Zora Neale Hurston, Fieldwork Footage, 1927–1929, 5 min
Lynne Sachs, Sermons and Sacred Pictures, 1989, 29 min
Shirley Clarke, The Cool World, 1963, 104 min
Presented by Christian Kravagna
Ethnography is describing the Other. In the 1920s, writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston reacted to this established view with her own artistic and scholarly works on everyday cultures in her own home in America’s black south. Hurston political and poetic studies of “folk cultures” that were mostly disparaged at the time are an expression of unmitigated appreciation and a way of taking up a position within the debate on “high” and “low” art in Harlem between the wars. This show begins with film of Hurston, the most significant artist of the “Harlem renaissance,” made during her field research, and then presents two more recent films that look in other ways at specific milieus and their rituals for creating and destabilizing community. Shirley Clarke’s film is a semi-documentary ethnography of the rituals of maleness and empowerment in the Harlem youth scene in a 1960s society shaped by racist exclusion. Lynne Sachs has made a portrait of a remarkable Afro-American pastor in Memphis in the 1930s who himself made use of film as a spiritual and social tool. Sermons and Sacred Pictures exemplifies the links between religion, art, and politics typical of the late Civil Rights Movement by looking at the documentary and activist filmmaking of one the movement’s pioneers.
Christian Kravagna is an art historian and curator. He works as professor for postcolonial studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration June 9 and 10, 2015
Introduction by Lynne Sachs
After looking at Jacob Lawrence’s haunting “Migration Series” painting exhibition upstairs here at the museum, watching the movies that are part of A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration makes me feel as if Lawrence’s canvases have come downstairs and started to breathe. Tonight we will experience the cinematic “tributaries” that come together to articulate our understanding of life in the South – particularly for African Americans – during the early to mid part of the 20th Century.
In 1989, I made a pilgrimage to Eatonville, Florida to participate in the first ever ZORA! Festival celebrating the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston, an African American writer and folklorist I had recently become aware of through her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. I remember driving in the vicinity of Eatonville, which is a bit like the back yard of Disney-dominated Orlando, and spending – without the assistance of a GPS of course – what seemed like hours trying to find this little village that was not even on the map and almost no one in Orlando had ever hear of. Eatonville was incorporated in 1887 and was one of the first self-governing all-black municipalities in the United States.
This was the town where Zora Neale Hurston grew up and a museum had just been built in that town in her honor.
Thanks to the hard work of author Alice Walker, American readers at that time were beginning to discover the passion, sensuality and artistic virtuosity of Hurston through her fiction, her folklore investigations and more recently, her films. In tonight’s digitized 16mm film, you will watch her 1928 anthropological documentary footage which will give you a chance to see how inspired she was by the richness of the culture she so appreciated in the area of the South where she grew up. Like Rev. L.O. Taylor, the subject of the film I will be screening tonight, Hurston had an uncanny appreciation for what we might call the “familiar”, a very different approach to a visual anthropologist who must travel afar to make a “discovery.” She recorded stories, songs, and traditions from African-Americans in small Florida communities like her own hometown. As we all know, these were images that generally never made it into the history books. Like Taylor, the act of filming for Hurston is not simply an act of witnessing but rather engaging, seeing and being seen.
Filmmaker Pare Lorentz’s documentary “The River” received support from the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. The film was shot in “spectacular” black and white by the renowned cinematographer Willard Van Dyke. The film was made in 1938, the same year that Billie Holiday sang and recorded “Strange Fruit” her searing interpretation of the experience of seeing a lynching of a Black man, which you can also experience upstairs. While Lorentz expresses a bold economic and environmental critique of agrarian life in the US during a period of struggle, he does not address race issues. Nevertheless, this is the troubled South from which the people in Lawrence’s paintings are escaping. In contrast to Taylor and Hurston’s images, there is a polish to the film – the fingerprints of the makers themselves are subsumed by the good intentions of the documentary project as a whole. The voice over narration is authoritative, its intention persuasive.
Next, we will take a look at Fox Movietone’s “Itinerant Negro Preacher” which was made by a documentary movie team in 1925, the earliest period that is represented today. Here you will see a far less personal but certainly enthralled lens. The Fox camera man follows a traveling preacher revealing the word of God to anyone who will listen.
Now I will talk a little bit about my film “Sermons and Sacred Pictures”.
I first saw Reverend L.O. Taylor’s films and heard his audio recordings when I was 17 years old in the late 1970s
he’d recently died and his wife had given his entire movie collection to the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis for safe keeping
As a high school student in Memphis, I became part of a folklore team that took a cumbersome 16mm film projector around to Rev. Taylor’s churches in order to identify who the people were in his films
Early on, I realized the novelty of someone like Taylor who was committed to “shooting from the inside out” in what he called his Taylor Made Pictures
Eight years later, I returned to Memphis, after I too discovered I wanted to be a filmmaker, and not a “director” in the traditional sense of the word, to walk around Rev. Taylor’s neighborhoods where had preached and filmed – with my own 16mm Bolex
Like Taylor, I issued my own unofficial license, I didn’t work with a bona fide news agency – I had the freedom to explore, ask questions and engage with a part of town that was, honestly, new to me – one that was quite different from the Memphis I had known
As I began to intertwine my new color material with Taylor’s images, I felt as if we were in the process of creating something together. Throughout the making of the film, I had guidance from three filmmakers who were living in San Francisco where I was currently studying.
1) I interned with Bruce Conner — avant-garde film’s found footage impresario and a devoted gospel music fan — for a year and he helped me to jump into the film images with reverence and spunk
2) Trinh T. Minh-ha — filmmaker and cultural theorist — helped me to grapple with my own distance and difference from the people in the images but also to find a comfort in my connections to the story
3) Experimental filmmaker and early film enthusiast Ernie Gehr showed me how to see each frame in Reverend Taylor’s films as a photograph with a specific history and composition
Over my two years of shooting and editing, I discovered that it was in the sound that I felt that the people in these films most “came alive” – it was in the voices and the splash of the water that I felt the miracle of the medium as it “journied” through time and space. As film curator Josh Siegel noted in his introduction to this series, perhaps what is most startling about these films is that we have a window into the “interior worlds” of African Americans living in early to mid-century America. We as a 2015 audience are able to see what mattered most to these artists of long ago.
My first screenings of “Sermons and Sacred Pictures” were in Rev. Taylor’s very own church. We had hundreds of people from Taylor’s community and far beyond there to celebrate a man who had given so much of his life to his people. Like Spencer Williams in his now legendary “Blood of Jesus” and Hurston in her moving image documents, Taylor was a filmmaker who realized that through the lens of his camera he could preserve and convey significant strides in Black American history as well as dramatic, deeply spiritual moments that somehow brought those of us on the earth a little closer to something he called God or heaven.
Image above: “What Happened in the Dragon Year?” by Xun Sun, mural painting displayed in Shanghai Biennale 2014.
Award-winning American experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs recently visited Shanghai for the Second China Women’s Film Festival with her latest offering Your Day is My Night. Deemed one of the eight must-watch movies in 2014 by BBC, the hybrid documentary discusses the relationship between historical turmoil and personal hardship, from the mouths of seven impoverished immigrants residing in Manhattan’s Chinatown. We caught up with the director to talk about the film, race and feminism.
Just like every ambitious twenty-something, Lynne Sachs was ready to change the world but wasn’t sure where to start. Her young mind was bubbling over with all kinds of possibilities. “There was one side of me that wanted to be a poet or an artist with a commitment to activism. Then there was the other side that thought the only way I could improve conditions around the world was to become a human rights attorney,” she reflects, saying her first brush with the world of experimental films was Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren, who is considered the grandmother of the field. “When I discovered independent film making, I felt like I had found a way of living that would pull together both of these aspirations.”
After graduating from Brown University with a B.A. in history, she went on to earn a M.A. in cinema at San Francisco State University, and later an additional M.F.A. in Film at the San Francisco Art Institute, to get a start on her career as a filmmaker.
Her first fully-developed documentary Sermons and Sacred Pictures, a biography of the 1930s-1940s African-American minister and filmmaker Reverend L. O. Taylor, made its debut at the Museum of Modern Art in 1989. “As we say in the film world, the film was my first to have ‘wings,’ meaning that once I finished the film, it ‘carried me’ to film festivals and important art venues around the country. Both of my parents flew from their homes across the country to attend. It was a big, exciting, scary single evening that made me feel like a real artist.”
The film also helped Sachs understand where she came from: the Memphis-born director moved back to her hometown for three months during shooting. “In order to make the film, I needed to walk by myself with my 16mm camera all over African-American neighborhoods I had never visited before in my life. Memphis was 50 percent black and 50 percent white. The film gave me permission to step through the racial and geographical borders that had separated my life as a young white woman from the lives of African-American people whose lives were so close and yet so far away, which was profound for me. ”
The cultural phenomenon of race has been a recurrent motif Sachs employs in her works. From Sermons and Sacred Pictures, to Which Way is East (1994) where she traveled extensively with her sister in Vietnam exploring the other side of a collective war memory, to States of UnBelonging (2006) in which she meditated on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict through uncovering the life of an Israeli filmmaker and mother killed in a terrorist attack, before she spent two years working with Chinese immigrants in New York City in her most recent work Your Day is My Night (2013).
Sachs on location for Your Day is My Night
During the making of Your Day is My Night, Lynne was mindful of her position as an outsider, and sensitive to how the people in her film – whom she regards as her collaborators – felt about their collaboration. “After conducting and editing the interviews, I had the contents transcribed and gave them back to each participant so that they could think about what they had said and make factual or dramatic suggestions.” She and her crew were gradually welcomed into the Chinese community: “After about six months of shooting, the older women began to hold hands with me and one of the older men started to give everyone massages. We often went out for a relaxed Chinese meal, and we spent time together that was informal and fun, not just about shooting or exhibiting our film.” Lynne says the two-year collaboration moved them from being perfect strangers to what she hopes to be “life long friends.”
Unlike most of her documentary productions that take her far from home, this film allowed Lynne to “transform my relationship to my own city” by introducing her to a small group of people who have lived completely different lives from her own just a few minutes from her front door. “Most New Yorkers see Chinatown as a place to eat, that’s it. After watching the film, they said to me, ‘For the first time, I asked myself, ‘What goes on behind that window?’ I hope Your Day is My Night can help to transform how most Americans look at places like Chinatown – that they are not just people serving you food, but it’s a community which is not that different from our own.”
Sachs with the cast of Your Day is My Night
“I am very moved by the ways that we discover so much about the world through interactions with people who are different from ourselves,” says Lynne. “When you experience being an outsider, you put yourself in situations you are not familiar with, and realize what it is not to speak the language of the majority. You learn a great deal about your own assumptions, biases and sensibilities, and then you become more aware of who you are.”
Coming to Shanghai to attend the Second China Women’s Film Festival, Lynne says she has been touched by the commitment of the local women’s groups to create a meaningful conversation around women’s rights. “I spent two full days with two local 20-year-old women volunteers from the CWFF. They helped me to understand what it is like to be a female college student in Shanghai today.”
The director also has a lot to say about feminism. Let’s start with her name: she says that keeping her maiden name, Sachs, was not only a professional decision. “I honestly never considered changing my name to my husband’s. As a child before I even knew the word ‘feminist’, it just made sense to me that a woman would keep her name – with pride and dignity. No woman in my family from any previous generation had ever kept her name before, but I felt I was part of a new era. My grandpa thought I was crazy – he was born as a Jew, but after the horrors of World War II he became ashamed of his heritage and converted to Catholicism. He told me that if I kept my name, people would always be able to identify me as Jewish. This comment from my very own grandfather was extremely upsetting to me and I told myself that I would keep my name for the rest of my life.” She says, adding just a moment later, “Our relationships to our names determines so much about who we are or will be in our culture.”
“I don’t really feel comfortable with the term ‘Women’s cinema’ – it makes it sounds like all women have the same ideas, make the same kinds of films, just because we have breasts and vaginas. But I don’t think we do. Our works are influenced by many things, they’re multifaceted. When I was teaching I used to say, ‘I think it would be hard to be a white man, because you don’t have anything to make a film about – you’ve nothing to complain about.’” Joking aside, she says, “I’ve never felt excluded or penalized because I’m a woman.”
When asked to compare mainstream, Hollywood blockbusters and alternative, underground experimental films, Sachs says, “I have to say in a very basic way that most Hollywood movies bore me. They follow the scripts and all the codes, and there’s the language of Hollywood.” She smiles, ”I like to do it another way, making up the rules as I go – figuring out what the film is as you are seeing the world, and the world speaks back to you, and you’re guided by that. I believe each film has to invent its own language.”
Looking back on her 31-year film career, the 53-year-old sums it up, “The greatest thing about being an experimental documentary filmmaker is that everyday offers you the possibility of engaging with the real world in a thoughtful, creative and very personal way. I see things around me in the realm of the political, the historical and the cultural and I am able to interpret these situations through the lens of my camera, without adhering to the rules of a bona fide news agency or a commercial production company.”
An experimental documentary on Reverend L.O. Taylor, a Black Baptist minister from Memphis, Tennessee who was also an inspired filmmaker with an overwhelming interest in preserving the social and cultural fabric of his own community in the 1930′ s and ‘ 40’ s . I combine his films and music recordings with my own images of Memphis neighborhoods and religious gatherings.
Taylor photographed and filmed businesses and schools in the black community, trips to the National Baptist Convention, baptisms, funerals, social events, and individuals in the quiet dignity of their everyday lives. Over the years he compiled an extraordinary record of black life in the South before the Civil Rights movement captured the attention of the nation. Sermons and Sacred Pictures combines Rev. Taylor’s black-and-white films and audio recordings with color images of contemporary Memphis neighborhoods and religious gatherings. Commentary by his widow and others who knew him forms an intertwined narrative focusing on Rev. Taylor as a pioneering documentarian and social activist. Taylor emerges as a man of humor, piety and intelligence, vibrantly involved in the community he loved.
Supported by a Pioneer Fund Grant for Emerging Documentary Filmmakers and a Film Arts Foundation Development Grant.
“Sermons and Sacred Pictures has a magical quality….It brings to life the work of Rev.. Taylor through his community filmmaking efforts. The film in turn affirms African-American identity and spirit.” Elaine Charnov, Margaret Mead Film Festival
“Viewers will be fascinated by this half hour documentary…among the highlights of the Margaret Mead Film Festival.” J. Hoberman, Village Voice
Screenings and Festivals include:
Museum of Modern Art, New York (1989 and 2015)
“Best Short Documentary” 1989 Athens (Ohio) Film Festival
CINE Golden Eagle
Margaret Mead Film Festival
Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
American Anthropological Association honoree, 1991
Black Cultural Expo (Memphis) honoree
National Education Film Festival Award
“Best Documentary” Sinking Creek Film Festival, Nashville
WKNO Memphis, WYBE Philadelphia
In the library collections of: Duke, Los Angeles Public Library, Memphis State University, Newark Public Library, Northwestern, New York University, Reed College , Stanford and Temple
Icarus Films (Distributor)
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T: 800.876.1710 or 718.488.8900