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An Interview with Dorothy Berry Pt. II

Featured below is the second half of our interview with Dorothy Berry, Black Film Center/Archive’s 2015-2016 Graduate Assistant.  (Part 1 here)

When Dorothy Berry is asked about her future plans, it’s clear that they involve calling attention to African American narratives that seem to linger in the periphery of American culture.

Dorothy Berry at the IU Cinema, November 2015

Dorothy Berry at the IU Cinema, November 2015

“I guess my curatorial goals are to get audiences and viewers to have an awareness of African Americans, specifically African Americans as present throughout the entire length and breadth of American history. I get really excited about a Black carpenter in 1785. I feel like we often start our African American history at about 1850…we start a little before the war…but who knows what happened before? Those are things that I find really exciting.  I would love to see an exhibit about the clothing in Charleston in 1820’s.  I think that was the decade that they made it illegal for African American women to buy beautiful fabric because they were dressing so great and they had amazing head wraps and they were walking down the promenades on their off nights and it was upsetting to people. There was a letter to the editor at a local newspaper, in which it was mentioned that it was shocking that you would walk behind a woman in a beautiful dress, that you would brush by her and say ‘Pardon me, ma’am,’ but then you’d turn around and she’d be Black and that would be horrible, because you just said ‘Pardon me, ma’am’ to a Black person! She doesn’t get a ‘Pardon me ma’am.’ I think things like that…there are so many aspects to Black culture beyond these flashpoints that I’d like to bring to the forefront.  And that’s a real joy of mine. Not just earlier history (though I have loved the 19th century since I was a child, a small dork).”

Berry’s interests also include an examination of the erasures found throughout the scope of African American history.

“I was just recently working with Indiana University’s Moving Image Archives for an online exhibit, which may potentially be educational material accompanying the films for their collection of Black Journal, which was a public TV show in the late 1960s and early late 1970s on WNET in New York that was part of the period when African Americans were getting some funding because there was a lot of controversy about who public television funding was going to.  And there are just all these things that we brush over because they weren’t game changers in African American history and the history of all marginalized people gets concentrated down to big things.”

williamgreaves_1

Black Journal former Executive Producer, William Greaves.

“That’s what I mean when I say that we start Black history around 1850,” Berry adds. “We’re all thinking about these very concentrated things… ‘Slavery was terrible…and then war was over. And then they were free.’ And then we kind of skip Reconstruction. Skip Black people in the Senate. Skip voting. Move to Harlem Renaissance. Again, another 40 years gone and then move from Harlem Renaissance to like 1947, ‘We couldn’t drink at the same fountains’ and then move to Martin Luther King.” These huge gaps, Berry posits, are missed opportunities for exploring Black history. “So many things were happening, and there’s so much archival information…there’s so much in the archival record about Black history, but because there haven’t been funding opportunities or archivists of color with the ability to make those things accessible and to contextualize them, everything is just scattered throughout different collections. So I guess my real curatorial vision is to combine my research interests with my skill set to share African American history that gets left behind.”

Berry also speaks to the almost serendipitous nature of research that uncovers fragments of important African American history and how this can serve to both the detriment and fortune of African American history.

“I’m sure that there are intentional erasures, but I think that a lot of it has to do with lack of time and opportunity given to African Americans to really pursue high level historical research, so I think a lot of times, people just end up discovering something just by chance in a book, and they feel like ‘This is important and I need to forefront this!’ And so they produce something and scholars are like ‘This is subpar,’ and it maybe is subpar in the scale of how we can do academic writing and how we can do historical research…but nobody else was doing it.”

When asked about an exhibit that really resonated with her love of the intersection of art, history, writing, curation, and archival work, she shared the following:

“An exhibit space just design-wise that I found beautiful was when the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian had its pop-up in the National Museum of American History. It was really a walk-through of Black history, it was a highlights type thing because they had a very small amount of space, but they had a section on the March on Washington, where they had constructed an open room, three walls and a cube, with one wall missing and they had printed a giant print of the March on Washington in an immersive way, so you walk in with the people on both sides, speech in the front.”

Crowds gathering at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. Credit James H. Wallace/The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Crowds gathering at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. Credit James H. Wallace/The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

That image was so visually powerful I think that the kind of artistry that brings is really important because I think that sometimes design and that sort of thing gets left behind because we’re so much at a disadvantage…people know so little of us. People have had so little opportunity to learn about African-American history, that it feels like you want to start at square one but I feel like sometimes when you do that, then you’re compared to some really cool exhibit that’s more established and has a style because  you’re just trying to do is get people to be like “That’s a slave cabin!” because they don’t even know … because there won’t even be that intrigue that you find at another museum, and also there’s just like the aspect of funding and the aspect of respect…you don’t want to make a ‘fun’ slave cabin!”

Berry offers an example of an institution that privileges both aesthetics and historical accuracy in its narrative:

“But then there’s also a type of beauty that can be brought in like the Whitney museum in Louisiana, that has been funded specifically to forefront the slave experience, which is rare because plantation museums are generally a place to explore how great it was to be rich in the Antebellum South and ‘slaves are like family members to us.’ What they’ve done is that, instead of having a lot of people do historical reenactments, is that they have statues that are representative art and they are also somewhat abstracted…so you’ll go to a slave building and there’s a half circle of these child statues of slaves. I think that this is a type of respectful artistic beauty.”

Children of Whitney High Res

Sculptures of the Children of the Whitney Plantation

 

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The Whitney Plantation, Wallace, LA.

Berry also cites a career inspiration whose power lies in her ability to simultaneously transcend genre while critically engaging audiences around the world.

Kara_Walker

Artist Kara Walker

“When asked about what archivist or curator inspires me for this type of thing, my first thought was Kara Walker, who’s neither a curator nor an archivist. But that’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in.

A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby by Kara Walker, 2014

A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby by Kara Walker, 2014

I’m really interested in the combination of hardcore, citation-heavy, footnoted, the-white-man-can-respect-this-research, history with the kind of beauty, and aesthetic, and design, because I think that that’s compelling, and I think that that in a way, which is not the only way, which is not necessary, but it’s relevant to me, and resonant for me and it brings that history up to the level of all other histories that are already treated that way.”

 ~Yalie Kamara

 


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

 


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.”


Wealth Comes in Many Forms: William Greaves’ USIA Films

Great post from NARA’s Criss Kovac on the USIA films of William Greaves, including 1964’s WEALTH OF A NATION streaming in full.

The Unwritten Record

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

I’m fortunate that my job allows me to make a difference every day. Most days it’s because I’ve preserved a piece of history, made something accessible for research, or contributed to the archival community. It’s rare, however, that I see how my work has made a difference in the life of a single person. This past spring I had that chance along with the opportunity to bring attention to two great films and the life of their multifaceted and talented director. A simple request from the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a 16mm theater print of William Greaves’Wealth of a Nation(1964) began it all.

NARA gets requests for theater prints on a regular basis, so I didn’t give much thought to it until, a couple of weeks…

View original post 655 more words


New Black Camera Call for Submissions: SELMA Close-Up

Black Camera has announced a new call for submissions for a Close-Up section on Ava DuVernay’s film, SELMA:

Close-Up: Selma: The Historical Record and the American Imaginary

selma2

The 2015 release of the Oscar-nominated film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, offers the opportunity to revisit not only the significance of the historical figures and events depicted on screen, but also the cultural impact of cinema and its capacity to both reflect upon and critique historical activity. Indeed, Selma and the considerable press it has received become an index to gauge both the legacy of the civil rights movement and the status of race relations in the fraught contemporary moment.

As with many works in the historical film genre, Selma has won acclaim and generated controversy in equal measure. The film has been applauded for its powerful historical reenactments, characterizations of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and other protagonists of the period, and its depiction of the protest movement spawned by the violence and injustice of Jim Crow. Conversely, Selma has been criticized for its alleged historical misrepresentations, particularly the depictions of Lyndon Baines Johnson and of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Submissions may interrogate issues of race, class, and/or gender, through thematic, historical, and sociocultural contexts. Other topics might include but are not limited to narrative strategies, genre studies, psychoanalytic/feminist readings, sexuality, black female bodies, masculinity, whiteness, violence, the revenge motif, fugitivity narratives, revisionist historiography, the black vernacular aesthetic tradition and signifying, classic Hollywood filmic stereotypes, the audio/visual landscape of the film, musical scoring, reception, exhibition, marketing/publicity, and distribution.

We welcome submissions exploring Selma from a variety of disciplinary and analytical perspectives for publication consideration. Essays, film reviews, and commentaries will be considered. Essays should be 4,000–6,000 words, commentaries 1,000–2,000, and film reviews 500–1,500 words.

Suggested topics include Selma’s production, exhibition, and reception histories, as well as formal and conceptual analyses of the film as a text. Other suggested lines of inquiry are Selma’s relevance to
• contemporary U.S. race relations
• mediations of posterity, memory, and history
• historical accuracy and “truth” in relation to revisionist history or ideological motivation
• the filmmaker’s intentionality and project of recovery
• interrogation of the notion of the “postracial”
• African American women filmmakers in Hollywood
• the biopic and/or the historical film as genres
• transnationalism

Please submit completed essays, a 150-word abstract, and a 50–100 word biography by January 1, 2016. Submissions should conform to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. Please see Black Camera‘s journal guidelines for more on the submission policy.

Direct all questions, correspondence, and submissions to co-editor Mark Hain (blackcam@indiana.edu).


Q&A with OUT IN THE NIGHT’s Blair Dorosh-Walther and Giovanna Chesler

A year after its momentous world premiere at LA Film Festival, Blair Dorosh-Walther’s courageous documentary OUT IN THE NIGHT will kick off the new season of PBS’s landmark independent documentary series POV on June 22, 2015.  OUT IN THE NIGHT follows four young African American lesbians who maintain their innocence following a homophobic attack in front of the IFC Theatres in Greenwich Village.  The documentary explores intersecting issues of race, gender, and sexuality in relationship to mass media and the criminal justice system.

outinthenight

In September 2014 the BFC/A’s programming assistant Nzingha Kendall interviewed director Blair Dorosh-Walther and producer Giovanna Chesler.  Below, highlights from the interview.

Nzingha Kendall: In another interview you underscored the point that OUT IN THE NIGHT is not about race or sexuality, pointing out that “Life is about the intersections of race, sexuality, gender identity, and class.”  This clarifying statement you made is really important because people tend to isolate these, as though our experiences can be distilled to one identifying category.  I’d like to unpack this issue a bit more with a couple of questions.

Now, since this interview is for the Black Film Center/Archive, I feel compelled to ask a question related to race.  What kind of challenges did you have as a white filmmaker portraying a story centered on black people?  Did this come into play in terms of building a relationship with the film’s subjects?  If so, how?  Also, did your own non-conforming gender identity — or any other identifications you claim — impact the process?

Blair Dorosh-Walther: Being a white director was something I was very conscious of from the beginning. I frequently questioned whether or not I should be telling this story, so allow me to tell you why it came about that I made this film. I became involved in the case of the NJ7/NJ4 within the days following the fight. In New York City, the media attention was immediate. There was an online dialogue happening and a community meeting at the LGBT Center in the West Village to discuss the media’s coverage. As a group, we also talked about what you do if you feel threatened but don’t feel safe calling the police and how you can protect yourself. In my immediate reaction to the case of the NJ7/NJ4 I felt outraged and knew that had this happened to me, or a group of white friends, we could have defended ourselves and the outcome would have been incredibly different.

In the following two years, as I continued working as an activist around the case on and off, some folks had talked about making a film about the case, it hadn’t happened. However, at the time I did not want to tell this story. I don’t believe that it is necessarily okay for white directors to tell African American stories. There is a long history of white filmmakers doing this and telling very one-dimensional, often inaccurate stories. I obviously do not think it is always entirely wrong either. But in this case, for me, it came down to talking about this with the women, to talk about my own race, why I wanted to tell this story. We began a process of sort of interviewing each other. I wasn’t interested in telling this story if they didn’t feel completely comfortable with me. At the end of the day, after we built a relationship together, as well as their families, I felt I could do the story justice and represent the women honestly and intimately. This was in 2008 as their appeals were approaching, when much of the media attention had died down. It was then that I realized I was still so outraged and passionate about this story. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Once I decided that I was going to do this documentary, I felt that it was incredibly important to have a strong African American crew in decision-making roles. I started speaking with Daniel Patterson soon after our first shoot. We met as students at NYU and had worked a number of other projects together. Daniel has been the eye of the project for 7 years. The women interviewed him to become comfortable with him and he works incredibly well with the women. Yoruba Richen, one of the producers, has been on the project for the last five years. She was important because she is an African American lesbian and filmmaker. Her role focused primarily on story over the years.

That is how it began. We got to know each other and we talked about me being a white director and kind of kept checking in with each other throughout the process. For me, the greatest challenges came up around our personal class differences. For example, Renata and I have a very close friendship and similar philosophical ideas on our gender identities, and are the same age. But no matter how close we are, there was a striking division between me having an apartment and Renata living in a homeless shelter with her family.

So to directly answer your question, I would not have told this story had the women and their family members not been completely comfortable and trusting of me. I never stopped ‘checking’ and questioning myself during the process, but I did and do feel strongly that I could tell this particular story, this story with Renata, Terrain, Patreese and Venice personally and justly.

NK: Another really important theme in the film for me is the criminalization and imprisonment of black people in the U.S.  This really hit home in the recounting of the judge’s statement that Renata “testified falsely,” which compelled one of the lawyers to interject, “Judge, she never testified.”  Can you comment on this?

BD-W: Yes! It sounds so outlandish and implausible that a judge could not tell defendants in a case apart, and claim that Renata testified – which she didn’t. Renata is the only one of the women with dreads and had been sitting in front of the judge in his courtroom for six days of trial and at least three days of hearings. We often talk about the disparity of justice for African Americans. Well, this is a crystal clear example of where we can see bias in the courtroom based on a defendant’s race and gender identity. And there are no consequences for this judge. He was not reprimanded for saying this and continued to egregiously sentence her after saying this. By stating that “she testified falsely” when she didn’t even testify, the judge made clear that there is damaging power in a racially biased imagination.

Another example when bias against black defendants became visible in this courtroom was when a potential juror said, in court, that he had become scared of these women because they were a “gang” and took measures to “protect” his family. He wanted to move his family out of town and felt afraid for his safety by being on this jury. The women were charged with gang assault and were not a gang, but the biased fear in the courtroom was palpable. In the eyes of this man, and others, they became a gang simply because of their race, age and masculinity. And because of constant outlandish media attention that labeled them a gang.

NK: You’ve spent almost a decade working on this project, which is your first feature.  How did you manage?!

BD-W: I initially knew it was going to be a long, intense process, so I made a conscious decision to move forward when I knew I was ready to completely commit. That being said, I had no idea what really was in store, nor did I ever think it would take me seven years to complete. Financially, it was slow going. A little funding would come in here or there from a film grant, but it was never enough to push forward the way we needed all at once. Sometimes I had a full time job, sometimes I free-lanced, sometimes I worked part-time. For several months, I lived without a home and couch surfed. Whatever it took to continue making progress on the film.

Mentally, telling this story was exhausting for many reasons. It was difficult to raise money for an interview when the person I was going to interview was either in prison or living in a homeless shelter. I’ve worked in social services for much of my life, so to draw a distinct line of being a filmmaker and someone who knew what the women and their families needed, was trying. I say this knowing that the women and their families obviously experienced something much worse, but it is a helpless feeling, leaving a prison after a visit or an interview. I cannot imagine the feeling of leaving a prison when it is your daughter trapped in there.

It was also an artistic challenge to pull together a story of four people, with backstories and family members, which took place over their lifetimes. It required a lot of challenging decisions on what to leave out which took years to figure out in the edit room. It really was the support of ITVS, CPB and Fork Films that allowed the film in all of its parts – the edit, the music, the animation, etc to finally come to a close.

NK: You are a documentary filmmaker yourself, having shot, directed, edited your own films.  Being a producer is a completely different beast — or is it?

Giovanna Chesler: It’s very different to work as a producer. I think of it as an advocate / problem solving position that allows the director to make creative decisions. I’ve produced all of my own films, so I’m familiar with the role but when you produce for someone else, you become braver, I believe, and ask for more than you might for your own film.

Blair is very much the head producer of this film, having pulled together the story and the initial funding, which he did for years before I got involved. But once we decided I should come on board, I worked for a year and a half just on raising the finishing funds. It’s a very unsexy position in filmmaking to sit and write grant after grant after grant. Particularly our ITVS grants – where we got to the third round three times in 18 months – which took weeks and weeks of work to pull together. And driving a Kickstarter campaign, and social media tools. Those become parallel projects to a film. But they connect you to the audience just as much.

NK: How did you get involved as a producer for OUT IN THE NIGHT?

GC: I have been focused on fiction film for the past few years. My last film, BYE BI LOVE, was a return to fiction after the all-consuming process of making PERIOD: THE END OF MENSTRUATION which had taken four years with another two years of touring. I had written two feature fiction scripts that I was starting to develop and was at a queer filmmaker’s workshop called Pride of the Ocean, which Blair and Yoruba were also on, when I saw a rough cut of OUT IN THE NIGHT. It was called THE FIRE THIS TIME then. I was immediately furious and moved. I was also angry that I had not heard of this case and these women and knew that this film needed to be finished well.  I started working with Blair on the story structure, mapping out transitions and pulling out themes, so that we could see a new way through the story. Then I became a producer. That was three years ago.

NK: This is a question from Brian Graney, the BFC/A’s archivist, who wants to know about your decision to conceal the identity of the harasser — especially since his testimony is in the public record and his name was revealed in the press coverage.

BD-W: There were a few reasons why we did not identify this man. I didn’t want people focusing on him, specifically, as the reason they ended up in prison. I felt that if you could put a face to a name, people would focus on him being the issue, when really the entire criminal legal system is the issue, as well as the media and its deplorable coverage of this case. There are countless catcallers on the street & countless harassers that turn violent. This also reiterates that he doesn’t matter. I wanted to take the power he had and wipe it away.

I was in touch with him on and off throughout the years and he told me he didn’t want to go on camera. I can’t stand what he did, but at the end of the day as Karen Thompson, Patreese’s appellate attorney says in her interview, “he’s a victim of male-supremacy too.” Certainly not as much as the women, but he couldn’t back down when his “manhood” was threatened. So he remains anonymous and blurred in our treatment on film.

NK: The film’s New York premiere was at the IFC theater.  Did Renata, Terrain, Venice, and Patreese attend?  There’s a reenactment in the film where you revisit the scene of the crime.  I imagine that the experience must have been overwhelming for them — and for you and the rest of the crew.  What was it like to return to this scene, this time under much happier circumstances?

BD-W: Yes, all four women attended the New York Premiere at the IFC. It was spectacular and powerful. At first we were all extremely nervous that the man who instigated the fight was going to show up. After all he has sued each of the women for what he feels is a “straight-hate crime” in a civil suit. We had extra security there and were as prepared as we could possibly be. The women were all excited, but very nervous. However, he didn’t show and after the screening they had a standing ovation to a sold-out theater. [At that time] It was the only screening all four of them were able to attend together, which made it all that more powerful. In the end, I think it ended up becoming a reclaiming of space. They were able to go back to this place that changed their lives and feel and visualize all this support that they had never seen and share their side of the story with people. After the screening we had a dance party that lasted all night. That is when the movie felt like it was actually done to me.

We did shoot an overnight walk through with Terrain and Renata in front of the IFC. I wouldn’t call it a reenactment, though. My initial idea was to have the women walk through the night of the fight as they remembered it and then have the man involved walk through the way he remembered it. I planned to intercut this with the surveillance video. He obviously decided not to be involved in the project. So with the walk through, I tried to only use what we could prove from the surveillance tape. The rest of what you see – the abstract visuals – are intended to make the audience feel like they are there, or experience what the women might have been experiencing in the heat of a fight. I also wanted to try to depict what Renata might have been going through visually, because she has seizures (a by-product of her PTSD). She had a seizure shortly after the fight happened, and Daniel’s camera movements and created textures reflect some of what Renata felt that night.

NK: OUT IN THE NIGHT is also about families — the ones we’re born into and the ones that we construct ourselves.  Can you talk about how the notion of family emerged in the filmmaking process?  And I’m thinking both in front of and behind the camera…

BD-W: I’m glad you mention this. I so rarely get a question about chosen and biological families. Initially, I did not intend to have the film be about their families. I thought that I was going to analyze the media (yawn) or “prove” their innocence (which is really near impossible for self-defense cases). As we were shooting, it became clear that the film was about the women and their families. Both in terms of their closeness, but also their personal family histories that informed their decisions and reactions that night.

But I think in queer communities at large, there is a definite sense of “chosen families” because it often takes family members time to come around to the idea of you being gay. It’s also about survival to surround yourself with people who have gone through similar ups and downs. Your queer, chosen family is where you “come out” and then have someone you can relate to as a role model or confidant. I think somewhat similarly African-American extended and chosen families operate for the same. In some ways, it is really a necessity to live – to be able to create your own family.

Off-camera, the women have become my family. I speak to at least one of them or their family members every day. They have become such a part of my life not only because we were filming for so long, but also because I was part of their releases, had done some fundraising for their bails, and organized commissary, etc. We have now seen each other through major ups and downs. I was there when Renata regained custody of TJ. Moments like that weren’t about filming – they were about support and love of friends and family.

NK: Last question: what’s next for OUT IN THE NIGHT?

BD-W: OUT IN THE NIGHT is in the midst of our festival run which is going well. All of our upcoming screenings are on our website and folks can also request and arrange screenings through us. (http://www.outinthenight.com/screenings) We are doing several screenings and talks at universities and with community groups in the US.

I’m very excited about our partnership with the United Nations. At the Los Angeles Film Festival OUT IN THE NIGHT was chosen to launch the UN’s Free and Equal Campaign film initiative. This is one of a handful of films that have been selected to screen in 77 countries as part of the Free and Equal efforts to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide. The film will be programmed at UN sites and screen with local organizations that work on the ground to fight homophobia.


One People: Experiencing Media as Love Letter in Jamaica

“Media offers the means and material of an imagined community…Motion pictures coming out of Jamaica…convey content as they catalyze an imagined family reunion. ” – Terri Francis

onepeople

This week, Shadow and Act revives IU professor Terri Francis’s earlier essay, “Slow Jam, Experiencing Media as Love Letter in Jamaica or What I thought of the ‘One People’ Documentary.”  Francis writes:

On Jamaica’s Independence Day 3 years ago, I joined a global Kingston audience to participate in the country’s golden celebrations at the National Stadium but I began the day reading Dr. Carolyn Cooper’s essay “Who is Jamaica?” in The New York Times. There she argues that the nation’s 50-year old motto “Out of Many, One People” seems progressive but actually “marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial” (See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/06/opinion/who-is-jamaica.html?_r=1; Read an expanded version of the piece here http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/). I re-read a little bit of Dr. Deborah Thomas’s Modern Blackness in which she explains how the motto “brackets” blackness, as suggested by the title of her book’s introduction “Out of Many, One (Black) People” (http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=7797). One motto, many significant critiques.

Not just on Independence, but going back over the week to Emancipation Day on August 1, I reflected on the many meanings of blackness, of freedom, and of independence I passed through as I moved from town to country, neighborhood to neighborhood, household to household during my research visit to Jamaica. I came here to work on my manuscript, “Sounding the Nation: Jamaican Film History, 1900-1972” so I’m asking myself what is cinema? What is cinema in Jamaica?

You can find the full essay at this Shadow & Act link: http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/slow-jam-experiencing-media-as-love-letter-in-jamaica-or-what-i-thought-of-the-onepeople-documentary-20150602

 

 


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