Author Archives: BFC/A

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.

BLACK CAMERA Vol. 7, No. 1 Now Available

The latest issue of Black Camera: An International Film Journal is now available in print and online from the Indiana University Press.

Fall2015

The current issue features a Close-Up on Fugitivity and the Filmic Imagination from guest editor James Edward Ford III, including articles by Autumn Womack, Frank B. Wilderson III, Shana L. Redmond, Rizvana Bradley, David Marriott, James Edward Ford III, and M. Shadee Malaklou.

Also included in this issue are a memorial tribute to Black Film Center/Archive founding director Phyllis Klotman; articles by Michael W. Thomas and Robin Hayes; an Archival Spotlight by Whitney Strub; and a conversation and gallery feature on the films and art of Mike Henderson.

For more information about Black Camera, please visit http://www.indiana.edu/~blackcam.  To subscribe, visit http://purchase.jstor.org/products.php?issn=15363155

 


THE BLACK G.I. and NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLED ME NIGGER conclude IU Cinema series “40 Years On: Screening the Vietnam War”

This post was prepared as an introduction to the December 3, 2015, screening of Black Journal: The Black G.I. and No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger, which concludes the series “40 Years On: Screening the Vietnam War.” The screening takes place at 7PM at the IU Cinema and will be followed by a discussion with series curator James Paasche, BFC/A director Michael T. Martin, and BFC/A graduate assistant Dorothy Berry.

This series is sponsored by WTIU, IU Cinema, the Black Film Center/Archive, the Cinema and Media Studies program, The Media School, Indiana University Center for Documentary Research and Practice, and Veteran Support Services.

 

ebony_black_soldier

The Black G.I. and No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger highlight the parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, calling to stark attention the divisive issue of race in both military and civilian life. While the draft swept through the lives of the hundreds of thousands of men, the politically and economically disenfranchised were far more likely to face selective service, and African American men were largely part of those demographics. The films in tonight’s screening highlight the still-ongoing conflict of double-consciousness – patriotic Americans who want to serve and protect their country, even though their lived experience tells them that their country does not want to protect them.

The Black G.I. is a phenomenal documentary produced by filmmaker Kent Garrett for the WNET public affairs program, Black Journal. Garrett was granted permission to go to Vietnam by the Pentagon, in the hopes that the Black Journal episode would focus on the successes of African American military officers. Though they were guided through the country by Pentagon-sponsored public information officers, Garrett and his crew were given enough freedom that they were able to document the stories of the many men who followed after them and asked to participate.

The military men in The Black G.I. tell a story of service in an incredibly segregated army. Coming from a U.S. setting where performative Blackness, especially through dress and music, had never been more important, drafted men express anger at not being able to wear their natural hair and dashikis. Beyond questions of uniformity, their real complaints are that even on the other side of the world, they are still treated as though they are on the bottom rung. Soldiers talk about being called ugly by Vietnamese people, with one solider saying “Vietnamese girls called me a nigger – I know it’s not part of their language.” The idea that there was no equity of experience runs through the Black military narratives from drafted men to the military officers.

Those officers, the ones the Pentagon wanted featured, had a different, professional and career-oriented perspective on their service, but even the most loyal of them would not deny the issues faced. While they agreed things had gotten better, as their interviews progress, the disdain at their mistreatment bubbles to the surface (while remaining below the levels of insubordination).

In Struggles for Representation: African American Documentary Film and Video, Janet Cutler [co-editor, with her mother, BFC/A founder Phyllis Klotman – Ed.] discusses the thread of radical Black Nationalism that laced through every episode of Black Journal, mentioning a specific segment titled “And We Will Survive” where a blues singer’s cry of “Have you ever been mistreated? Then you know what I’m talking about” was layered with images of Vietnamese villages and a photo of an elderly Black man holder a poster reading “No Vietnamese Ever Called me Nigger.”

Scene from the 1967 Spring Mobilization to End the War

Scene from the 1967 Spring Mobilization to End the War

That shared colonial subjectivity implied with photographic collage by Black Journal comes into focus in the second documentary of tonight’s screening, which shares its name with that very poster. No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger was filmed by director David Loeb Weiss and cameraman Michael Wadleigh on the occasion of the April 15, 1967 Spring Mobilization To End the War March. Though anti-war sentiment and a lack of support for the returning troops have become hallmarks in the collective memory of the Vietnam War, Weiss’ documentary shows a specific and separate response coming directly from and to the African American community.

The Mobilization March took place one week after Martin Luther King Jr.’s Riverside Church speech “Beyond Vietnam- A Time to Break Silence,” wherein the leader and orator protested the war, saying

We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

That sentiment – that there was a cruel irony in sending an oppressed people to fight in the name of their country for the freedom of others – is echoed in Weiss’ film, both by the protesters at the March and by the three Black Vietnam veterans, Dalton James, Preston Lay Jr., and Akmed Lorence, interviewed for the film. The three men express the same issue that Black soldiers had experienced after returning home from all major wars, that in spite of any equality gained in the military, in civilian life they were still subject to the laws of Jim Crow.

No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger

Like the soldiers in The Black G.I., James, Lay Jr. and Lorence, experienced racism in their integrated troops in Vietnam and then the further indignity felt in returning to a racist homeland. When viewed as companion pieces, The Black G.I. and No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger paint a picture of conflict – personal and institutional, domestic and international – that defined a generation of Black Americans and would shape America overall for decades to come.

~Dorothy Berry


BOAN of Contention: The 1979 IU Screenings of THE BIRTH OF A NATION

On November 12 and 13, the Black Film Center/Archive presents From Cinematic Past to Fast Forward Present: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – A Centennial Symposium. A full schedule of events, including keynotes, panels, and screening, is available at www.boancentennial.org. In anticipation of the symposium, BFC/A graduate assistant Dorothy Berry looks back to 1979, when “over 900 people came to see The Birth of a Nation at two very different screenings” on the campus of Indiana University, Bloomington.

James Baldwin’s 1976 description of The Birth of a Nation (BOAN) as both “one of the great classics of the American cinema” and “an elaborate justification of mass murder” succinctly captures the challenges of screening D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster film. There is no denying the seminal role of BOAN in American film history. There is also no denying the seminal role of BOAN in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the popular rewriting of the history of the Reconstruction South.

Controversies surrounding the screening of BOAN have often emerged from the intersection of those two truths. “Why shouldn’t we screen the runaway hit of 1915 that entertained hundreds of thousands?” “Why should we screen a film that has been actively used as recruitment propaganda for the Ku Klux Klan?” These questions were asked and argued on the Indiana University campus in the beginning of the 1979 spring semester when over 900 people came to see BOAN at two very different screenings.

BOAN has long been prized for its cinematic innovations and its role in the rise of film as popular entertainment. Many fans of classic film have screened BOAN simply as that – an entertaining film from the early days of the movie industry. This sort of screening was what the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) had in mind when they sponsored a screening of BOAN at the IU Auditorium with live accompaniment from famed silent film organist, Dennis James, with a two-dollar ticket fee, as a fundraiser for the chapter. The screening was scheduled for Saturday, February 3, 1979, and was part of an ongoing silent film series.

The AGO screening was immediately met by pushback from IU students and faculty. The first complaint dealt with the issue of timing – screening BOAN in the first week of Black History Month, an observance that had only been federally recognized for three years at that point. AGO conceded this point in the face of protests and moved the screening to March 19th.

BOAN_1979

Protesters outside the IU Auditorium direct attendees to the counter-screening at Woodburn Hall, March 19, 1979. (Photo: Terry John)

The second complaint was more complex. An argument was made from faculty, students and members of the local community that BOAN should not be shown as a de-contextualized entertainment. AGO withdrew their sponsorship, but then amidst new counter-protests, decided to continue, asserting that the film had historic, artistic, and educational merit.

What makes this case study in the history of BOAN screenings so interesting, however, is that the original protestors never called for the film’s banning. The major concern dealt entirely with framing the screening. “We don’t advocate complete censorship of the film,” IU student and Black Student Union member Deborah Bailey told the Herald-Times. “What we advocate is a proper time for debate and discussion before and after the film.”

Framing concerns came to a head on March 19, 1979, when the IU campus offered two concurrent screenings of BOAN. The AGO screening with live accompaniment moved on in the auditorium, while across the campus in Woodburn Hall, a counter-screening and teach-in was scheduled to begin a half an hour later. Guided by professor of Afro-American studies Phyllis Klotman (who founded the Black Film Center/Archive at IU two years later) and film studies graduate student, Andetrie Smith, the Woodburn Hall counter-screening was inspired and organized by the Black Student Union, with support from the IU Students Association, the Residence Halls Association, and local organizations like the Monroe County NAACP branch and Black churches.

On the eve of the screenings, demonstrators gathered outside the auditorium, directing attendees to the Woodburn Hall event and handing out leaflets that advertised “Free Admission” and proper contextualization at the counter-screening. The Woodburn Hall counter-screening and teach-in ended up with around 300 attendees, nearly a full house. The IU Auditorium screening brought in 600 attendees, twice as many as the teach-in but a fairly small attendance given the venue’s 3,154 seat capacity.

Just hours before the screening and counter-screening, Dennis James, the organ accompanist, canceled his then-upcoming screening of The Ten Commandments, planned for April 15 at the IU Auditorium, saying that “I have no concept now of judging the college audience.”

~Dorothy Berry

 


Memorabilia from Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame on Exhibit at Grunwald Gallery

Phil Moore Plaque from the Supremes

Phil Moore Plaque from the Supremes

A number of items from the Mary Perry Smith/Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (BFHFI) Archive Collection will be on display at the IU Grunwald Gallery from Friday, October 23 through Wednesday, November 18th as part of its exhibition “The Wunderkammer: Curiosities in Indiana University Collections.”

An opening reception will be held on Friday, October 23rd from 6:00-8:00 pm at the Grunwald Gallery and a noon talk will be presented by the curators and managers of several of the represented special collections on Friday, November 6th at the Gallery.

The BFC/A’s selections include movie memorabilia that was collected by the BFHFI as part of its plan to eventually open a brick and mortar museum. Featured are a painting of film actress Madame Sul-Te-Wan, hand prints created by Lena Horne and Stepin Fetchit on paper with graphite under the supervision of Oakland artist Casper Banjo, and several personal effects belonging to Hollywood composer and arranger Phil Moore.

Painting of Madame Sul-Te-Wan

Painting of Madame Sul-Te-Wan

Although the BFHFI was never able to establish its own museum, the BFC/A is excited for this opportunity to display some of the more unusual and eye-catching items from its archives as a way of illustrating the BFHFI’s far-reaching impact on thirty years of independent film and filmmakers and celebrating the life of BFHFI co-founder Mary Perry Smith.

Items from the collections at the IU Archives, Archives of African American Music and Culture, Lilly Library, Kinsey Institute, Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Art Museum, Department of Biology Herbarium, and Elizabeth Sage Costume Collection will also be represented as part of the exhibit.

Additional information about the exhibit is available on the Grunwald Gallery’s site at http://www.indiana.edu/~grunwald/exhibitions.php?pid=the-wunderkammer-curiosities-in-indiana-university-collections.


SEMBENE! directors Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman visit Indiana University, Oct. 19-20

With a filmography spanning over forty years, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007) earned international renown as a revolutionary artist and as the “Father of African Cinema” for his indigenized filmmaking practice. Sembène eschewed Western languages and narrative style for a new cinematic aesthetic drawing from African storytelling traditions, performed in African languages (Wolof, Diola, Bambara), and expressly produced for African audiences. Sembène has been heard to say: “Africa is my ‘audience’ while the West and the ‘rest’ are only targeted as ‘markets.’” Fifty years on from his first feature production, the Black Film Center/Archive and IU Cinema celebrate his legacy with a series featuring a new documentary and digital restorations of two of his earliest films.

SEMBÈNE_fall2015_postcard_final

In addition to the October 19 screenings of La Noire De … (Black Girl) and Borom Sarret (The Wanderer), the new biographical documentary Sembène! will be shown at IU Cinema on Tuesday, October 20th, with filmmakers Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman scheduled to attend. This will follow a roundtable discussion with BFC/A director Michael T. Martin.

Reviewing its 2015 premiere at Sundance, Bilge Ebiri wrote that, of all the festival’s entries this year, “no film demonstrated the power of cinema more resonantly than Sembène!” The documentary chronicles Ousmane Sembène’s fascinating life as a militant artist, self-taught novelist, and “Father of African Cinema.” Using rare archival footage, animation, and the firsthand experience of Sembène expert and colleague Samba Gadjigo, the filmmakers present an honest and complex portrait of a man whose significance to modern African culture cannot be overstated.

silverman_gadjigo

Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo

 

Sembène! emerges also as Gadjigo’s story, as he recounts the ways that Sembène’s work transformed his life. The Mount Holyoke professor was born in Senegal, where his life was changed by Sembène’s novel, God’s Bits of Wood. After earning his PhD from the University of Illinois, Gadjigo returned to Africa to connect with the artist who had such a formative impact on his life. “We worked together for 17 years,” Gadjigo told Indiewire. “and it was an honor to help him bring his stories into the world. On the day of his death, I promised that I would not let his stories be forgotten. That’s why we made this film.”

Jason Silverman, who is the director of the cinemathèque at the Center of Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, reached out to Samba Gadjigo as part of an effort to include more African film in the center’s programming. “I knew Jason was so knowledgeable about the cinema world,” Gadjigo told BOMB Magazine, “so I told him I had all this [Sembène] material and wanted him to help me organize it. A film really wasn’t the idea so much as building a website to share all this material with the world. He looked at me and said, ‘No. We should make a movie!’”

sembene

Ousmane Sembène

 

In conjunction with the IU Cinema and BFC/A screening series, Sembène: Father of African Cinema, Black Film Center/Archive director Michael T. Martin will moderate a roundtable discussion of Sembène’s work and legacy. This discussion will follow from the previous evening’s screenings of the World Cinema Project‘s digital restorations of La Noire De … (Black Girl) and Borom Sarret (The Wanderer).

Roundtable discussion participants include:

Akin Adesokan, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature

Samba Gadjigo, Professor of French, Mount Holyoke College, and Co-Director of Sembène! (2015)

Eileen Julien, Director, Institute for Advanced Study, and Professor of French and Comparative Literature

Michael T. Martin, Director, Black Film Center/Archive, and Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, The Media School

Jason Silverman, Cinematheque Director, Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, and Co-Director of Sembène! (2015)

The event is free, and begins at 3:30 PM, before the evening’s screening of Sembène!  This series is sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive, The Media School, the Cinema and Media Studies program, and the departments of African Studies, French and Italian, and Comparative Literature.

~Jezy Gray


Mary Perry Smith, Co-Founder of the BFHFI, Passes

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Mary Perry Smith. In addition to her roles as an educator, a philanthropist, and a promoter of black cultural heritage, Mary Perry Smith was a co-founder of Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Inc. (BFHFI).

For over thirty years Smith played many roles within the BFHFI, as well, including serving as the first chairperson of the advisory board, coordinator and chair of the Educational Programs Committee, and board president from 1984 through the mid-1990s. Much of the organization’s archives, including records documenting its early history as a project of the Oakland Museum’s Cultural and Ethnics Affairs Guild in 1974, fell under Mary’s vigilant care.

Cultural and Ethnic Affairs Committee chairpersons Mary Perry Smith, Margot Hicks and Donald Therence with Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inductee, Sammy Davis, Jr., 1974

Cultural and Ethnic Affairs Guild chairpersons Mary Perry Smith, Margot Hicks and Donald Therence with Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inductee, Sammy Davis, Jr., 1974

The annual highlight of the BFHFI from 1974—1993 was its Black History Month Celebration, which included the star-studded Oscar Micheaux Awards Ceremony and a celebrity dinner and dance gala. Inductees and awardees included filmmakers and artists such as Paul Robeson, Stepin Fetchit, Gordon Parks, Sammy Davis, Jr., Diahann Carol, Dizzy Gillespie, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Julie Dash, Spike Lee, Brock Peters, Maya Angelou, Tempest Bledsoe, Jim Brown, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Richard Pryor, and many, many others. The celebration also included a film and lecture series, film symposium, and film competition co-hosted and co-sponsored by UC Berkeley, the Oakland Museum, and the BFHFI.

A large-scale volunteer effort, the Hall of Fame soon outgrew the resources and energy of the staff at the Oakland Museum and so it became an incorporated non-profit organization in 1978. In addition to its annual Black History Month Celebration, the BFHFI also sponsored and hosted master classes, workshops, film screenings, and other educational events throughout the year. Smith was heavily involved in the planning and oversight of many of these events. 1990 marked the start of Black Filmworks, a film festival designed to showcase landmark films and winning submissions to the annual film competition.

Mary Perry Smith with special directorial award presented posthumously to Oscar Micheaux by the Directors Guild of America, 1986

Mary Perry Smith with special directorial award presented posthumously to Oscar Micheaux by the Directors Guild of America, 1986

Besides administrative records and souvenir items, the BFHFI archives include highlights such as a dress and boots worn by Ruby Dee in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a pair of Harold Nicholas’s tap shoes, signed celebrity hand prints created under the supervision of Casper Banjo, two Oscar Micheaux novels signed by the author, an oil painting of Madame Sul-Te-Wan from the collection of early film aficionado Manny Weltman, and the papers, photographs, and audio recordings of jazz composer and arranger Phil Moore. The BFHFI’s long sought after goal was to establish a brick and mortar museum to house and exhibit items such as these. The archives also contain over 1000 video recordings that include footage of BFHFI events and nearly 20 years’ worth of submissions to the annual film competition.

Smith donated the BFHFI archives to the BFC/A in February 2014 (see previous story). Since then our staff has worked diligently to process approximately 300 boxes full of material. The media recordings are slated to undergo digital preservation as part of Indiana University’s Media Preservation and Digitization Initiative starting this fall through fall 2018. Several items will also be displayed as part of an exhibit hosted at the Grunwald Gallery located on the IU Bloomington campus from October 23rd through November 18th as a means of increasing awareness of the collection throughout and beyond the IU community.

Smith has left behind a breathtaking legacy. Her tireless efforts greatly influenced the shape and direction of the BFHFI and garnered recognition and support of black filmmakers and artists for over thirty years. Her careful stewardship of the collection has ensured that this and future generations will have access to this invaluable record of black filmmaking in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Details on a celebration of her life are forthcoming.

Featured image


Ja’Tovia Gary and Stefani Saintonge Bring “New Negress” Short Films to IU Cinema on Sept. 4

Filmmakers Ja’Tovia Gary and Stefani Saintonge will visit Indiana University on Friday, September 4, for a free film screening event at the IU Cinema. The award-winning directors are members of the New Negress Film Society, a self-described “collective of black woman filmmakers whose priority is to create community and spaces for support, exhibition and consciousness-raising.” Their visit will include a public conversation moderated by IU Professor Terri Francis, who is currently teaching a course in The Media School called Black Women Make Movies: Race, Gender and Representation.

New Negress Film Society

The New Negress Film Society was formed after the success of a 2013 film screening in Brooklyn entitled I Am A Negress of Noteworthy Talent, the first show organized by the artists who would become the bedrock of this daring collective. (The name of the event, along with the group’s eventual moniker, was inspired by the work of contemporary artist Kara Walker and Alain Locke’s 1925 essay, “The New Negro.”) Since then, The New Negress Film Society has added new members to aid in its mission to showcase bold and compelling films by black women.

The New Negress Film Society Short Film Program at IU Cinema will include screenings of the following works:

Afronauts (2014, 14 min.) dir. Frances Bodomo
You Cannot Haunt Your House at Will (2014, 12 min.) dir. Dyani Douze
Cakes Da Killa: NO HOMO (2013, 13 min.) dir. Ja’Tovia Gary
An Ecstatic Experience (2015, 6 min.) dir. Ja’Tovia Gary
Savage (2012, 16 min.) dir. Kumi James
Seventh Grade (2014, 12 min.) dir. Stefani Saintonge
La Tierra de los Adioses (2013, 27 min.) dir. Stefani Saintonge

Savage by Kumi James

Savage by Kumi James

Afronauts by Frances Bodomo

Afronauts by Frances Bodomo

Cakes Da Killa: NO HOMO by Ja'Tovia Gary

Cakes Da Killa: NO HOMO by Ja’Tovia Gary

Ja’Tovia Gary’s documentary short, Cakes Da Killa: NO HOMO, won the Audience Award at the 52nd Ann Arbor Film Festival. The film is a portrait of a young, openly gay rapper from New Jersey whose lyrics and performances mobilize queer identity politics and challenge dominant ideas about black masculinity. (Gary also directed and edited the striking music video for Cakes Da Killa’s 2013 single, “Goodie Goodies.”) Gary holds an MFA in Social Documentary Filmmaking from NYU’s School of Visual Arts and is currently in production on her first feature, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, “which uses non-linear filmmaking techniques to interrogate notions of the self, Black American religious traditions, family, nostalgia, ritual, psychoanalysis, and memory.”

Stefani Saintonge recently won the ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Discovery Award for her narrative short film, Seventh Grade. It tells the story of a young girl’s coming-of-age in a thoughtful and troubling examination of adolescent sexuality. (“I wanted to explore what [it’s] like for women to deal with your body becoming a sex object,” she told ESSENCE.)  Her documentary, La Tierra de los Adioses, was named Best Latin American Short Documentary at the Festival Internacional de Cine en el Desierto. Saintonge—who is a producer on the forthcoming short film, Macho—earned her MFA in Documentary Film Studies and Production at Hofstra University.

Dyani Douze is also expected to be present for the screening and corresponding Q&A. Her 2014 documentary short, You Cannot Haunt Your House at Will, meditates on architect Pierre Chareau’s Mason de Verre (“House of Glass”) in Paris, France. Other films rounding out the program include Frances Bodomo’s Afronautsa visually stunning work about the Zambia Space Academy—along with Kumi James’ Savage, a short narrative film about the complex relationship between a white school teacher and a troubled student in a predominantly black Brooklyn high school.

In anticipation of their upcoming visit, the BFC/A spoke with directors Stefani Saintonge and Ja’Tovia Gary about their work and involvement with The New Negress Film Society.

Stefani Saintonge (left) and Ja'Tovia Gary (right)

Stefani Saintonge                                                      Ja’Tovia Gary

BFC/A: First, I would like to hear from each of you about how you came to belong to the New Negress Film Society. Can you talk about what being a part of this collective means to you, and how your work relates to its mission?

JG: The idea for the collective sprang from a screening exhibition organized by Kumi James in the summer of 2013. The program featured works by Black women filmmakers including Nikyatu Jusu, Nevline Nnaji, Frances Bodomo, Kumi James and myself. We titled the event I Am a Negress of Noteworthy Talent, which is a nod to fine artist Kara Walker who mounted an exhibition / multimedia project of the same name. The screening itself was an incredibly affirming and validating experience, and to have the community come out and support really thoughtful, creative and non-traditional works by Black women filmmakers was extraordinary.  Kumi and I were definitely interested in sustaining that moment and creating something lasting from that experience so we began to think about forming a collective. We met that same weekend with a few other filmmakers from our community and began to sort of plot out this project. Nevline Nnaji, Frances Bodomo, Kumi and myself went on to become the founding members of the New Negress Film Society. Since then we’ve welcomed Dyani Douze and Stefani Saintonge, two incredibly talented filmmakers and multimedia artists.

For me the existence of these sorts of spaces is integral, particularly for artists who belong to communities that have been historically and continue to be marginalized and silenced. These gatherings, this coming together is foundational to the creative process for a number of reasons. They allow for discursive moments to grapple with ideas and concepts, opportunities for collaboration and enrichment; and provide sustentation during times of experimentation and even failure. As I get older and grow more in my practice, the need for support, not simply material support but an infrastructure and community, becomes more and more vital. The collaborative nature of filmmakers necessitates this need, so I’m very glad we are able to continue to come together despite geographical distance and in some instances ideological differences and find commonality in our creative pursuits and personal strivings.

SS: I met Ja’Tovia when both of our shorts screened at New Voices in Black Cinema last year, and we’ve been friends ever since. Through that friendship, I came to know more and more about the New Negresses. Ja’Tovia and Kumi [James] finally asked me to join a few months ago.

I had been looking to join or start a collective since I started filmmaking, because you realize early on film is collaborative. There’s no way around it. You need a network, which is the disadvantage facing blacks and particularly black women in this field. Having a collective organizes the support and allows us to pledge to each other as fellow talented creators.

New Negress is all about concrete support and exhibition. It’s invaluable to have these women who I admire as artists working to ensure each other’s success. It’s important to note our politics as well. We’re not simply talented black women filmmakers, we’re radical talented black women filmmakers and our work reflects as such. Mainstream black cinema has been lacking in radical thought as of late, which makes our work even more imperative.

BFC/A: Ja’Tovia, I’m interested in the route that brought you to explore the politics of gender and sexuality in hip hop culture. Is this something you had been thinking about for some time before starting work on NO HOMO, or did it come more directly from your exposure to the music of Cakes Da Killa? (For those who haven’t yet seen the film, I am hoping you might also speak here about how you understand Cakes as an exploder of heteronormative power structures.)

JG: It’s funny because I didn’t initially set out to explore those particular points of tension in hip-hop. I was originally drawn to Cakes as a person and a dynamic performer. I reached out to him after I encountered one of his music videos, CUNTROVERSY, on Tumblr, and was immediately transfixed by his undeniable skill as well as the way he sort of effortlessly traversed the gender spectrum. His style and delivery are very 90s era New York City hip hop, very gritty, almost hyper masculine, yet his content was unapologetically homoerotic. His performance skills are that of a seasoned veteran. So he magnetized me almost instantly. His way of being felt like a really radical gesture, a subverting of this very rigid gendered landscape that hip-hop precipitates.

In many ways I’m ambivalent about hip-hop. My relationship to it is very complicated and I think this has a lot to do with my position in society as a Black queer woman. So, I’m drawn to this very rich and expansive expression, yet repelled by it. At the same time, I find the music and the culture a non-stop source of inspiration. I still see hip hop as this sort of usurping of power or a creative way of asserting and affirming the self and community, so it is still rife with generative and inspiring elements, even I find it debasing at times. Which is why I’m glad I got the opportunity to complicate some of the more problematic elements of the culture in making Cakes Da Killa: NO HOMO. And why I think artists like Cakes, who whether they are intentionally or overtly political or not, are opting to radically disrupt the status quo. Not just in terms of gender performance or sexuality, but also in regards to content, style and art making in general.

BFC/A: This question is for Stefani. You take us to two very different places in La Tierra de los Adioses and Seventh Grade — from rural Mexico to an American middle school, respectively. But while the settings vary, both films engage issues related to adolescence and community among girls and women of color. Can you tell me about how you see these two films interacting with each other? Are there a set of critical questions you bring to bear on your subjects, regardless of genre or geography?

SS: Community and women interact with each other in strange ways. Women form the foundation of community. They do most of the grunt work, but for them the rules are strict and the benefits less. With La Tierra de los Adioses, I managed find a community of mostly indigenous women who, despite the lack of men and total absence of white people, the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as bell hooks calls it is smothering them. But they rebel in small ways. In Zapotitlán Palmas, where La Tierra de los Adioses is set, the women weave bags, sow fields and cut palms gaining some semblance of independence from their husbands abroad. There’s a part toward the end of the film when the two girls, Lupita and Belen, say “I’d rather go to school than marry some good for nothing bum. And all day sweep and cook. Or watching over a crying baby. ‘Oh I’m pregnant again!’” I understand their frustration with the trajectory for women in the town, but I do think their mothers deserve more credit for running a community, raising their families and supplementing their income all on their own.

In Seventh Grade the rebellion is much more overt. The community is clear and the rules these young women have violated—even though they’re new to the girls—are ones we’re all familiar with. That’s why I think Seventh Grade resonated with people. It features adolescent girls, who are usually portrayed as powerless if at all, cleverly resisting patriarchy.

So both films focus on women’s roles in community, and I tried to be critical of those roles by showcasing women who find ways to resist.

BFC/A: Ja’Tovia, I understand that you are interested in doing some research at the Black Film Center/Archive during your visit to IU. What materials or collections are you looking to work with while you’re here?

JG: Yes, I’ve actually been excited about visiting Black Film Center/ Archive ever since I found out about the space a few years ago. Stefani and I will be quite busy during our short time here, so I fear that I might be too ambitious with my research and viewing goals. But that just means I have to plan a return trip in the near future.

I’m really interested in screening Jessie Maples’s Will and Julie Dash’s Four Women also The Fullness of Time and Drylongso by Cauleen Smith. There’s also Zeinabu Irene Davis whose work I’m interested in viewing and learning more about. Additionally, anything and everything by William Greaves, Madeline Anderson, and St. Clair Bourne are on my list. Greaves is a bit of a guru for me, so I’m on a mission to view all of his films.

Collective or collaborative movements like the work from filmmakers involved in the LA Film Rebellion and the Black Audio Film Collective are also points for interest for me. Like I said, its quite an ambitious list, there’s a lot I’d like to explore. Ousmane Sembene, Isaac Julien, Menelik Shabazz the list is really endless. A lot of these works are difficult to access, so for me, entering a space like this is really overwhelming, in a good way.

BFC/A: Finally, I am hoping to get a sense of how the New Negress Film Society has evolved since its inception after that first screening event in Brooklyn. How has the collective developed in terms of mission, strategy and scope in recent years, and where do you see it headed in the future?

JG: Moving forward we are really focused on collectively supporting the films of the individual members as well as coming together and collaborating on shared projects. We want to continue to remain productive and get our work out. So recently we’ve been combining our efforts to bring individual works to fruition. Kumi and Stefani are helping me produce my feature documentary, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, and I will be serving as editor on an upcoming short film that Stefani is directing. Exhibiting and highlighting the work of Black women filmmakers also remains central, so we are excited about future programming opportunities in Brooklyn and beyond. Keep an eye out for the Negresses. We’re very excited about what lies ahead.

SS: I’m a recent member, but from what I understand, we’re moving toward supporting each other’s work directly. Kumi and I are helping Ja’Tovia with her feature documentary, The Evidence of Things Not Seen. I’m doing a short for ESSENCE Magazine and Ja’Tovia will edit. So we’re heading toward more direct and creative collaboration rather than just exhibition.

BFC/A: Thanks to both of you for taking the time to answer these questions. We’re all tremendously excited about your visit and the New Negress Short Film Program.

JG: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to share the work in this setting and to be in conversation with you.

SS: Thank you for having us and for all you’ve done to organize this thus far. It’ll be interesting to see how our work is absorbed in an academic setting. These questions alone have already challenged me go deeper with my art. I appreciate it.

________________________

Ja’Tovia Gary and Stefani Saintonge will be speaking as part of IU Cinema’s Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture Series at 3:00 PM on Friday, September 4. The screening will begin at 6:30 PM, followed by a Q&A with Gary, Saintonge and Dyani Douze. (Both events are free, but the film program is ticketed.) Gary and Saintonge’s visit is made possible by a generous grant to the IU Cinema from the IU Women’s Philanthropy Council. The event is part of the cinema’s Directed by Women programming, which encourages cinemas and audiences “to appreciate the richness and variety of what women filmmakers bring into the world, become aware of the enormous outpouring of motion picture creativity by women on the planet, and expand global opportunities for screening and streaming films directed by women.”


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,191 other followers