chicago.
Andy Uhrich (AU): That sounds great! I’m really excited that you’re going to be a part of this – because I was talking to Michael and we were thinking of what to fill in—and I knew you had come here to Bloomington and you had done this work. I was thinking that it would be great to expand the series outside the United States of America and look at how educational films work with different audiences and different political worlds. And so with the films that I’m dealing with it’s great to talk about them because I’m not an expert on them. It’s stuff that I found in the archive – the Moving Image Archive here at IU. Take them out of the shelf. And see what comes out of it.
TF: I’m intrigued by so much there. Tell me about presenting on something that you’re not an expert on (but that you are actually really knowledgeable about).
AU: I think part of it is the degree to which as an archivist you’re dealing with all this massive stuff. There’s no way you can be an expert on all of it. And it’s kind of a scary position to be in. But at the same time it forces you to collaborate. It forces you to find people who want to watch these films and who might know more about it than you do.
TF: In some ways the academic project is the manageability and the framing of material. But this is more excavation. Not architecture but archeology. Digging stuff up out of the ground. I’m really moved by the pathos of the archives and the way that there is this sense of the instability where your job is to be an expert but every time you walk into the archive you’re actually walking into questions. And into this space of vulnerability where you don’t know what this thing is. Yet. You approach it as evidence but you don’t know what it’s evidence of yet. And the more you think about it is the more questions that an object can respond to and that it generates coming out.
AU: Coming at it from the archivist’s standpoint – a lot of the work you are trying to do is trying to sort of fix these objects. You make a finding aid. You follow best practices to do cataloging, which are super important. But it is easy to forget the ways that that leaves out information so I think what you’re talking about – this coming in and this openness and rediscovery means you have to negotiate these different pre-established roles of the scholar and archivist and what can be done. The films I picked out for the program are a subsample. There could be a whole different set of films. There are so many films that these just represent a mass variety. But I’m still asking the questions: How were these films described in the late 1960s and 70s and what were the terms used? Who were the audiences they were intended for? I think that is important to study. But at the same time they have all these new possibilities.
TF: I introduced the archive to my students as a place of play. And of course you’re not supposed to play in the archive! Pencils only. It’s a very quiet place. And one of the reasons I love this particular space [Black Film Center/Archive] is its sense of order. Tell me more about your selections.
AU: There are a couple of ways I started researching these films. One was thinking about locally produced films.
TF: Chicago- local?
AU: Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana is a locale.
TF: I keep forgetting that this is where I am! Sorry!
AU: IU made a lot of films starting in the teens but in seriousness in the 40s. They are made locally but they don’t feel local.
TF: So there was a production company at the university. And these are made for broader—for national or international distribution?
AU: Exactly. So it might be a dissection movie and it’s made here with local scientists, so it has to do with the university but not the place of Bloomington, Indiana.
TF: Well that tells us a lot there.
AU: The films that have a place are made in Indianapolis. A four-part series called Inner City Dweller, made in 1972 in collaboration with the Black Arts Theater, which lasted from 1970 to 1978 and was run by Wilma Greene, who is in the one of the films I’m showing: Inner City Dweller: Work (Indiana University Audio-Visual Center, 1972, 19 min). I’m still trying to figure out how this film company in IU started this relationship. The University Archives have a lot of papers on this production company so I’m looking through those now. We know they were shot in Indianapolis, but they are still made slightly generic to represent urban black experience at a national level but because of the connection to Black Arts Theater there is specificity.
TF: Some parts of Indianapolis have a used-to-be feeling to it.
AU: The films have that quality too where they are so specifically there but not. That’s part of educational films in general. You don’t want to limit the audience. Looking at the Indianapolis Recorder, there is an article talking about the way that they were trying to show different topics. There was the urban problem film on riots—actually there were a lot of educational films that were addressing that issue. This was trying to do it from the [the perspective of] people that lived in those neighborhoods instead of being like an NBC news reporter asking what’s wrong with the inner city from the outside. Let’s let people who actually live there and know something about it speak. They’re the actors. They are the co-writers. So there’s a degree of letting the people who the film is about make the film. The other thing that they try to do with this series is –
TF: Are these online?
AU: Yes the Inner City Dweller films are. [Inner City Dweller can be watched at https://media.dlib.indiana.edu/media_objects/avalon:6660.] They can be found at They have been digitized and we digitized just the prints. So we have the higher quality production elements, but they are projection prints so they are slightly faded. They need the restoration work. All these films do. But there is a way in which I feel like getting out what we have is important and then maybe later go back and do the restoration work. The other thing about this series that I think is worth thinking about is that a lot of educational films or sponsored films are made because there is an issue that they want to solve and they’re going to show a solution. So in this movie Inner City Dweller: Work. George, the husband, is out of work. He goes through a work-training program. He works really hard. He gets a good job. He deals with the welfare state. He’s learning how to negotiate the welfare state because he hasn’t been on food stamps before. So I get where it’s going. It’s showing how the Great Society of the Johnson era – the war on poverty– is going to be successful. And we think that because near the end he gets a check so you’re thinking good, problem solved. But in the end credits there’s narration that says we’re sorry we had to lay you off. So at the very end of the movie he’s gone through all this and the positive welfare state has ended up sort of failing him still.
TF: I love that tension of the film continuing under the credits that normally signals conclusion, resolution, and even happiness.
AU: That might seem like a minor form of filmmaking but they’re definitely intriguing in terms of the thought process that they are trying to get across.
TF: Was it a particular department within IU?
AU: That’s what I’m still trying to track down. The filmmaking department – the Audio-Visual Center had its beginnings in 1914 and it’s now University Information Technology Services UITS or instructional services – the people who put in the classroom VCRs. At a certain point audiovisual became instructional services.
TF: Because it’s tied to equipment probably.
AU: Exactly. So in some ways the filmmaking was just part of this larger media production. Your question about the impetus for it being made is still the thing I’m trying to figure out. That’s always the thing I think about: who’s behind the movie? Some of the movies I’m showing were funded by the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). So the NEA clearly saw there was a problem with teachers not understanding their students so they supported a film to bridge that gap. What I did find is that starting in 1969, and it ramped up in 1971, there was a program through the School of Education that would take students here and they would spend a semester in Indianapolis. And it was this idea of taking white middle class kids who have no understanding of black life in the city and they spend a semester there.
TF: Go on…
AU: It was called urban experience or urban semester. And it starts out with what they call “the plunge” where they are given 50 cents for the week and they can’t use their cars. They have to go through the welfare process.
TF: So urban experience is black experience defined by 50 cents and walking or public transportation. That’s fascinating. I’m intrigued by how these films sit in a matrix of relationships between Indiana University and Bloomington, even if Bloomington is somehow silent or invisible. The university and the state, the city or town. But then this kind of college town relative to Indianapolis which has colleges and universities so there is a kind of editing of that space relative to IU and then the collaboration between the production unit here and the theater arts group in Indianapolis and what that must have been like in terms of whose story this is and what the problem is – there’s that wonderful reflexive phrase – “the Negro Problem” that gets at questions of blame and shame around issues of social inequality: wealth, work and education. Whose problem is it? Whose story is this?
AU: All the films that I’ll be showing deal with those issues. To your point Indianapolis was and is a big town. There’s a college there and to limit Indianapolis to one form of life, excludes so much more, in the sense that we don’t see the Black Arts Theater doing the Black Arts Theater. They’re playing roles in this movie and they helped with the script but in terms of their performances that they would have done at the time that was left out. At the same time these films are reacting to films about the ‘Negro problem” but they can only go so far. They recognize the problem with that mode of thinking and say we’re going to flip that around but you’re still in that binary even if you’re taking the other side. The question of whose problem it is comes up in some of the other films. In this film when he loses a job it’s unclear whose fault that is, where the failure is. Some of the other films such as the teacher training films are saying that the problem behind the Negro problem is white teachers and their inability to understand the students.
TF: And these are in your series?
AU: They are. One is called Portrait of a Disadvantaged Child and it’s about cultural and economic disadvantages. The goal was to force the white teachers to acknowledge that they have some advantages that other people don’t. And there’s another film called Real Self. Where the problem is presented as inherent biases of the teachers. The problem is children aren’t learning, specifically black children aren’t learning, and the film suggests that the teachers don’t understand the world that they live in, which again, is reduced to poverty, drugs, and the clichés. But at the same time it’s the teachers’ fault for not understanding that they are not communicating in a way that their students will understand.
TF: I’m thinking that a city that has a black arts group has a broader cultural infrastructure. I’m curious about how these films might engage or represent that through the credits. Because one of the ways that these films can resonate today is giving us a way back to that history.
AU: With films like this it’s always the fact that they open up stuff. They were incomplete. I think in some ways they were made to be incomplete because they were made to have someone talk before and after. They were made to have additional readings. It’s not like a feature film that’s going to have a clear diegetic world that ends after you leave the theater. A lot of these films are purposefully incomplete.
TF: Which is suggested by that narration of “I’m sorry we had to lay you off,” which suggests that the movie is going to continue somehow into theater into conversation into the world outside the theater.
AU: It was a discussion film.
TF: Which is what we’re doing – reading into the film and against the film. And trying to recreate as much as we can what the intentions were behind the film and what those discussions might have been like.
AU: It’s tenuous sometimes doing it. The historical evidence is going to be thin but all these questions that you’re asking are pointing to how they leave out so much on these actor’s lives and the people who made it. I’ll show you the little bit that I’ve been able to find: This [studio portrait above] is Wilma Greene later [than the films] and this photograph [see below] is from a performance.
So that’s two very different viewpoints of her. Note the stance she’s taking here, which is very different from her role as the put upon housewife whose husband can’t/won’t get a job. It seems clear, although I’m guessing at this point, that there’s probably a basic script that would have been written through IU and then improvised on by the actors.
TF: Earlier you mentioned the Indianapolis Recorder, which is the African American newspaper, still publishing. That whole infrastructure is not part of the film. My films, the Jamaican educational films are written about in the Jamaica Gleaner but they are screened like theatrical movies and are talked about in relation to a film industry. One of the films I’m going to show, Let’s Stop Them (Martin Rennalls, 1953) was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 1953. It had an educational framework and reason for being but then it fit into the movie-desire space. I’m wondering if there’s anything in the way the Indianapolis Recorder reporters talked about these educational productions that indicates that they saw them as black film.
AU: In terms of the research I’ve done, the actors always mention that they made the films alongside their other performances. A lot of the articles about the Black Arts Theater, until they dissolved in 1978, mention the films and then there is a profile on Wilma Greene in 1980. She worked in local TV and had a show called Black Is, which I haven’t found anything about yet, that she did on WRTV. It seems like it was something that they would keep in their bio. But in terms of the question precisely: no, it’s not connected to other forms of black filmmaking at the time. I think it’s really connected to educational film rather than theatrical film. In the article they talk about how they are “telling it like it is” in these films. They are using some of the rhetoric that would have been in black filmmaking at the time.
TF: Yes, “Tell it like it is” –was just used as the title of an exhibition on black independent filmmaking at Lincoln Center.
AU: What connections would they have to the other forms of filmmaking going on? Since they were IU produced they would have circulated in ways that were similar to the films you’re talking about. They would have gone to educational film festivals. They would have traveled and been in the catalogs for classrooms and organizations that showed films.
TF: It’s important to remember that the audience is students in the classroom.
AU: It would be that but also adult learning classes, private clubs, so it wouldn’t have just been the classroom. It’s education writ large. I think this is where your films add another component to that. It’s the educational intent behind filmmaking but then you have it as a short before a feature. Or it plays at art cinema festivals.
TF: They’re examples of pedagogical work that can be done outside the school, such as in a theater or community center.
AU: There’s a mid-century attempt to rebuilt America post-war. Educational film was a big part of that. Big organizations were funding these kinds of films thinking that it could have that kind of impact. It’s part of this belief in what film could do and how it could transform society. With these particular four films, it’s an attempt to engage with the subject matter. Like you’re saying though it’s still representing the IU educational viewpoint to a large degree. But it is very different from a film that was done five years earlier, called Portrait of a Disadvantaged Child: Tommie Knight.
TF: What year?
AU: 1965. Made by McGraw-Hill.
TF: The famous textbook publisher?
AU: Yes they made educational films as well. On the one hand it’s presented as the teacher’s inability to understand but at the same time it’s got these images that show Tommie Knight in a ruined junkyard.
TF: As though he lives out there and that’s where he’s doing his homework!
AU: Yeah the idea is that kids have to go to these dangerous junkyard ruins because their home life is troubled. So while I think it is to a degree saying the teacher can’t understand, it’s still trafficking in the view of a kid like Tommie Knight at the time of living in what the so-called ghetto became visually; he can’t escape. In terms of the visual rhetoric the limitations of the film are clear. In a way they show us how none of us can escape the worldviews that we were born into – we can try but – in films like this you see that struggle somewhat.
TF: Well, your thesis for the program is that the cliché is that these films are ineffective at presenting or engaging race, racism and racial inequality but that you see it more as a struggle that is happening, something more nuanced. Do you want to say a little bit about that?
AU: I think you see it stylistically and in the difference between the Tommie Knight film and the City Dweller film. It was part of a larger attempt to make educational films more of the time but the fact that this one has this almost generic narrator, which later films get rid off, is important. That seems like a minor stylistic point but having the narrator speak versus letting the people speak is the key distinction.
TF: This is so important in the Jamaican education films.
AU: So I think on this level you see [the struggle] play out. Poverty is not just something you can focus on in one group. There’s poor white people as well. Seems like an obvious thing.
TF: Well, that’s teaching. You have to remind people of things they already know, including the chaos of a certain kind of poverty that crosses race and color.
AU: The films are at least sort of struggling with these issues. We can say where are they ineffective, where are they patronizing, where are they limited by the people funding it– but even a film like this where there is a generic film narration you see an attempt at trying to deal with these issues–trying to hold the teachers accountable. There’s another film called The Real Self and the last line is you want to be Americanized but you don’t want to give up your real self. It shows African Americans and Latino students and again that the teachers don’t understand where they are coming from. There’s no narration in this one. It’s photographs by Declan Haun, who was a photojournalist who photographed the civil rights movement for decades. So in Real Self, there’s no narrator and all of the voices are African Americans and Latinos. It counters somewhat the photographs. There’s a photo of kids gambling then you’re going to have a different story being told in the commentary. And so I think it allows for multiple voices. It allows for multiple viewpoints though it is made for a white audience.
I think these films that are showing black life are really for the white audience. And that is made explicit in this film called Lonnie’s Day that was shot in Robert Taylor Homes on the south side of Chicago, which like Cabrini Green, has been torn down. The ad for it shows the idea that the film allows that entry point. So even though this film follows Lonnie as he goes about his day, from waking up to going to bed. There are moments of interior life, such as when he has a dream and he imagines himself as James Brown, as a singer. In some ways there’s a hidden white audience that’s not in the film.
TF: But is implied by the storytelling strategies.
AU: and then this question: “shouldn’t you show your students what it’s like to be black?”
TF: What I think is funny about that is no one knows what that is. There is that white gaze though…
AU: That’s why the films stand out. For the way that they are that gaze. Because they are so explicit about it. Because they are trying to train teachers. They are the calcified version of that gaze you were just talking about. I think they are useful to examine how that gaze operates to create blackness from white need.
TF: In the Seeing Whiteness class what has emerged for me as the actual object study is whiteness as a way of seeing. What we’re studying is a gaze. A power structure that is enacted through looking and that whiteness resides there. And its ability to influence what people do under it –whether to court its attention or to deflect its attention or to please it or to accommodate.
AU: What these films show is the need to adjust that gaze in moments of political stress. Especially when you see things like the NEA funding these films you get the sense that at a national level they are seeing what they see as a problem and make these films that will ideally make teachers more understanding. But it’s still from a position of power.
The other thing that is interesting about that white gaze that you’re talking about is it’s not included. It’s not something you would catalog. If you look at the terms used to describe them you’d find inner city, African American, black. But you don’t see the fact that Lonnie Day was made out of that white gaze that you’re talking about. It’s there but hidden. You’d never say as a librarian that that’s the subject of the film. I guess you would just assume that all the films—not all—but most of the educational films are from that position so you wouldn’t need to make it explicit. Because these films are trying to address what they see as a problem head on and it brings that to the forefront. It would have to be in the title or in the subject matter.
TF: The explicit subject matter.
TF: Like if there is a documentary about that.
AU: But a film showing a kid —
TF: That’s what scholars do — the theorizing part of you that engages these films. So just going back to where we started with the subject headings and the labels. They only underscore how much more there is to say about what’s in the box and what’s in the can and what’s on the reel. It’s a kind of excess.
AU: Other people have done this critique of the field better but I’ll say that the work of archivists is to remove that excess. To make things legible. To make it transferrable. To make it go into WorldCat. But you’re right but there is this excess. Not to say that’s where all the meaning lies but that’s sort of the meat of the meal.
TF: It gives such a clear vision of what scholars do in the archive and what a powerful partnership there is between the archivist and the scholar.
AU: Definitely and I think your point is a great one. The hope is then that becomes more explicit in collaboration. Even when it’s more structured as to what people’s jobs are there will still be that collaboration. And it’s incumbent on the archive world to make explicit the work they do in structuring knowledge. But I think instead this idea of collaborating with scholars and with the community – who ever that might be — allows this play between having to remove the excess and to acknowledge it. I try not to be pedantic about the use of archive. Sometimes the word is used in a way that ignores the actual institutions and the actual people working there. But it’s the key to questions of why we have the record of the past that we do.
TF: Do we have time to talk about Jamaica a little bit?
AU: Absolutely! I’m curious. I’m not even sure where you found these films.
TF: Let’s start there. I found them at the National Library of Jamaica in Kingston.
AU: And they’re Colonial Film Unit stuff?
TF: The Jamaica Film Unit began as a project of the Colonial Film Unit. You were talking earlier about films where it’s giving people the means to represent themselves or discuss their own issues. Something like that is happening here. At a structural level the CFU wanted to shift the burden of the educational films on to folks in the empire so they created these schools like the West Indian Film Training School. At the same time Martin Rennalls, an educator, wanted to make films that more directly addressed Jamaican problems and showed Jamaican people negotiating these problems, starting with how own classroom and extending that. So his motto was for Jamaicans by Jamaicans in Jamaica. The project of education was still there – and the question of what these films mean today is a tough one. Sometimes when I’ve presented these films one of the tensions that comes out is this desire to have the films be revolutionary filmmaking. And for Martin Rennalls to be the Spike Lee of 1950s Jamaica. But he’s a teacher. There is that romantic figure of the radical instructor who is bucking the system and telling students to be alive with their barbaric yawp and everything. But teachers are also teaching people to fit in too. These films are right in that tension of the teaching space as a potentially radical space and as a deeply conservative space. More and more I’m digging that and I’m really interested in that conflict as a way to understand their project but also what they can mean now.
AU: I can see the tension there between the sponsor having an agenda and the filmmaker wanting to insert radical politics or stylistics. How are these films going to play in Chicago now in 2015? And what work will you do to sort of set the stage?
TF: One of the ways these films can be presented is as orphan films, which are films that are disconnected from their original purpose and don’t have parents. Don’t have family. But this is an idea that is completely rejected by the films’ current custodians in Jamaica. I’ve been really schooled out of this idea by my peers in Jamaica. They said these films have a home: they belong to us. These are not orphans. There, it’s about a relationship to the physical object – these films are heritage and a whole issue of repatriating the films from England. The orphan film framework, which I think is important as a provocation for this whole discussion, is a great way to talk about where they belong and that they mean something different in a Caribbean film context than they can in a film studies context. And that I’m standing within both of those. I’m creating an overlap between them.
The other question is one of education. That is, education for whom and how do they educate now versus then. And is this black cinema? Is this Jamaican cinema?
The films that I’m presenting are from 1951 to 1961 but the Jamaica Film Unit continues in a different form after that as the Jamaica Information Service. The cinematographers for The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell, 1972) come out of the Unit. Franklyn St. Juste, who made some gorgeous 16mm films in the 1960s, and who worked on Henzell’s film, was a filmmaker in the JIS.
What’s radical about them to me is that possession of the equipment. The vision of making something. The ambition. The problem solving. How do we sync sound when we don’t have the equipment for sync sound. How do we screen in places that don’t have movie theaters. How do we create that desire for narrative and story? How do we resolve the problem of sound? Voice is a big ambition for the Unit but actually having Jamaican voices proved to be a real problem.
AU: Because of the British dialect being the dominant mode in the Empire?
TF: It’s two things. One is that mode of having the voiceover that explains everything. Then on the other hand not having recording equipment. So they get photographed in Jamaica then they go to London where sound can be recorded – but as Rennalls said that is giving away the most sensitive part of the process. He was trying to make the films feel true to everyday life in the rural areas. That’s a big difference between our films. Mine are rural productions aimed at farmers.
AU: And the city would have a cinema available.
TF: There are countryside cinemas in in small towns but yes movie-going was more accessible in the city.
AU: In terms of the rural it’s making these films for a slightly imagined audience. At the same time they are addressing the problem, they are creating ideas of the audience.
TF: It struck me that there were references to “my Jamaica” indicating a nascent nationalism, maybe pre-independence ideas, in the colonial era from a government agency. I didn’t expect that. There’s already some transition that’s happening. There were so many faces. Black Jamaican faces on screen for such a long time. Picturing participation and collectivity. The credits startled me – directed by Martin Rennalls. They felt like the race films of the 20s and 30s in that they had a signature.
AU: They weren’t just making a visual tool. They were making a movie. That’s why I think people thought educational films would be such a great tool for social change and instruction. That they would be more exciting than a pamphlet. They would be the little sibling to Hollywood cinema, but still trying to glean some of that.
TF: Rennalls said the instructors were explicit that this was not Hollywood. There’s no red carpet for this. But he was convinced that narrative was the only way to make this material relevant.
AU: The little bit of reading I’ve done about the creation of educational film as a genre says the intention is you have to make it somewhat narrative and entertaining. But you can’t have it too good or people will follow that instead of the lesson maybe.
TF: Right, they’ll start rooting for the villain.
AU: You’ll wanna be the bad kid.
TF: It Can Happen to You (Martin Rennalls, 1956) has the health office director, which is important because you see the institutional involvement in these films.
AU: Sort of mirroring someone like a lecturer.
AU: And there couldn’t be [a lecturer] because you’re showing it in a place where you just have a projector and you don’t have a doctor.
TF: Yes. Probably so.
AU: That takes the place of the voice of the teacher.
TF: And the conflict within the community — conflict within the community with dignity.
AU: Like it’s being solved.
TF: That it’s not taking away your humanity to have a problem.
AU: Right, right. Instead of this vantage point of, some of these films on the Negro Problem as in why are there riots?
AU: Right, and that’s definitely–
AU: Almost a criminal, not criminalizing, but its putting that onus on the community as a whole.
TF: In It Can Happen to You the story is that Jamaica could be so great but we need to treat what they used to call venereal disease properly and seriously, so to illustrate I’m gonna tell you a story about one of my neighbors.
TF: As the voiceover plays I’m thinking so this is a film from within.
TF: It is a film from on high, because teachers, yes. It is an asymmetrical relationship. There is condescension. There is class condescension. There might be color condescension too. But at the same time there is that positioning of “I’m gonna tell you a story about one of my neighbors.”
AU: And this idea coming from within is because the films are made at that sort of transitional moment and that would be different than–
TF: Oh yes.
AU: I mean this is a question. It maybe doesn’t sound like it at the end. I imagine that it would be different than films that were made for England.
TF: The 50’s are a period of social change but the culmination of that change hasn’t happened yet.
TF: I had to reorient myself to what these films mean. That the existence of these films indicates and emerges out of the period of massive social change. Otherwise we’re looking at 1962 as the point of change. The year of independence. But actually like a decade earlier, longer actually, there are these uprisings, there are confrontations. But the films are weird in that way though, because they, they’re not radical count-insurgence, counter-governmental products. They’re from within the government.
AU: Right, which in some ways would put them in the space of the audience in a different way, right?
TF: What do you mean?
AU: It’s similar to American educational films where there’s those moments where it stands out before the 60s, before you know, the rig with the sound is standard, when there’s the sync sound. It feels different sort of and you’re with them a little bit more in some ways.
TF: I want to contextualize them, bring them out, show them to people, I want the makers to be visible and for their intentions to be made known. What we make of them after that is something else. It’s not that I wouldn’t contradict them, but I think it’s first important to hear that they had this project of making a new and indigenous and the first Jamaican cinema, and looking at that content. That educational impulse is anyway an ethic in current Jamaican filmmaking. It doesn’t even matter like what the film is about, how fictional it is, there is a desire for film to be useful. OK, this is the first one Farmer Brown Learns Good Dairying. And it’s pretty different from those that came later.
AU: Even the music. You’re right. It’s like generic educational film music almost.
AU: Yeah, so, there’s a different thing going on there.
TF: It’s the first one. The good and bad farmer is much more separate, and we although, the Farmer Brown character is designated as the leader and we have that sort of semi-close up of him, his voice isn’t a part of this film the way that in later films this problem of voice is addressed more directly.
AU: And like you’re saying, it’s a mix of technological problems and also, you know, stylistic and the relationship to the empire.
AU: That doesn’t put him as the main character.
TF: It’s their agricultural director, who arrives in that car, that big fancy car.
AU: He’s not walking with his cow behind him.
TF: And then we saw the other folks. Even the milk delivery man had a horse, a donkey-driven vehicle. Those contrasts are definitely there. I’ve seen the films in different ways, over time, but I initially just couldn’t believe that I was seeing film from the 50s of actual Jamaican people.
TF: It’s still unique and surprising. When I first saw them I was like that guy could be my grandpa!
AU: Say more.
TF: So one of my acts of viewing is actually to watch them without the voiceover, so that I could see it and enjoy it. So there was this connection of, almost like a home movie connection that started happening and that was another kind of educational film for me or some kind of documentation.
AU: Despite the intent of the film, those men lived in Jamaica, they’re Jamaican, so you can sort of not reclaim them maybe but remove them slightly from the setting. That’s what you’re talking about trying to do.
TF: Kind of, I mean, because it’s like I’m now the audience.
TF: And the custodian, in a way, of these films.
TF: They have other custodians in Jamaica, and with the colonial film sites, and the editors, the curators there. But I do feel a sense of interpretive, and I think benevolent, possession over them and how they’re discussed. I feel a personal connection to them in a way.
TF: One of the other contexts that the films can be seen in through orphans that is problematic and that’s kitsch. This ironic, giggly response, particularly to films about like sex education.
AU: That’s probably good to remind the Orphans people of that.
TF: I initially thought Oh! I have a place now in film studies through these films and the concept of orphan films, but after this conversation that I had with one of the filmmakers in Jamaica about orphans, I became more critical. I realized it’s not gonna be that comfortable, but even with that it’s been an important exercise to try to be open to the audience. Like I showed these in Jamaica a couple of years ago and there were a variety of responses: indignation, curiosity, appreciation, anger – a whole range. How do we treasure heritage with messages we don’t agree with?
AU: Not just these films but I think a lot of the films have a similar issue. We see them differently now. If it has factory workers we want the movie to be about them. But we don’t get the movie we want now.
TF: Right [laughs].
AU: You know, and it’s sort of, I guess in some way it’s the responsibility of archivists, or scholars, or relatives or whatever.
TF: Or artists–
AU: To think about how are these films viable now. And I think in some ways it’s your point of watching them without the sound and just wanting to imagine, you know, what that gentleman did after the camera turned off.
TF: There’s just such a desire to hear what they’re saying to each other.
TF: Just to hear, not even what they’re saying, but to hear them saying it.
AU: And when you mentioned people wanting films to be more like revolutionary. This one of your ways that your suggesting that despite the fact that they’re made within the governmental vantage point that there’s still these parts we can pull out. But I think you raising that point of the different audience responses is a really viable one to think about the inherent ways of presenting it from an archive standpoint. What your saying is that history is complicated. We don’t necessarily agree with this. While finding the overall project, reprehensible maybe, or having some sort of understanding that people are, well, I’m not religious necessarily, but that we’re fallen.
TF: Yes, Yes…
AU: And we can accept that.
AU: But the degree to which maybe that needs to be made explicit, that these are being presented in that spirit and not necessarily agreeing with it, and I think that’s a strength. It’s very different than if you’re a different kind of programmer, film programmer showing stuff that you believe in and that you feel like is making a change now. And it’s like, no, we’re showing stuff that we don’t agree with.
TF: Yeah. But the object is–that’s what I treasure, is the object itself and the other project of making.
AU: Your point about the men in this film as being something to think about and learn about and imagine. It’s only, I mean it’s not only through this film, but in some ways it’s only through this film that you would have access to that.
AU: You know, so, you know, that’s right, there’s maybe slave imagery in the other film, which is worth criticizing, but at the same time, it does allow us a view, however. I mean I guess that’s reading against the grain.
TF: Yeah, but then also, he has to be arrested, he’s a criminal.
AU: I know! I mean, I don’t.
TF: He’s stealing people’s bananas. That is the worst. When you have been growing stuff, you know how long it takes? And then somebody comes in the night – chop. Lock him up!
AU: Well the other thing I was sort of thinking about is when you talk about the teacher being conservative and radical at the same time.
TF: Oh yeah.
AU: From doing research for how a lot of these films were used, presented in libraries, by librarians at the time that were collecting these films and showing them to audiences of all kinds, right? And this idea that you need to be the librarian activist. It’s like on the one hand, as a librarian, you know you’re following cataloguing rules and stacking books the right way, and the other hand, there’s that tension between wanting to be a radical and wanting to be orderly I guess?
TF: Well it’s like what you said earlier about the politics of knowledge and how archives or how librarians structure knowledge. Those education films are really asking the teacher as they’re asking the librarian to animate the politics of that role.
TF: And to use that authority for social change.
TF: It’s not every school or every teacher who will receive a criticism of how he or she understands the students or wants to discuss race relations, so it’s making tools for a progressive classroom that, well, can be limited in all kinds of different ways. By the way, I interviewed my dad about his movie going, and I was surprised when he said, “well umm, we had a movie theatre, so I didn’t have to go to those films,” meaning the mobile unit educational films.
AU: That’s interesting. The sort of thing about non-theatrical film in general, in a classroom or in a church, is that they’re films but they’re not. They’re sort of more quotidian, more everyday, more easily ignorable and I think in some ways that makes them even more–it’s the stuff that’s there but you don’t think about is sometimes worth studying.
AU: Because that’s what’s going on and no one’s really talking about it.
TF: Yet they’re super exciting. They’re an event: there’s the find, there’s the contextualizing, but yes, to return to them as part, as wallpaper, as part of everyday life, as saying things that are boring. Some of these were shown with cowboy films.
AU: Like from the United States?
TF: Yeah, yeah.
TF: Cowboy films were popular in Jamaica, and they would show these with them, mix them in.
AU: That’s great. I guess it makes sense, cowboy films with The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell, 1972).
TF: Oh yes they become part of the Jamaican understanding of the movies, it’s not some kind of weird foreign thing. Or not just that.
AU: But even in this there’s sort of a rural to rural. I mean different nations, but–
TF: People connecting to the landscape of a western?
TF: Totally. Absolutely. They’re even more interesting to me now after talking to you about them.
AU: [laughs] Well, I appreciate you talking to me about these films because it’s been really helpful. I think these films, sometimes, I mean all films do but educational films or whatever we want to call them –non-theatrical films need to be activated through conversation and different viewpoints, and talking about it forces you to actually really think about what you’re showing, so I appreciate it.
TF: Conversation is a part of research that often either doesn’t happen or happens in this ephemeral way.
AU: Yeah, absolutely. Can I ask one more question?
TF: Of course!
AU: And this, this is more, this might be outside of the scope of things.
TF: Even better.
AU: I was never thinking I would write about this. Thinking about the screening and thinking about meeting people and talking about them as the academic product? And I know that’s probably not being a good student or I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. I’m thinking about screenings and programing as an end result of research? As a form of scholarly communication?
TF: I think that programming, curating, creating civic space around film is absolutely critical, a critical, not even dimension, but outcome of finding this work, otherwise, or why are we doing it? And I mean especially for films that teach about race, Jamaican films, early African American film, I mean we need those in the public sphere to intervene in the existing, dominant archive of what counts as media, what counts as image. That white gaze that we were talking about? This work is engaging that and looking back at it and is a way to talk about it that doesn’t happen if we’re not there. I think it’s crucial to– just even in how you invited me into this conversation, on educational films, that expands the conversation that would have happened in this series. It’s actually making me want to write about them again, and I think that our blog conversation is going to move me in that direction.
AU: Oh good! I think that’s a smart way of thinking about this conversation that includes different iterations and then you’ll write about it in a way that you would have not written about.
TF: That’s right.
AU: Or that you didn’t write about these films.
TF: It’ll be different from that earlier piece. There I was parsing each text and describing them for people who were not going to see them.
TF: And now from our conversation, I’m kind of seeing them as a collection. I’m asking what does this collection mean? What does it mean to collect them? So it’s more maybe the theory of drawing out an archive within. The work that I’m trying to do on Caribbean cinema is through this idea of the unexpected archive and of looking around like in weird places, or in non-film places.
AU: There aren’t those boundaries, especially if you’re talking about someone like your father, who went to see the movies. You can’t get at that through the object.
AU: The interest is going to be things other than the film text.
TF: My conversation with my dad was so surprising, like what was showing where and that he thought it was important to see different types of theatres: this is the type of theatre I took your mom to, this is the other kind of theatre I wouldn’t take her to, yes!
TF: Yes, it’s so interesting. It was so, it was too much.
AU: This is a total aside, maybe that means it’s time for me to leave if I’m talking about other things, but so Bloomington, the Von Lee, which is now a noodle shop on Kirkwood.
TF: Tell me.
AU: It was a movie theatre, and it was like the bad movie theatre.
AU: Because it would show foreign films. So I read this oral history of projectionists in town and this woman whose dad ran another one, which is now the Buskirk-Chumley, the Indiana, she was like “oh, I could never go there” so, even in a place like Bloomington.
AU: With three or four screens there was still the bad theatre.
TF: Yeah and that bad theatre would have the foreign films.
AU: Yeah, like Fellini.
TF: I thought you were gonna say…exploitation films or porn or something.
AU: Absolutely not. It was the kind of stuff that we would see as tame.
TF: Wow, or even fancy
AU: Exactly. Like big city.
TF: Oh that’s so interesting. This was fun!
AU: Thanks so much! It was really a pleasure.
TF: You’re welcome! It was a pleasure for me too.
The Streets and the Classrooms: Educational and Industrial Films in an Era of Massive Social Change, a film series at South Side Projections in Chicago.
Friday, May 1 at 7pm
Using Classroom Films to Teach about Race
Presented by J. Andrew Uhrich, Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive
South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan Ave.
1965-1973, 74 min., 16mm projection
Saturday, May 9 at 4pm
For Educational Purposes Only: The Jamaica Film Unit Works, 1951-1961
Presented by Terri Francis, Indiana University Department of Communications and Culture
Washington Park Arts Incubator, 301 E. Garfield Blvd.
1951-1956, 56 min., video projection
Post-screening discussion with Professor Francis will be moderated by Shadow & Act’s Sergio Mims.