On Friday, April 8, at 3pm, the Black Film Center/Archive, IU Libraries Media Services, and Directed by Women will present a free screening of Nevline Nnaji’s 2013 documentary, Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights. The screening will take place in the Phyllis Klotman Room (044B) at the Black Film Center/Archive in Wells Library, on the IU Bloomington campus.
In Reflections Unheard, Nnaji chronicles the experiences of some of the 60’s and 70’s most prolific Black female activists during moments of political triumph as well as in the face of gender, racial, and class inequality. Through a series of interviews and stunning archival footage, Nnaji calls attention to the oft-overlooked obstacles these women endure while organizing for the social and political betterment of women in both national and international contexts.
Yalie Kamara, an MFA student in IU’s Creative Writing Program and a BFC/A archives assistant, spoke with Nevline Nnaji in advance of tomorrow’s event:
Yalie Kamara: From start to finish, how long did it take you to complete this project?
Nevline Nnaji: Two and a half years.
YK: Can you remember the exact moment when it became clear to you that you had to pursue this documentary project?
NN: Around the time that I started film school, I’d began reading Black women’s literature. I was inspired by Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story. It was the first time that I was made aware of the mistreatment of women in the Black Power movement. Also I had a conversation with a friend one day and she was like “you know, you could do a documentary,” and I was like “I think I can!” and once I joined the film program, that’s when I started producing it.
YK: How did you choose the archival footage/public domain footage/Creative Commons footage? What was the richest source of archival footage or was there a tapestry of different archival sources that supported the construction of this film? What were some of the workarounds that you employed in order to successfully complete this documentary?
NN: I had difficulty accessing archival footage because of a lot of the copyrights that were placed on the films. So even some older footage, that was usually captured by white photographers and filmmakers back in and the 60s and 70s and was either held in archives by those same people in whatever company they had or placed in these larger archives like Getty or even something that’s public like WGBH television. I remember the lowest that I got in that regard was like $50 per second and that was the student rate! But usually it runs from that to about $250 per second. And so that was my budget. I think [those rates] are mostly made for filmmakers who have an extremely large budget for these things and are maybe a bit more well off. And that wasn’t really the place that I was coming from. This was my first film. So this experience made me dig deeper into what was available at Library of Congress. I got a lot of footage that’s not really been seen because of how deeply you have to dig and do research in order to get this footage.
YK: Why was it important for you to focus on prolific Black female activists of 1960s and 70s without integrating the voices of contemporary, younger activists? I found this to be particularly powerful and wanted to know a bit more from your own perspective about why this was important to you.
NN: I wanted to make sure to have this documentary focus on the women who contributed to the Civil Rights era. In creating documentaries, when you have a focus, you can get a lot of out of the story, instead of just having a bunch of stuff and getting messy. It just needed to be that.
The only perspective that was not from an activist of the Civil Rights era, was Kola Boof. I included her in this documentary because of her activism work and her commentary on Black feminism and the worldwide perception of Black women.
YK: I was interested in learning more about the inclusion of the archival footage that highlights the Moynihan Report as well as the Woman’s Welfare Club. What were the reasons these segments are part of the documentary?
NN: I included the Moynihan Report because it centered around the conversation about Black women. The report is evidence of certain cultural beliefs that started in the 60’s. I won’t say that this report is the cause for the belief that Black women’s role in the Black family weakens that of men’s, but this report can be seen as a type of mainstream evidence that this notion is still circulating around certain subcultures. That being the idea that Black women oppress the Black family through assuming the role of the Black male.
The Women’s Welfare Club was meant to be a transition between the conversation around white feminists and the women of color led movements. The Women’s Welfare Club shows the example of an actual organization formed for and led by Black women. It showcases resistance as a way of beginning the conversation around Black feminists and women of color led movements.
YK: Tell us a little bit more about your background. Aside from knowing that you are also a dancer and a filmmaker from Northampton, Mass., what else should we know about you as an artist? You can share whatever you’d like.
NN: That’s a really big question (laughs).
YK: Well, maybe as a starting off point, did you grow up making films? Do you come from a family of documentarians or artists? Or did you grow up creating art?
NN: You know…this film that I made, I didn’t have any film background when I made this film, when I started it. I learned as I made it. I’m an artist. I’m a natural. I’m very gifted. And I’ve always been that way and I am a bit of an outsider. And I’ve always been that way since I was a child as well. I just consider myself to be a multidisciplinary artist. So when I have a vision or passion, I throw myself completely into it and then I dedicate myself, so I can make the vision come to life. But other than that, I love cats. Really. I’m very passionate about the kitties. If you see any of my other films, there’s always a yellow cat in there. Other than that, right now, my main focus is pole dancing. I’m just training a lot right now and performing.
YK: Can you tell me about your involvement with the New Negress Film Society and what it meant to you as a Black female filmmaker?
NN: We started that, the New Negress Film Society, in 2013, which was the year that I released the film and it was really exciting for me to do that. Because really that was the first kind of organization of its kind, where it was just for and about Black women filmmakers and so I think it really was my first experience forming and having a real community who had shared a similar experience as me.
And that’s really why I came to Brooklyn and it was to have that. It was an honor for me because my favorite filmmakers were Black female filmmakers who were Tisch graduates and stuff. I got to screen my film alongside one of my favorite film directors, Nikyatu Jusu. And it was just an honor for me to work with these artists and to create something like this. I am no longer a part of the New Negress Film Society, but I think we did a lot of really important work and I’m so glad that I got to be a part of it.
YK: What was the most surprising piece of feedback/response you received from your viewing audience regarding the documentary?
NN: My first ever screening of Reflections Unheard happened when I was about to graduate from Boston University and I posted it at the Women’s Resource Center and I had always thought that the film would only be appealing to Black women and that only Black women would be interested in attending. So I was very surprised to see a very diverse group of people of various genders and ages and races. I didn’t know other people would be interested and influenced by the work. I’d felt limited at the time, so this was a pleasant surprise. That it picked up in the way that it did. I was also surprised that I was able to make a living and travel from this film for a time. I never thought that the film would show in Africa, and I just went to the Congo this year where it was screened through the Tazama Film Festival, which focuses on African Women in cinema. The film was screened at the American Embassy in Congo, in front of a room of mostly Congolese men. That blew my mind. It continues to blow me away the people that are actually interested. It was beautiful.
Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights (2013, Dir. Nevline Nnaji)
Friday, April 8, 2016 | 3:00 p.m. | Phyllis Klotman Room at BFC/A (Wells Library 044B)