28 Films for the 28 Days of Black History Month Third annual edition of this Black film celebration.
Maya Cade Feb 1
Black Film Archive is a living register of Black films from 1898 to 1989. This Substack is its blog, thank you for being here. | This email may be too long for email, click the headline to read it in full. | This month, I’m proud to present a film series on tenderness in Black film at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. On opening night (2/10), I’ll be in conversation with Jacqueline Stewart. Join us?
The work that would become Black Film Archive started with an impulse to discover how Black films responded to a movement in June 2020. As countless Black Americans gathered in digital and physical arenas to refuse the status quo by questioning the roles policing, whiteness, and death have in our lives; I joined the choir, singing and pondering how media can contextualize the totality of our history. In this moment of collective imagining and reckoning, Black cinematic history became a prism of possibility.
In building the third annual edition of 28 films for the 28 days of Black History Month, I thought about Black Film Archive’s genesis. My initial pursuit through Black cinematic history was a formalized curiosity that confronted the assumed limitations of the past. Toni Morrison reminds us in her work that the past is more infinite than the future. By tending to Black film’s past, we can explore new worlds and the radical visions forged within them to create a more just future. The films selected here draw on Black cinematic history’s visions of resistance and struggles for social justice to imagine new worlds and a brighter tomorrow.
The films on this year’s list are in conversation with the dreams planted in June 2020 of a better Black tomorrow and every moment since. Using Black film’s past as a guide allows us to consider entirely new ways of thinking and sculpt new pathways through Black imagination. To conceive a world outside the constraints of the status quo is to believe in Black futures.
This guide contains 28 selections from Black Film Archive. They are simply a place to start or rediscover gems, to find yourself in or retreat to.
I hope this season greets you with peace, joy, and an abundance of great cinema. You can find the complete list and full descriptions on Black Film Archive here. View the list on Letterboxd here. Please enjoy.
No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger (1968)
Capturing the pulse of righteous anger in 1968, “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger” is an intimate portrait chronicling anti-war protestors as they march against the country’s involvement in Vietnam.
Say Amen, Somebody (1982)
George T. Nierenberg’s acclaimed portrait of Black Gospel music is a joyous, funny, and deeply moving ode to the divine musical style.
In Search of Marcus Garvey (1981)
Written by Kathleen Collins, this short weaves the viewer through Black history in the spirit of Marcus Garvey.
Street Corner Stories (1979)
Employing cinéma vérité style, Warrington Hudlin grounds his film at a New Haven, Connecticut corner store, capturing the rhythm of Black residents’ jokes, attitudes, and political imagination.
A Study of Negro Artists (1936)
Showing the tenderness of the craft, “A Study of Negro Artists” displays artists at work in this early documentary study of Black art.
With No One to Help Us (1967)
Described as a community action film, “With No One to Help Us” centers on a group of working-class matriarchs in Newark’s South Ward, hoping to forge collective purchasing power by organizing a food-buying club.
Hands of Inge (1962)
This short documentary on acclaimed sculptor Ruth Inge Hardison, narrated by Ossie Davis, connects the artist’s practice with our desire for visibility as Hardison immortalizes Black figures with her hands.
Statues Hardly Ever Smile (1971)
Capturing the hypnotic wonder of a group of children in the process of creating art at the Brooklyn Museum, Stan Lathan’s “Statues Hardly Ever Smile” documents art as a tool for self-discovery and the essence of Black creativity.
Those Whom Death Refused (1988)
“Mortu Nega,” the Portuguese title of this film, tells the story of Bisa, a fictional heroine fighting to survive the effort for decolonization in Guinea-Bissau and the revolutionary process of liberation.
Back Inside Herself (1984)
Saundra Sharp’s visual poem is an ode to the joys of a Black woman finding her sense of self.
Something to Build On (1971)
This jazz-infused community vision of Black educational attainment provides young students with varied perspectives on the role college plays in their future.
Concerning the world of Teddy, a teenager in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, this film intimately explores his views on violence, the system, community involvement, and love.
Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey in the Rock (1983)
Michelle Parkerson’s loving portrait documents the sonic soundscapes of Sweet Honey in the Rock, an acapella group singing to end the oppression of Black people worldwide.
Ujami Uhuru Schule Community Freedom School (1974)
This glimpse of an Afrocentric primary school in Los Angeles reminds us all that we’re never too young to concern ourselves with preserving and protecting Black history.
Lynne Sachs’ exploration of Reverend L.O. Taylor, a Memphis-based minister and filmmaker, employs Taylor’s films, audio recordings, and imagery of Memphis at the time to present a unique portrait of his role in chronicling Black life.
Style Wars (1983)
Set during the graffiti movement of the 1980s, “Style Wars” is an essential document on the revolutionary spirit of artistic impulse. The film centers on the teenagers who rocked the foundation of New York City–and by extension, the world– with this growing subculture of hip-hop.
Harlem: Voices, Faces (1973)
Initially criticized for its frankness about Black life in Manhattan’s infamous neighborhood, “Harlem: Voices, Faces” allows the community’s working class to paint a portrait of their own lives.
Personal Problems: Part One and Two (1980)
Bill Gunn’s intimate, free-wheeling “meta soap opera” examines the textuality of Black families and, by doing so, offers a deep reading of Black souls.
A Time for Burning (1966)
“We are not gonna suffer patiently anymore. No more turning the other cheek. No more blessing our enemies,” expresses Eddie Chambers in this study of racial conflicts in the Lutheran church as one congregation attempts to integrate.
The Women of Brewster’s Place (1989)
Through this multigenerational tale, “Brewster’s Place” celebrates the kinship between Black women and the bonds that tie us.
No Maps on My Taps (1979)
George T. Nierenberg’s essential document celebrates the infectious joy and history of tap dancing, a Black American export.
Tongues Untied (1989)
A visionary documentary that sings the style, culture, and oppressions unique to gay Black men.
Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues (1989)
Borrowing its name from Ida Cox’s Blues classic, “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” showcases the genre’s role as a source of empowerment and tool for survival.
Starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, “Mahogany” chronicles fashion student Tracy (Ross) from her humble beginnings to becoming an international phenomenon. At the heart of the film, which focuses on the way love awakens the senses, is the question: What is success without someone to share it with?
Daydream Therapy (1977)
This L.A. Rebellion short is a visually inventive look at the inner life of a Black domestic worker who dreams of an escape.
Visions of the Spirit: a Portrait of Alice Walker (1989)
Filmed over the course of three years, this intimate documentary keeps the Pulitzer-winning author company at home in California, on the set of The Color Purple (1989), and in her hometown of Eatonton, Georgia.
The Pocketbook (1980)
This lively adaption of Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank You, Ma’am” centers on a young boy who questions his life trajectory after being caught snatching an older woman’s purse.
Sun Ra: Joyful Noise (1980)
Robert Mugge’s documentary is an affectionate portal into the mind of the extraordinary Black philosopher, musician, poet, and revolutionary.
The first edition (2021) predates Black Film Archive and is here. The second edition (2022) is here.
A French style of filmmaking that places its subject(s) in everyday situations with genuine dialogue and naturalness.
Crises of Language and Difference AFTERIMAGE By Liz Kotz November 1989
“Special” sessions or programs devoted to third-world, multicultural, or minority programming at historically white-dominated conferences and institutions are difficult enterprises. All too often these occasions attempt to make up for past exclusions by presenting a vastly varied body of work all at once, with inadequate preparation or focus, in a context that was not designed or developed for such works. Overburdened by the often conflicting needs and expectations of producers of color, minority communities, and predominantly white audiences, such programs risk contradiction and disappointment.
The thirty-fifth annual Robert Flaherty Seminar, help this August in upstate New York, proved a case in point. With this year’s focus on work by “third world and minority film and video artists,” programmed by Pearl Bower of African Diaspora Images, excitement and expectations were high. Many people had hoped that the conference, bringing together scholars and makers from the United States, Africa, Great Britain, and elsewhere, would present a critical opportunity to reopen and expand the North American discussion of “third-world” film and video and the questions of race, cinema, representation such woek necessarily engages. Yet despite the many powerful works screened and the participation of numerous individuals deeply involved in the production, exhibition, and study of third-world and minority cinema, the week-long event proved surprisingly unproductive, as entrenched positions, and divisions were restaged in a new setting without pushing the boundaries of dialogue or analysis.
I had gone to Flaherty expecting that the seminar would be a chance to test out some of the available theoretical models—“third cinema,” “third-world cinema,” “a black aesthetic,” “minority discourse,” “immigrant cinema,” etc.—against the wide-ranging and very different films from Africa, Latin America, the U.S., Great Britain, and other sites of the vast African, Asian, and Latin American diasporas. Such a level of discussion, however, was not forthcoming at the conference. Plagued by a lack of time and structure, unwieldly programming, and the inability of the heterogeneous group of participants to find any common ground or language in which to discuss issues, the formal discussions were often an exercise in frustration. Like many other participants, I found myself obsessively and somewhat painfully trying to trace the multiple, intersecting, and ultimately overpowering barriers to discourse and dialogue at what had begun as a very hopeful and promising occasion.
A large part of the problem had to do with the structure, traditions, and limitations of the Robert Flaherty seminar. Originally devoted to the study of the documentaries of its founding figure, the annual conference has grown into one of the few forums for independent producers, artists, and academics to get together and discuss political and formal issues in filmmaking. Cloistered in the campus of Wells College for a week, about 150 participants watch about 10 hours of films and videos each day, followed by formal large-group discussions and informal social activities. A majority of the participants are Flaherty “regulars,” a predominantly liberal, white, East Coast audience of documentary supporters. (While documentaries are the focus, experimental and narrative work is shown as well.) Film- and videomakers are invited to attend, accompany their works, and participate in discussions.
It is designed to be a cumulative experience, with all participants attending all screenings and discussions, so that critical issues, comparisons, and thematics will emerge and build throughout the week. Yet the most basic concepts for understanding critical questions of address, audience, context, or the political implications of formal strategies were completely underdeveloped. As a first-time Flaherty participant, I tried to figure out what seemed to be the Flaherty buzzwords—“integrity” and “responsibility” ranked high on the list—and the liberal/progressive ideology underlying that discourse. Of course, the fact that no one would admit to anything as systematic as ideology or discourse was part of the problem. The seminar seemed deeply resistant to any critical or analytic framework, privileging the “honest,” “emotional” responses of participants while refusing to theorize such positions at all. In such a context, the black and third-world participants tended to be the only ones to acknowledge that they had any ideological or political positioning—and got roundly criticized for “over-politicizing” the proceedings among some white participants.
With a tradition of unstructured discussions that often resemble group therapy more than intellectual debate, the Flaherty seminar is known for its free-for-alls and emotional outbursts. With topics as emotionally and politically charged as cultural difference and racism, the limitations of such as a non-format became readily apparent, as the lack of structure allowed to participants to align themselves along all too familial lines. Given the inefficacy of the more structured formal discussions to promote real interchange and dialogue between different sectors, the informal socializing became quite polarized between black and white participants, leaving the other third-world and minority participants uncomfortably stranded.
The central question of what it meant to be addressing issues of third-world and minority filmmaking in a mixed-race and cross-cultural setting was rarely explicitly addressed—at least not in the official discussions; the informal discussions were, of course, a whole other story. Yet the extreme vulnerability and ambiguity of the situation proved to be the seminar’s major stumbling block. While many if not most of the white participants were unprepared and inadequately informed to address the issues of race, ethnicity, and cinematic language the event set out ot raise, the conference also failed to create a dialogue that would challenge entrenched positions and beliefs. In the face of white ignorance, many black participants opted for separatism. Since most of the black and third-world producers and critics present had not had the opportunities to address controversial issues within their own communities, perhaps few felt that the atmosphere of a predominantly white conference was a safe or productive place to initiate this process.
In an effort to have a critical framework for the conference, UCLA professor Teshome Gabriel—author of Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation (1982)—presented a schematic outline of Western and non-Western filmic conventions, relating these to the storytelling forms and performatory models of print cultures and oral/folk cultures. Yet aside from Zan Boko (1988), a lyric and beautiful film on forced urbanization by Burkina Faso’s Gaston Kabore, few films screened at the seminar fit this schema of “third-world cinema.” Consequently, participants unfamiliar with Gabriel’s more challenging work on time-space relationships and non-Western film languages had little to go on but vague and ultimately unproductive generalizations. Among the many works screened, the found-footage videotape From Here From This Side (1988) by Mexican videomaker Gloria Ribe, or the South African film Mapantsula (1988, by Oliver Schmitz), which mobilizes a conventional gangster film format to indict state racism and terrorism, posed very real challenges to models of third-world cinema, as do any number of recent Latin American films employing the filmic languages and capital-intensive industrial modes of production of first-world cinema. Yet works that departed from or that explicitly problematized such categories tended not to be discussed, or were programmed at such inconvenient times—11:30 at night or Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989)—that few participants saw them.
With no further opportunity to examine or define critical categories or concepts, the seminar experiences a complete breakdown of critical language. Particularly in this rapidly changing and highly contested area of research, each set of terms suggests a distinct historical context and discursive formation. As always with critical language, the very constitution, unity, and identity of the object of study shifts and mutates with the deployment of each set of categories: third-world cinema, minority film/video, multicultural filmmaking, black filmmaking, etc. Each suggests a specific, historically contingent, and politically informed critical model. And yet throughout the week, people went around using terms like “third-world” and “non-Western” as if they were synonymous or interchangeable, randomly mobilizing them against black or minority filmmakers whose work didn’t fit Gabriel’s outline—a tactic that reached its ridiculous extreme during a discussion of Lien de Parente (1986) by black French director Willy Rameau, who was criticized by some participants for his use of “Western” film languages. The whole question of the interpenetration of first and third worlds, and the consequences of this or discussing film languages, were never developed.
The ambiguity of these categories and their potential to illuminate or homogenize cultural differences were reflected throughout the conference. Since the festival was programmed by Bowser, a veteran black film programmer, most participants expected the focus would be with work from Africa and African diaspora communities. However, the tension between the announced scope of the program, potentially encompassing the entire third world and the range of ethnic minority communities, and its actual focus on African and African-American works was not adequately raised or resolved. Over the seven-day program, which included over 50 films and videos, five works by Latinos and three by Asian producers were screened, a paltry and poorly thought out offering that felt tokenistic. Of greater concern was the general lack of attention to the range and differences within and among “third-world” cultures and communities, both on the level of insensitivity to non-African experiences of diaspora and dispersal and in a consistent avoidance of issues of class, gender, and sexuality—even more odd given that a majority of participants were women and probably one-quarter were gay.
The lack of shared language for discussing political issues exploded after the screening of Bolivian filmmaker Jac Avila’s Kric? Krac! Tales of a Nightmare (coproduced by Vanyoska Grey, 1988), a relentless quasi-documentary on life in present-day Haiti. Accusations of racism, sensationalism, and lack of political analysis flew around the room, colliding with criticisms of the “inauthenticity” of materials—the film incorporates extensive found footage from Cuban films such as El Otro Francisco (1975, by Sergio Giral)—and its violation of “the integrity of the filmmaking process.” Avila’s failure to adequately defend his use of images belied the film’s lack of organizing strategy and further frustrated effective discussion of the interconnected political and filmmaking problems the film exhibits.
Rather than discussing the abstract “ethic”” of image appropriation and exploitation, John Akomfrah of Britain’s black audio Film Collective suggested that a more productive approach would be to evaluate the film in the context of research on contemporary postcolonial societies and the contradictory roles that representations play in cultures of terror.
As shown by the fate of baby doc Duvalier, the inheritors of power based on terror are not always able to master. It’s working for these mechanisms of fear and terror take on a life of their own. Using, but not in control of overdetermined images of violence and destruction. Kric? Krac! fails to contain mobilize a reposition that force and inadvertently participate in the very spectacularization of Tara claims to reveal like many works using found footage and found images, Avila’s film mistakes, the power of shocking images for effectiveness falling into an all to conventional oversaturation, a violent imagery, characteristic of western film, making that carries it on her political impact our meeting yet the discussion nearly degenerated into shouting, match the participants, attacking or defending the film, without really discussing how or whether it worked.
The most challenging debates took place around the screenings of episodes from the landmark series on the US civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize (1986 and forthcoming, 1990), produced by Henry Hampton, and Blackslide Productions Inc. Featuring episodes of the initial series and fine cuts from the second series, which covers the 20 year period from 1965 to 1985, the seminar generated a critically cogent and politically informed discussion of how documentary films construct history. Several black participants critiqued the newer programs for retelling familiar stories and events without any meaningful reevaluation or inside and privileging a white viewer in such a way as to offer nothing new to black audiences. While the early civil rights years treated in the first series enjoy your relative consensus of interpretation, the second series tackles more recent events as well as controversial chapters, such as the formation of the Black Panther party, which are the objects of considerable contestation even within the black community.
Documentary strategies used relatively unproblematically in the first series met with criticism in the second. The episodes were challenged on formal grounds for their presumed neutrality, lack of perspective or viewpoint, and allegiance to a traditional PBS use of narrative, which left them flat and institutional. That the new programs for the product of biracial teams and had undergone extensive audience testing and multiple recuts suggested that underlying such formal and storytelling problems were unresolved structural and conceptual difficulties.
Participants discussed the political and historiographical implications of filmmaking strategies adopted in the series, including the class-based and top-down leadership theory of power and political struggle. It adopts featuring extensive interviews with movement leaders, but few perspectives from for example, those who took part in the ill-fated for people to march on Washington others prove the constraints of the series and the limitations of the traditional models of documentary filmmaking with its focus on newsworthy events and reliance on archival footage for constructing in minority history search for making issues unavoidably brought up questions about what constitutes meaningful historical or social change. Raising the problem of focusing on visible political events, such as the election of Carl Strokes (the first black mayor in a major US city), a black woman producer from Philadelphia commented, “we all know now that electing a black mayor doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
The political problems of co-optation and the character of racism in the North suggested the difficult challenges to traditional documentary practices, posed by modern forms of power that work by masking themselves: unlike the naked racism of the southern sheriffs, northern white racists are less likely to reveal themselves on camera since these people who know how to manipulate media, how to generate a public rhetoric that masks their actions. By focusing on the visible manifestations of power—the billy club landing on the head, or the overly racist actions of working class white “rednecks”—documentary film risks participating in the representational conventions that allow most relations of power based on consent to go on mentioned, and on analyzed
The profound difficulties, historically disempowered people face in constructing a cultural memory and the problems posed by borrowing historical models and materials from the dominant culture, were brought up throughout the week. Diverse works address the question of what materials are available to construct filmic counter-histories of African-American and minority experiences. The lack of archives of black images of American history, for instance, was raised after the rough-cut screening of veteran black producer William Greaves’s Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice (1989). White experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs’s Sermons and Sacred Pictures (1989) offered an example of the recovery and representation of “amateur” documentation of black lives, in this case the 16mm “home movies” taken by the Memphis minister L.O. Taylor in the 1930s and ‘40s. Brazilian filmmaker Raquel Gerber’s Ori (1988) brought together disparate footage shot over 11 years in Africa and Brazil, in a disjointed but powerful film aimed at reconstructing historical memory across the traumas of slavery and colonialism. Mixing travel film, conference documentation, history lesson, spectacle, spiritual journey, and personal storytelling, the film works to reposition African-ness at the heart of Brazilian culture.
The necessity of examining colonial discourse in white filmmaking arose after a late night screening of Robert Flaherty-directed feature The Elephant Boy (1937). The film reproduces a fascinatingly impure and impenetrating set of colonial discourses on the Indian “other,” from the original Kipling tale to the Flaherty “documentary” treatment and the final Michael Korda-produced Hollywood release. Yet the official presentation problematized the film only in relation to its “impure” authorship. If it hadn’t been for a group of Indian women producers present, who quickly dissected the film’s painful orientalism, its implicit racism would have gone without comment—inexcusable in any context, but particularly odd in a year devoted to questions of race and cinema.
Much of the seminar seemed caught between irreconcilable rhetoric: in a revealing juxtaposition, while one side of the Flaherty brochure stated that “the seminar will examine some of the ways films and videotapes reveal cultures,” the other side stated that “participants will study specific films and tapes that illuminate the human spirit.” The complete inadequacy of traditional humanist rhetoric for addressing complex questions of racial and cultural difference was manifested throughout the week as white seminar participants seemed to ignore differences entirely—”we’re all human”—consider them the reconcilable—”these works are not for me”—or collapse completely disperate phenomena. Yet the question of difference was clearly not a problem for white participants. Homogenizing and universalizing statements about black and third-world experiences voiced by some people of color went unchallenged: the at times tense divisions between different generations and tendencies within the group of black and third-world participants and the growing contestation of cultural nationalist rhetorics and positions went largely unarticulated in public.
The absence of rhetorical models for critically examining issues of audience and address particularly hampered discussion of works by people of color that deviated from conventions of mainstream filmmaking. White participants, finding their stance as the privileged interpreters of cultural products undermined, at times reacted with hostility, incomprehension, or pain at “feeling excluded” by works not explicitly addressed to them as white viewers. In a discussion of D. Elmina Davis‘s documentary Omega Rising: Women of Rastafari (1988), many participants reacted to her refusal to translate rasta culture and language for a white audience as a weakness: few seemed to appreciate the intense power relations inherent in requiring minority or marginal cultures to continually explain themselves to an outside or dominant audience. While the documentary, produced by London’s Ceddo Film/Video Workshop, certainly has its weaknesses. Davis’s underlying point—that genuine dialogue entails effort by both parties—got lost in a slew of criticism and confusion.
At the end of the week, conference discussions of “difficult” or “unconventional” works, got increasingly polarized. A white college professor remarked, in reference to experimental works by British filmmaker Akomfrah and Indian-British videomaker Pratibha Parmar, that he found them “closed” and unable to appeal to a mass audience and accused the filmmakers of “coterie filmmaking.” Parmer defended her work against charges of elitism, noting the use of her video Sari Red (1988) in community-based antiracism campaigns and discussing her deliberate choice to use cultural symbols and icons that engage Indian and Asian audiences. She explained the importance for Indian women of reappropriating the image of the sari—often seen as a symbol of submissiveness in Western iconography and as a visible sign of difference that can target Indian women for racist attack.
Parmar also questioned the assumption that works by people of color that do not privilege a white viewer are therefore incomprehensible to everyone. Of course, varieties of such accusations—too “personal,” too “specialized,” to “narrow,” too, “political”—are routinely mobilized against any filmmakers, particularly people of color, women, and gays, whenever they choose to depart from the forms of culturally imposed homogeneity with the pursuit of “mass” audiences. That such a comment could be made in utter sincerity on the last full day of the seminar evidenced its utter failure to develop any productive terms for discussing the complex mechanisms by which racial and colonial relations are inscribed in filmic representation, and how film languages and representational conventions can be reworked to reveal cultural difference.
Many other provocative works were screened, from Olley Marouma’s After the Hunger and Drought (1988), on Zimbabwean writers and their role in cultural decolonization in southern Africa, to Kwate Nee-Owoo and Kwesi Owusu’s Ouaga: African Cinema Now! (1988), a documentary on contemporary African filmmaking focused on the annual FESPACO Festival of Pan-African Cinema in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. With clips from numerous films and interviews with African and African diaspora filmmakers including Med Hondo, Haile Germina, Idrissa Ouedraogo, John Akomfrah, and Louis Messiah, the Channel 4-funded documentary could have provided a valuable informational background to start the week. Among the powerful short experimental works were U.S. filmmaker, A.J. Rogbodiyan’s poetic Peace Family (1982-83), an in-camera edited piece working with jazz-inspired rhythms and an improvisational process, Canadian-American filmmaker Veronica Soul’s work in progress, Unknown Soldier, using Chinese characters to explore the acquisition of language and the construction of identity and Philip Mallory Jones’s three-channel installations Foot-prints (1988) and Dreamkeeper (1989), using African images and music to build an experimental narrative. That such rich and vastly different works could all be shown under the rubric of “third-world” or “minority” cinema says a lot about the explosion those categories are currently undergoing. Throughout the conference, the audience grappled with the inevitable tension produced by trying to simultaneously use and deconstruct available terms and categories. As discussions oscillated between platitudes and attack, mobilized proscriptive models, and generally went in circles, the works screened simply overran and exploded the languages used to discuss them.
Available on DAFilms: https://americas.dafilms.com/director/7984-lynne-sachs Drawn and Quartered The House of Science: a museum of false facts Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam States of UnBelonging Same Stream Twice Your Day is My Night And Then We Marched Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor The Washing Society A Month of Single Frames Film About a Father Who
Available on Fandor:https://www.fandor.com/category-movie/297/lynne-sachs/ Still Life With Woman and Four Objects Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning The Washing Society The House of Science: a museum of false facts Investigation of a Flame Noa, Noa The Small Ones Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam Atalanta: 32 Years Later States of UnBelonging A Biography of Lilith The Task of the Translator Sound of a Shadow The Last Happy Day Georgic for a Forgotten Planet Wind in Our Hair Drawn and Quartered Your Day is My Night Widow Work Tornado Same Stream Twice
Available on Ovid:https://www.ovid.tv/lynne-sachs A Biography of Lillith Investigation of a Flame The Last Happy Day Sermons and Sacred Pictures Starfish Aorta Colossus States of Unbelonging Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam Your Day is My Night Tip of My Tongue And Then We Marched A Year of Notes and Numbers
When Pacific Film Archive curator Kathy Geritz invited me to give the 2022 Les Blank Lecture, all of my experiences, challenges, obstacles and revelations regarding what constitutes the real came tumbling into my mind. I immediately confronted and embraced the life I’ve lead in the cosmos of the cinema, and more specifically my I.O.U, my gratitude, to that real for simply providing me with so much to think about and so much to record with my camera.
Tonight, I will share with you a selection of observations I have made in the course of creating approximately 50 films, installations, live performances and web art projects. Whether a 90 second ciné poem or an 83 minute feature, I learned early-on that my process of making films must push me to engage directly with the people with whom I’m working in a fluid and attentive way. I’ve never been truly comfortable with the term “director” or the hierarchical configuration of a movie set. I am a filmmaker who looks for other committed artists who are willing to collaborate with me in an adventure. These inventive souls are not my crew. We talk. We listen to each other. I pay them for their time and expertise. And then we set off on a journey.
Of course there are the people in front of the camera, what many documentary makers refer to as their subjects. In narrative film, these are the actors or, thinking in the aggregate, the cast. Again I find both of these monolithic terms anathema, an insult to their human presence. From my very first 16mm film “Still Life with Women and Four Objects” made in 1986, I asked the woman, the star in the film, to extract herself from “the objects” in order to shake things up for me. I wanted her to shift away from simply being a living, breathing prop. I invited her to bring something from her home that meant a great deal to her to our first day of shooting. She delivered a framed black-and-white photograph of early 20th century feminist-anarchist Emma Goldman. At the time, I had no idea who Emma was. I quickly learned. I, and with my four minute film, were forever changed. I’d claim for the better. I’ve been listening and learning from all the people involved in my films ever since.
This leads me to another perhaps more intricate form of entangling myself in the creative process. Between 2011 and 2013, I worked with seven Chinese immigrants between the ages of 55 and 80 living in the so-called “Chinatown” areas of NYC. Together, we made “Your Day Is My Night”, a hybrid documentary on their immigration experience and their lives in the place each of them calls home. Hybrid is the keyword here, for it was my interaction with these participants that sparked me to find a completely new approach to my documentary practice. I started this project with the intention of discovering more about these people’s lives through a series of one-on-one audio interviews. Then, I turned each of these conversations into a monologue that I gave back to each person so that they could perform their own lives by both memorizing their lines and also improvising, all in a dramatic context that gave them the freedom to express themselves, and a release from the intimidation and vulnerability of not knowing what would happen next. According to the seven people in my film, this in turn gave them the liberty to play with their spoken words with whim and impetuousness, not to feel indebted to the limitations of their own historic realities. At my performers’ insistence, we ultimately moved the hybrid nature of the piece one step further. As a group, they pushed me to search for a story beyond their lives. They wanted me to make their job of articulating their experiences more interesting so I brought in one “wild card”, a Puerto Rican woman actor who would move into their shared, filmic apartment. Her arrival transformed the piece into a story that embraced each person’s immigration experience without being confined by it.
Over a two year period, we took our live performance with film to homeless shelters, museums, universities and small theaters throughout New York City. I then turned our collective work into a film. From this experience, I learned that even a more conventionally narrative film is simply a documentation of a group of people making something together. My integration of a traditional observational mode with a more theatrical engagement gave me the chance to reflect on the work I had done over 25 years earlier, as the sound recordist on Trinh T. Minh-ha’s “Surname Viet Given Name Nam”. This film also challenges monolithic notions of documentary truth. Some of you saw it in this very room when Minh-ha gave the 5th Annual Les Blank lecture.
I also wanted to share something about the exhibition of “Your Day is My Night” which adds another layer to our conversation around collaboration both within the film’s production structure and its exhibition. The first evening that we presented this piece to an actual audience, there was a rather typical post-screening Q and A. There I stood with all of the participants in the film. When members of the audience asked these seven Chinese immigrants to the US how they felt about working on this rather experimental film, they all became quiet, then they whispered together and a few minutes later, one spokesperson came forward to say simply “We do what Lynne tells us to do.” There was a hush in the room. No one knew what to say. Honestly, I felt embarrassed, at a loss for what to do. I put my microphone down, walked over to the group and explained that in the US it was okay for them to say whatever they wanted publicly, to express their feelings about their experiences without any punitive repercussions. At the next screening, they each energetically took the mic from me. With the help of a translator, they articulated their own interpretation of our shared creative process. Never before had they had the opportunity to talk so freely in public, in China or in the US.
The performers in “The Washing Society” which you will see tonight gave me another kind of gift in terms of their response to and expansion of my creative practice. In 2014 and ’15, playwright Lizzie Olesker and I traipsed around New York City trying to record interviews with laundry workers. Most of them were recent immigrants who did not yet speak English or have their legal documents for living in the United States. Neither their bosses nor their husbands wanted them to talk to us. Thus, they refused to be on camera. So the two us confronted this “production obstacle” head-on. We conducted a series of informal non-recorded interviews and then we wrote a play that used the stories we’d heard as source material for a live performance and film. We called it “Every Fold Matters”. We worked for over a year with four professional actors and dancers who were open to devising a strategy for making a site specific piece that would be performed in actual laundromats around the city. In the process, we borrowed from reality in order to create a new hybrid reality.
Veraalba, one of our performers, was formally trained as a dancer but also deeply influenced by the radical choreographic gestures of feminist thinker and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. Through her physical investigations of folding laundry, the piece gained an exhilarating gestural vocabulary that gave our show and then our film its rhythm and its musicality.
Jasmine, an actor in the film with traditional theater experience, embraced our whole, inclusive process so profoundly that she transformed herself from an eager, responsive actor into a generative contributor. One day during our rehearsals, she texted me with the words “I’ve been living with my grandmother Lulabelle all of my life but she never told me she had worked in a laundry from 1968 to 1998 until I started working with you all on this show.” A few days later, we were filming with Jasmine and her grandmother while she conducted the first documentary interview of her life. She asked her grandmother about her collective actions for better wages and working conditions. The openness of our process gave her the chance to find out more about the woman with whom she’d lived all her life. In addition, this intimate cross-generational exchange between two women in a family gave a new layer to our film.
Now, I would like to take you on a journey through my aesthetic, material trajectory as an experimental documentary filmmaker. I need the word experimental here because it commits me to pursuing formal investigations of the medium. This is the only way that cinema can continually tackle, confront, even tickle my curiosity about the world. What is particular to me about cinema is its embrace of sound with, alongside, underneath and beyond image. In the late 1980s, I made my first longer format documentary “Sermons and Sacred Pictures”, a 30 minute portrait of Reverend L. O. Taylor, a Black Baptist minister who also shot 16mm film and collected sound recordings. At a certain point in the film, audiences are in total darkness while they hear the chatter of church congregants at a baptism in a river. At the time, this film was rejected for TV broadcast because the station producer assumed viewers would give up and turn off their televisions. Tonight I think about this film I made in my late 20s with a new perspective. I think at this moment about what theorist and poet Fred Moten calls “hesitant sociology”, and about the ways that we can integrate a propensity for abstraction into an endeavor to bring attention to a subject that might not have received its rightful place in history. Where do education and exposition end and aesthetic rigor begin? Do we necessarily lose the impact of the former when we give light to the later?
In “Which Way is East”, a diary film made in Vietnam in 1994, I begin with a series of richly colored Kodachrome brushstrokes juxtaposed with my own voice-over remembering what it was like to watch televised images of the war in the late 1960s. As a six year old child, I would lie on the living room couch with my head hanging upside down watching the screen, inverting the images, unintentionally abstracting them somehow. At that age, I just barely understood the dismal war statistics I was hearing. Within my film, I decided to make this oblique reference to the archival images of the Vietnam War rather than delivering actual illustrations from the time period. That was enough. I expected my audience to work hard to fill in this absence, a pointer to the horrifying collateral damage of the US involvement in Vietnam. Each viewer has to reckon with their own relationship to this history, as full or empty as it might be. At the time, I was cognizant of Belgian filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s refusal to provide a visual proof in the form of archival footage from the concentration camps in his 1985 “Shoah”, an episodic series on the Holocaust. At that time in history, forty years after the end of World War II, he felt that that haunting power of those images would be even more searing if his audience had to rely on their internal repository. Just in the last year, I had the chance to read historian and theorist Tina M. Campt’s new book Listening to Images in which she prompts readers to look at archival footage in a way that forces us to hear what was never recorded, to bring our imaginations into the synthesis and recognition of a partial history that needs, at long last, a place in our communal consciousness. The lacunas are mended by my, your and our active modes of participation. Both Lanzmann and I resisted the inclusion of images of horror, cautious about our own complicity by including them, assuming their implicit power that comes from absence.
Two weeks ago, I went to Berlin to shoot for a new film I am making called “Every Contact Leaves a Trace”. I spent several days talking with an 80-year old German woman about many things, including the moment when she first became aware of the concentration camp atrocities that had been committed by the Nazis, the everyday men and women who lived in her own town. She had the chance to watch archival footage of systematic killings and so much more in Alan Resnais’ 1956 documentary “Night and Fog”. It all became absolutely clear. Here was the proof. When I heard this woman speak of the potency of these images, I immediately asked myself if I had failed in my own work. I’d assumed the existence of an internal archive of the horrors of the Vietnam War. In fact, it might not have been there, at least to a younger audience. Had I failed in my own obligation to manifest a history that needed examination?
In addition to a deep involvement from my compatriots in front of and behind the camera, I have come to expect a parallel engagement with my audience. In order for a multi-layered cinematic experience to happen, there must be a “synaptic” event that transpires. Only through this internal occurrence can we register meaning. My awareness of the aperture inside the camera convinces me that we must find intimacy with light to accomplish this kind of charged flow from screen to eye. I have had the same Bolex 16mm camera since 1987. I know her well and feel as if she knows me.
As we sit here together in this room, I would like to share with you just five images from my entire career as a filmmaker. They are part of my IOU to light, the only continuous collaborator who has remained with me for all of these years.
This is an image from “Still Life with Woman and Four Objects” (1986) a film falls somewhere between a painting and a prose poem. It’s a look at a woman’s daily routines and thoughts, interweaving history and fiction. This is the film I mentioned earlier with the framed photo of Emma Goldman.
In this image of an avocado pit just peeled and prepared for growth, you see a slant of sunshine coming through a skylight in the ceiling. This is the first time that I truly learned how to transform – via an awareness of aperture and f-stops – what the eye sees into something only the camera can witness.
In “Window Work” (2001) a woman drinks tea, washes a window, reads the paper– simple tasks that somehow suggest a kind of quiet mystery. I am the performer!
Here, my hermitic, domestic space is ruptured by a backlit newspaper. It glows. As cinematographer and performer, I discover how to sculpt light through silhouette.
In, “Your Day is My Night” (2013) immigrant residents of a “shift-bed” apartment in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown share their stories of personal and political upheaval.
Here light transforms Mr. Tsui’s profile into a gently sloping landscape. He fills the frame completely and in the process conveys awareness and presence.
Over a period of 35 years between 1984 and 2019, I shot 8 and 16mm film, videotape and digital images of my dad. “Film About a Father Who” (2020) is my attempt to understand the web that connects a child to her parent and a sister to her siblings. Here, my father has photographed three of my siblings playing in the water in the early ‘90s.
This time worn image reveals my dad’s point of view. There is no detail. Only light and color affirm a quality of compassion and observation, simply through the texture.
This is one of the last shots from “Film About a Father Who”. It’s clearly a degraded piece of old video, having lost all of its color and detail. And yet, in its starkness, this high contrast black and white image evokes a pathos. After spending 74 minutes with me in the film, viewers are able to fill in what is missing.
In each of these light-sculpted images, I explore the concept of distillation which has always been at the foundation of my work. I am an experimental filmmaker and a poet. Thus I am far more interested in the associative relationship between two things, two shots or two words than I am in their cause and effect, or their narrative symbiosis. For me, a distillation is a container for ideas and energy, a concise manifestation of a multi-valent presence that does not depend on exposition. A distillation is not a metaphor; it’s more like metonymy and synecdoche, where a part stands in for a whole, and is just enough.
I once asked a student of mine why she wanted to make documentary films. She told me that she wanted to make gifts. Just that single word helped me to better understand the ways that this kind of practice can embrace so much about life. Working with and beside reality allows us to feel relevant but also gives us the chance to share something we love with others. Through his engaged, compassionate, ingenious approach to filmmaking, Les Blank gave us approximately 50 gifts. His vision of music, food, culture, and humanity came through every frame of film.
I too have made about 50 films, web art projects, performances and installations. Like Les, each endeavor reveals my curiosity and awe for the world around me, my I.O.U to the Real.
Lynne Sachs is one of our most dynamic filmmakers and poets. Her captivating work is a medley of documentaries, essay films, hybrid live performances, and experimental shorts. With her use of vivid visuals and intricate sound, Sachs eagerly pushes formal boundaries. She crafts transfixing and intimate moving images that draw from her own emotional and social experiences — often through a feminist lens. For Women’s History Month, Fandor celebrates this fascinating female filmmaker and her insightful cinematic achievements.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and what led you to filmmaking?
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, it never occurred to me to be a filmmaker. In fact, that wasn’t even a word in my vocabulary. I knew about movie directors and movie stars. I thoroughly enjoyed the occasional European art film I might see on TV or on a Saturday matinée at a community center. Then I discovered the brazen, irreverent, raw, improvised vision of Rainer Fassbinder and the internal, austere feminism of Chantal Ackerman. From that time on, I knew I wanted to make films.
Was there a particular moment or film that inspired you to become a filmmaker?
When I was a senior in high school in Memphis, Tennessee, I was able to see the films of Reverend L.O. Taylor, a Black minister, and filmmaker with an overwhelming interest in preserving the social and cultural fabric of his own community in the 1930s and ’40s. I spent that summer carrying a projector and stacks of Taylor’s films around to churches in Memphis where a group of us would ask small audiences to help us to identify the people in the films. I was transfixed by this man’s work that ten years later when I too had decided to make films, I returned to Memphis to make Sermons Sacred Pictures (29 min., 1989, streaming on Fandor) on his life and work.
Seeing French filmmaker Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil was equally transformative for me. This feature-length early 80’s essay film entered my soul. I immediately connected to its delicate mode of engaging with other cultures, its self-reflexive intensity, its compassion, its humor, and its unabashed doubt. Marker shot the film himself, so every frame reflects his vision, the way he saw and framed the world at a certain point in his own life. I hadn’t known that this was even possible until I saw Sans Soleil.
What is special to you about shooting on film and do you feel something is lost in everyone’s transition to digital?
I see light differently when I am shooting with film. When I was making Which Way is East (30 min. 16mm, color, 1994, streaming on Fandor), I traveled through Vietnam for one month carrying my Bolex camera and only 40 minutes of 16mm film stock. I had to wait for the light to find me in just the right way, simply because I could not waste a single frame. By imposing this kind of cinematic awareness and discipline on myself, I learned to make each shot matter.
I learned to engage with the medium’s ability to witness and express through knowledge of the lens and the celluloid. I have tried to imbue my filmmaking practice with this kind of awareness ever since. I don’t think I have yet accomplished this level of intimacy with my digital camera but I certainly try. I still never “overshoot”, and find that less material with more striking images still works best for me.
After the 20th anniversary of September 11th, how do you feel looking back at your film Tornado?
Tornado was very much made in the moment of September 11. I shot this film the day after the attack on the Twin Towers. Now we have so much knowledge of what it was all about, but at that moment those of us here in New York City were full of fear and confusion. My two daughters were six and four years old on that day. I made this film to help me work through their relationship to the towers, which they perceived as human beings. Their impulse as children was, surprisingly, to anthropomorphize the buildings themselves. They simply could not comprehend the real number of deaths. How could they imagine thousands of people’s lives, over, gone?
In the film, you simply see me filming my hands rummaging through pages from a desktop calendar that had blown from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn that day. It was so eerie, so tactile, so immediate. Now 20 years later, I have perspective, an awareness of the whole history, but I also still feel deep sadness and loss.
Sound design plays a significant part in Tornado (the sounds of the bustling city, the crinkling of the paper, etc.) How do you approach sound design in your work?
Thank you for your sensitivity to the aural aspect of Tornado (3 min. 2002). While I do make feature-length films, this is one of my shortest, one of the films I made most quickly. It reflects the sensation of being alive right after a national crisis. There were still ashes blowing in the air, and yet you see teenagers riding on skateboards and older Italian-American men playing cards in the park. The sound gives an audience the chance to connect to this attempt by all of us to reconnect with what we perceived as normalcy. Over the last two years, I have referred to the pandemic as daunting now. The days right after 9/11 felt very similar.
Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning is a clever subversion of the male gaze. Can you talk about your inspiration for the film as well as the meaning of the title?
You are very observant! During the time that I was making Following the Object to Its Logical Beginning (9 min., 1987, 16mm), I was in a women’s reading group where we were drinking a lot of tea and wine and devouring texts by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. You probably won’t be surprised that I had just discovered Laura Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema at that time. I do believe that she was the first person to develop a theory of the male gaze. I needed to explore that in my own work, so that is exactly what I did in this film.
Still Life with Woman and Four Objects is your tribute to the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman. It reminded me of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. I was wondering how feminism overall has impacted your filmmaking?
Bingo! As I mentioned earlier, Ackerman’s work was and is extremely important to me. Her depiction of a woman trapped by the domestic responsibilities of a single mother trying to make a go of it was a revelation to me. I never thought of it before, but my Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (4 min., 1987, 16mm) image of a woman sitting at a table eating and slicing her food probably came right from my witnessing of Jeanne Dielman’s real-time preparation of a meal, in all it is protracted and aesthetically devised labor. Thirty years later, I was equally inspired by this film in the making of The Washing Society (co-directed with Lizzie Olesker, 45 min., 2018) which is not only streaming on Fandor but also supported by it during our production.
A Biography of Lilith combines Jewish folklore, interviews, music, and poetry. Can you talk about the process of incorporating so many different art forms and inspirations into your film?
Sometimes making my films gives me a great excuse to immerse myself in research and to see how all of the reading I do will influence my creative process. When I first heard the story of Lilith, I was shocked and thrilled to discover that this mythological figure from Jewish mysticism was born from the dirt, not Adam’s rib like Eve later would be. She became his first wife but was then thrown out of the Garden of Eden for wanting to be on top in sex.
I was captivated by this story and all of the folklore that came with it, especially since new mothers were historically told to be afraid of Lilith. She was too willful and aware of her sexuality, which was exactly what attracted me. I discovered Lilith when I was pregnant with my first daughter and finished the film right after I gave birth to my second. My film Biography of Lilith (1997, 35 min. 16mm) is a reflection of all the awe, fear, frustration, and excitement that was part of this experience.
That film is a meditation on your role as a mother. How does motherhood, as well as your perspective as a woman, inform your filmmaking? And vice-versa, how does being a filmmaker impact how view yourself as a mother?
My two daughters Maya Street-Sachs (b. 1995) and Noa Street-Sachs (b. 1997) entered my life as an artist before they were even born through the making of Biography of Lilith. I have made numerous films with them, including Photograph of Wind (3 min. 2001), Noa, Noa (8 min., 2006), The Last Happy Day (37. Min., 2009), and Wind in Our Hair (45 min., 2010) which are all streaming on Fandor. Our daughters enjoy performing and engaging with my filmmaking, or at least this is what they have told me. By integrating my daughters into my life as an artist, I was able to engage with them both creatively and intellectually throughout their childhood.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
I certainly do! For most of my adult life, I’ve collected and saved over 550 small business cards that people have given me – from professional conferences to doctors’ appointments, from film festivals to hardware stores, from art galleries to human rights centers. In these places, I’ve met and engaged with hundreds of people over a period of four decades, and now I’m thinking about how these people’s lives might have affected mine or, in turn, how I might have touched the trajectory of their own journey.
Rifling through the cards, I wonder about each person who offered me this small paper object as a reminder of our encounter. Some meetings were profound, others brief and superficial. And yet, almost every card actually accomplished the mnemonic purpose for which it was created. Holding a card now, a trickle or a flood of memories lands inside my internal vault, and that person’s existence is reinstated in mine. Beginning in 2021, I threw myself into the process of investigating how the component parts of these cards could hold a clue to my understanding of what they are. The concept of making distillations has been at the foundation of my work for a very long time.
As an experimental filmmaker and poet, I am more interested in the associative relationship between two things, two shots, and two words than I am in their cause and effect, or their narrative symbiosis. For me, a distillation like one of these cards is a container for ideas and energy, a concise manifestation of a multi-valent presence that does not depend on exposition. Distillation is not a metaphor; it’s more like metonymy and synecdoche, where a part stands in for a whole, where less might be more.
The Lynne Sachs Collection is now showing on Fandor, our independent film streaming service. Click here to watch the works of Lynne Sachs.
On this twenty-second episode of OLL OBOUT OVID!, on this ONE HUNDREDTH episode of THE SCREEN’S MARGINS, Witney and B have a very special guest! Here to talk with them about her films, which are being showcased on Ovid.tv, is none other than experimental documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs! Among the films discussed in the first half of their chat are SERMONS AND SACRED PICTURES (1989), WHICH WAY IS EAST: NOTEBOOKS FROM VIETNAM (1994), STATES OF UNBELONGING (2005) and YOUR DAY IS MY NIGHT (2013), which are currently on Ovid. The second half of the conversation will be released on February 9th, when five more of Lynne Sachs’ films are released to the service. We hope you enjoy, and thank you for your time!
About Lynne Sachs Lynne Sachs makes films, installations, performances and web projects that explore the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences by weaving together poetry, collage, painting, politics and layered sound design. Strongly committed to a dialogue between cinematic theory and practice, she searches for a rigorous play between image and sound, pushing the visual and aural textures in her work with each and every new project. Between 1994 and 2009, her five essay films took her to Vietnam, Bosnia, Israel, Italy and Germany — sites affected by international war – where she looked at the space between a community’s collective memory and her own subjective perceptions.
Recently, after 25 years of making experimental documentaries, Lynne learned something that turned all her ideas about filmmaking upside down. While working on Your Day is My Night in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York City, she came to see that every time she asked a person to talk in front of her camera, they were performing for her rather than revealing something completely honest about their lives. The very process of recording guaranteed that some aspect of the project would be artificial. She decided she had to think of a way to change that, so she invited her subjects to work with her to make the film, to become her collaborators. For Lynne, this change in her process has moved her toward a new type of filmmaking, one that not only explores the experiences of her subjects, but also invites them to participate in the construction of a film about their lives.
Her films have screened at the New York Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto’s Images Festival and Los Angeles’ REDCAT Theatre as well as a five-film retrospective at the Buenos Aires Film Festival. The San Francisco Cinematheque recently published a monograph with four original essays in conjunction with a full retrospective of Lynne’s work. In 2014, Lynne received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Film and Video.
About Ovid With the help of an unprecedented collaborative effort by eight of the most noteworthy, independent film distribution companies in the U.S., Docuseek, LLC launched an innovative, new, subscription video-on-demand service, OVID.tv.
OVID.tv will provide North American viewers with access to thousands of documentaries, independent films, and notable works of international cinema, largely unavailable on any other platform.
OVID’s initial offerings fall into roughly three categories: a) powerful films addressing urgent political and social issues, such as climate change, and economic justice; b) in-depth selections of creative documentaries by world-famous directors; and c) cutting-edge arthouse feature and genre films by contemporary directors as well as established masters. And new films in all three areas will be added to the OVID collection every two weeks.
OVID.tv is an initiative of Docuseek, LLC, which operates Docuseek, a streaming service for colleges and universities which was established in 2012, streaming a library of over 1600 titles.
The eight founding content partners are:
BULLFROG FILMS The leading U.S. publisher of independently produced documentaries on environmental and related social justice issues, in business for more than 45 years, it currently distributes over 750 titles.
THE DGENERATE FILMS COLLECTION dGenerate Films distributes contemporary independent film from mainland China to audiences worldwide. They are dedicated to procuring and promoting visionary content, fueled by transformative social change and digital innovation.
DISTRIB FILMS US An independent distributor of international feature films, Distrib Films US is known for its strong collection of French and Italian fiction feature films.
FIRST RUN FEATURES Founded in 1979 by a group of filmmakers to advance the distribution of independent film, First Run has been honored with a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art for its significant contributions.
GRASSHOPPER FILM A distribution company founded in 2015 by Ryan Krivoshey, dedicated to the release of independent, foreign, and documentary film.
ICARUS FILMS A leading distributor of documentary films in North America, with a collection exceeding 1000 titles. It recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.
KIMSTIM A distribution company dedicated to the release of exceptional independent, foreign, and documentary film.
WOMEN MAKE MOVIES Women Make Movies (WMM), a non-profit feminist social enterprise based in New York, is the world’s leading distributor of independent films by and about women.
Welcome to the 99th and final podcast from THE SCREEN’S MARGINS of the year! What a year it’s been, and what better way to round out 2021 than by…okay there’s nothing special, it’s just B Peterson and Witney Seibold talking good film that’s available on Ovid.tv, aka the premise of OLL OBOUT OVID! We talk Alain Renais’ 1956 tribute to libraries, Madeline Anderson’s documentation of Civil Rights activism and activists, Lynne Sachs’ experimental explorations of history, language and the documentary form itself, Jill Li’s chronicling of a democratic movement in Southern China, and more besides! We hope you enjoy, and thank you for your time.
An exhibiting filmmaker’s thoughts on the recent online festival, Prismatic Ground.
It began, as so many things do these days, with a tweet: in October 2020, Inney Prakash, programmer of the Maysles Cinema’s “After Civilization” series, put out a call for experimental documentary films. The resulting festival, Prismatic Ground, debuted in early April with a diverse line-up of new and repertory non-fiction films that ran the gamut of genres, styles, and techniques. Imagine: a programmer directly engaging with his community of filmmakers with an open-hearted all-points-bulletin was the antithesis of conventional festival gatekeeping. The refreshing prospect was a beacon to filmmakers struggling to create and exhibit work during a traumatic and hostile time.
Prakash’s call for submissions caught my attention on that fateful October night: for once, my endless Twitter scrolling put me in the right place at the right time. For the last four years, I’d been dutifully at work on a narrative feature concerning Julian of Norwich, an obscure 14th-century woman mystic. With development and production on indefinite hold, I resolved to keep in “fighting shape” by making whatever I could—however I could—about Julian’s ecstatic religious experience. I had originally set out to make a companion piece, a sort of altar to this long-overlooked religious icon. What began as a few standalone tableaux eventually turned into The Sixteen Showings of Julian of Norwich, a bricolage of stop-motion animation, back-projection, and collage.
I was very fortunate to have a job for most of last year, but working well beyond the customary 40 hours a week in these new circumstances was disastrous for my mental health and creative practice. For the first few months of this solitary arrangement, I was lucky if I ended each day with just enough energy to bathe and feed myself. Readers, no doubt, will recognize this feeling immediately—a pervasive fogginess, a dearth of initiative, contained on all sides by fear, dread, and exhaustion. The immediate reaction for many of us possessing an artistic temperament is to heal through the work, to create from a place of self-preservation as a therapeutic exercise (because, to be perfectly honest, very few working artists can afford traditional talk therapy).
After a nights-and-weekends work schedule, I finished a short film in my little office consisting of whatever I had on hand. It’s a wild departure from my usual narrative practice of snappy dialogue and meticulously-designed sets, edging my practice into a heretofore unexplored aesthetic and style.
Sixteen Showings was my first attempt to make a film without in-person collaborations: Tessa Strain’s narration, Matt Macfarlane’s original score, and Eliana Zebrow’s rich sound mix were directed entirely over email. The film was tangential to my would-be narrative feature, but very much apiece with my overarching vision. Finishing this solo effort was a balm—somehow I had made something new despite… well, you know, everything. But what now? Surveying the fruits of this months-long process, I struggled to conceive of a suitable afterlife beyond the customary Vimeo upload. Where could I screen this? What context could there possibly be for a theological exploration of isolation, plague, and revolt? Calling it a “shut-in watercolor movie,” or “moving altar,” while elegiac, didn’t quite fit the bill.
Enter Inney Prakash’s well-timed tweet and timely festival. Emboldened by his transparency and programmatic voice, I steeled myself for yet another humbly-toned inquiry. When Sixteen Showings was selected, I was shocked, ecstatic and, in a way, relieved: if there was an audience for this film, surely I would find it at Prismatic Ground. Having never enjoyed a virtual premiere, I went into the experience as a total neophyte. But for every gripe there was praise in equal measure: the pleasure of connecting with an otherwise distant viewership, public recognition for work made under great duress. Prismatic Ground helped me recontextualize what felt like a moving target. More than a descriptor or genre, “experimental documentary” affords artists a wide berth to do just that: experiment with cinematic and journalistic techniques within a nonfiction framework. To that end, I began to understand the dual significance of Sixteen Showings as a documentary about Julian of Norwich’s life and, by extension, my own.
In a festival space laid low by last year’s pandemic, Prakash saw an opportunity to challenge “the toxic or tedious norms governing festival culture, and to emphasize inclusivity and access.” Where the year’s higher-profile festivals sought to replicate the exclusivity of their in-person events with geo-blocked premiers and Zoom happy hours, Prismatic Ground promised viewers a deliberate antithesis. Its programming, ethos, and even web presence were tailor-made for the online space, prioritizing widespread access and a filmmaker-centered focus on screenings and Q&As. Prakash’s curation was mission-driven: “It was important to me to strike a balance,” he said, “between early career and established filmmakers, palatable and challenging work, passion and polish.” The line-up generously gave equal weight to artists at every stage of their process. Instead of single-film, time-sensitive screenings, audiences enjoyed free reign to explore and engage of their own accord, a heretofore unheard of format—online and off.
Organized in a series of “waves,” Prismatic Ground was structured around four separate collections touching on simultaneously personal and societal themes. It was reassuring to screen Sixteen Showings alongside equally intimate works, each with a different visual and philosophical approach. I was, and still am, grateful to Prakash for including my film. Despite being a newcomer to experimental filmmaking and documentary, I never once felt like an impostor. That feeling carried over to my experience as a viewer as well: these were films unlike any I’d seen, whether due to their newness or, in the case of repertory titles, my own lack of access. I am grateful to the festival for offering an avenue through which to engage with the work of other like-minded artists.
I was eager to hear from my fellow filmmakers about their road to the festival and experience as participants in this bold experiment in public exhibition. While we all arrived through different avenues, I immediately noticed a shared resonance. A wide net-approach to programming naturally attracted filmmakers reeling from the exclusionary nature of the mainstream festival circuit. Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Max (Two Sons and a River of Blood, 2021) was quick to note how “Inney was able to really access all of the different layers of what the piece was doing.” For director Sarah Friedland (Drills, 2020) it was the fervor of how Prakash had “created the festival he wanted to exist, instead of trying to reform an established festival” that drew her to the event.
For filmmakers navigating constraints brought on by the pandemic, and its ongoing economic aftermath, social media provided the sense of community missing from in-person festivals. Elias ZX (You Deserve The Best, 2018) was already familiar with Prakash’s programming work on “After Civilization” when they submitted their film. “We became friends through Twitter, [and] he told me about his plan to make an experimental documentary festival.” Screening online “gave my film space to breathe in a way that is really uncommon for festivals. Every viewer was allowed to have a completely unique experience with the film.” Virginia-based filmmaker Lydia Moyer (The Well-Prepared Citizen’s Solution, 2020) saw the festival as a chance to broaden and strengthen these seemingly disparate filmmaking communities. “As a person who lives in a rural place, it’s great that so much interesting work has been available this year to anyone who’s got enough bandwidth (literally and figuratively).” Moyer said. “The way this is set up is for online viewing, not just trying to transfer an in-person experience online.”
Programming the work of early career filmmakers alongside more established artists was more than a canny curatorial choice. The variety presented across these four waves expanded the audience’s access to repertory titles, while simultaneously reiterating the connection between both older and more recent offerings. Prismatic Ground’s streaming platform and presentation stood out for director Chris Harris (Reckless Eyeballing, 2004), who “had some streaming experiences that weren’t so happy in terms of the technical aspects.” The festival’s creative exhibition format was especially taken by “the mix of programming, special live events, and the flexibility of accommodating filmmakers with the option of live and recorded Q&As.” For prolific filmmaker Lynne Sachs, Prismatic Ground represented “an entirely new, unbelievably adventurous, compassionate approach to the viewing of experimentally driven cinema,” emphasizing that the festival itself was “beyond anything I have ever seen in my life.”
Among the filmmakers I spoke with, Prismatic Ground’s liberal approach to exhibition belied a tremendous sense of potential for artists navigating a post-COVID festival ecosystem. Harris noticed an “[increasing] festival bandwidth for underseen/emerging Black experimental filmmakers,” a tendency that he “[hopes] to see continue after COVID.” In lieu of a return to in-person only screenings, the general consensus saw streaming as a fixture in future festivals. “I don’t think it is going to be possible to put the toothpaste back in the tube here,” noted Zx, emphasizing that “more access will be good for filmmakers… and will challenge programmers to be more competitive, to release more obscure films that are harder to find.”
Prakash’s groundbreaking work has already heeded the call, citing critic Abby Sun’s Berlin Critics’ Week essay “On Criticism” as a guiding principle. “Festivals aren’t merely reacting to social conditions,” Sun writes. “They are often the primary creators of them.” Prismatic Ground’s focus on diverse curation and access reaches well beyond the artistic ramifications. Prakash’s end goal is emboldening, a manifesto of sorts: “Enough of premiere politics, prohibitive pricing, playing only the same handful of films at every festival. Let’s create better conditions. There is a moral imperative to keep doing virtual screenings now that we know we can and how.”
Prismatic Ground is a new film festival centered on experimental documentary. The inaugural edition of the festival, founded by Inney Prakash, will be hosted virtually in partnership with Maysles Documentary Center and Screen Slate. Catch the ‘Opening Night,’ ‘Centerpiece,’ and ‘Closing Night’ events live via Screen Slate’s Twitch channel. The rest of the films, split into four loosely themed sections or ‘waves’, will be available for the festival’s duration at prismaticground.com and through maysles.org. On April 10, at 4PM ET, Prismatic Ground will present the inaugural Ground Glass Award for outstanding contribution in the field of experimental media to Lynne Sachs. Other live engagements TBA.
1. How did Prismatic Ground get on your radar, and what drew you to the festival?
I met Prismatic Ground Film Festival director Inney Prakash about a year ago when I was teaching my very first virtual film and poetry workshop at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem where Inney works as a programmer. Of course, the workshop was supposed to be a face-to-face experience, but it was May of 2020 and there was no way that was going to happen! We were living in the beginning of a global pandemic! Inney was a critical part of our pivot to an online experience that could nourish participants from anywhere in the world. To our surprise, it worked extraordinarily well and 17 participants from the US, Ireland and Uruguay collaborated on making a series of fantastic video poems. From that point on, I have a feeling that Inney started to think that anything was possible in terms of making and viewing non-commercial, experimental documentaries. A few months later, he wrote to me to ask me if I would accept the first ever Ground Glass Award from his new founded Prismatic Ground Film Festival. I love the name of the award and thoroughly understand the meaning of the term “ground glass” since I have been making 16mm films since the mid 1980s! By the way, “ground glass” is the frosted glass surface in a film camera that allows the light projected from the lens to bounce off of a mirror and then be recorded as an image on the film surface.
2. What has your experience been with virtual premieres and screenings? And how has Prismatic Ground been different, if at all?
I had four films circulating in 2020 and 2021, “A
Month of Single Frames” (14 min) and “Film About a Father Who” (74 min.), “Girl
is Presence” (4 min.), and “Epistolary: Letter to Jean Vigo” (5 min.), plus career
retrospectives at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City and at the
Sheffield Doc/ Fest in the UK. I was also on the jury for the Ann Arbor Film
Festival and the FestCurtas Belo Horizante Film Festival in Brazil. It’s been a
daunting but exciting year. Everything was virtual, but somehow it worked. I
loved these experiences and felt that they successfully brought filmmakers from
all over the world together. The “in real life” experience can often be quite
elitist just because air travel and hotel accommodations are so extraordinarily
Ground embraced an entirely new, unbelievably adventurous yet compassionate
approach to the viewing of experimentally driven cinema, beyond anything I have
never seen in my life. Inney presented
such an astonishing array of FREE work, never privileging a feature film over a
shorter work, or a more accessible film over a more challenging one. His Q and A’s were informed, respectful and
want to say something about the festival website design and graphics which
subtly forced all of us as audience to watch the films with focus and
commitment. You could not scroll through
a film or go backward or forward. While you were allowed to pause, you could
not be a dilettante and hop around from one film to another without losing your
place in a movie. This created the
closest experience to the one we have in a theater that I have ever witnessed
online. In addition, the aesthetics of the website allowed Inney to frame each
film on a page in relationship to others in the same “wave” which meant that
you were always aware of his curating and the intricate relationships and
themes he wanted you to recognize between the films.
Do you have a dream vision for a post-COVID festival ecosystem? Can be as broad
as “more digital screenings,” or as specific as “curated
specifically for underseen/experimental artists,” anything at all.
I think that the virtual is here to stay, but I also am praying for a return to being in a space with other people, with all the breaths, whispers, laughs, weeping, and shuffling of our bodies. We must accept that the virtual is vital. It allows homebound, less affluent audiences to access work outside mainstream, commercially driven movie culture. It can also put less emphasis on box office revenue which means experimental, underground, alternative cinema can travel on the magic carpet of the internet. I have noticed that more and more people throughout the world are becoming interested in the history of avant-garde film. They are discovering the work of artists like Jonas Mekas, Chick Strand, William Greaves, Carolee Schneemann Fernando Solanas and others, not just in museums or in classrooms, but at home. This is a revolution of the mind, the eye and the ear!
4. How has the last year of relative isolation influenced your work, if at all?
Despite the annus horribilis of 2020 (and
beyond), I have actually met really interesting, dynamic, risk-taking people in
the filmmaking community, all through the virtual portal of Zoom. For example,
I was incredibly sad not to be able to attend the retrospective of my work at
the Sheffield Doc/ Fest and at Prismatic Ground, but I was still able to meet
Trinidadian essay filmmaker Che Applewhaite through our shared screenings at both
festivals. Over the last few months, we have corresponded a great deal and recently
even managed to meet in person here in NYC.
As I mentioned, I was on the jury for the 2020
Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Belo Horizante International Short Film
Festival in Brazil. While I was not able to talk, face-to-face, or hang out in
local bars with my fellow jury members after the screenings, we did develop
quite profound relationships that allowed us to share our aesthetic passions
and our personal pandemic struggles.
artist, I was able to make several short films that reflected my thinking
during these troubling times. One of my most lasting discoveries has been that
you can actually make collaborative work with artists from anywhere on the
globe, and that this interactive experience can be revelatory. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this
could be possible. Over the course of the last year, I found creative and
intellectual comrades with whom I could work on such a surprising and
generative level. Who knew?