August 2020, arsenal cinema

Black Light

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, 1991

The retrospective Black Light of the Locarno Film Festival, curated by Greg de Cuir Jr., which had to be interrupted in March, continues with a selection of 13 films, focusing mainly on those from the US made between the 1910s and 1991. Given the huge quantity and variety of films that explore being black, this selection only offers a rudimentary insight and should be understood as an open suggestion. To what extent can films made in very different contexts be summed up under one heading? “Black cinema can not just be limited to a definition of who is behind or in front of the camera,” says de Cuir. This program is about finding common forms of experiences, but also exploring divisions and issues with regard to racism, self-empowerment and representation. We are very pleased that Greg de Cuir Jr will be with us on the first two evenings of our program. On the second, he will talk with the filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson who is currently a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. “I tried to position this as a retrospective that would be thematic but also geographical in a sense, or at least very international. (…)The first framework was the 20th century. I wanted it to be a retrospective that looks back like a true retrospective and I wanted it to focus on the 20th century for that reason. (...) I didn’t want to focus on Africa because for me, that is a different retrospective that requires a different approach, tools, criteria and ethics. I wanted to focus on what happened after Africa, after people were forced to leave and were situated in different nations and contexts to survive and flourish. What are those situations and what do they look like in film culture across the 20th century? That was the focus. (...) I would say I wanted to do a wide variety of directors that are coming from different nations, different races, different religions, different genders, different ethnicities, who all have in common this investigation and elaboration, this celebration of black cultures and black peoples on screen.(…) I would say that I wanted to bring a sort of survey of the different decades to try to show a little bit of what’s happening in as many decades as possible. (...)”(Greg de Cuir Jr in mubi.com/notebook)”

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (Julie Dash, USA/GB 1991, 1.7. & 20.8.) Set at the beginning of the 20th century on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, the film tells the story of several generations of Gullah, the descendants of enslaved people from West Africa. The Peazant family is meeting one last time before migrating to the mainland. The main focus of the film, shot by one of the most important cinematographers of African-American cinema Arthur Jafa, is the women, who have preserved the cultural heritage of their ancestors. The non-linear narrative is reminiscent of West African oral culture. “I wanted to tell the story like an African griot would. A griot is a man hired by families at celebrations– weddings, funerals, reunions – who over a period of several days would recount the family’s history. There would be many breaks – for a meal, for this or that. I wanted to structure the story the way he would tell it.” (Julie Dash)

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (Spike Lee, USA 1986, 3. & 10.7.) Nola Darling is a self-confident woman who refuses to give in to expectations and to choose between her three lovers. Brooklyn, which has not yet become so gentrified, provides the setting for this film about a radically independent heroine who addresses the camera directly and from time to time brings splashes of color to a world that is otherwise filmed in black-and-white. Spike Lee‘s directorial debut marked the beginning of a new era for African-American cinema. Shot on a small budget of $175,000 with friends and family members, it ended up making 10 million.

THE HARDER THEY COME (Perry Henzell, Jamaica 1972, 3. & 25.7.) “You can get it if you really want”: The reggae star Jimmy Cliff plays Ivanhoe Martin, a young man from the country who comes to the slums of the Jamaican capital Kingston looking for work. After his possessions are stolen, he tries to make a living repairing bicycles and making music but it’s only when he starts dealing marijuana and killing cops that he achieves money and fame. The character of Martin was based on the real-life outlaw Rhyging, who was a hero in the 1940s. Henzell set his film in the 1970s, making a vibrant, insolent and colorful film that he saw as an expression of Jamaican identity. It achieved cult status in the US, particularly after it started being screened at midnight. The soundtrack, which featured Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, The Maytals and The Melodians, played a major role popularizing reggae internationally.

ORFEU NEGRO (Marcel Camus, Brazil/F/I 1959, 4.7. & 7.8.) Euridice turns up in Rio de Janeiro where carnival preparations are underway and meets the tram conductor Orfeu, who plays guitar with a samba school. When they meet again, they fall in love. But then a figure dressed as death turns up amid the wild carnival festivities and begins to follow Euridice. The Brazilian writer Vinícius de Moraes was inspired by the Greek myth about the singer Orpheus who tries to retrieve his lover Euridice from the underworld for his 1956 play Orfeu da Conceição and the French filmmaker Marcel Camus took this as his basis to make what has become one of the most famous film documents of Afro-Brazilian culture. The soundtrack combines samba with its roots in Africa and Bossa nova, which was developing in the 1950s and became world famous thanks to this film.

WHITE DOG (Samuel Fuller, USA 1982, 9. & 22.7.) While driving at night, the actor Julie Sawyer spots a white dog that seems to be injured on the road and takes it home with her. Then she discovers that it is a “white dog”, a dog trained to attack black people and kill them. The dog trainer Keys attempts to rid the dog of its hatred. Samuel Fuller’s career was coming to an end when he was asked to direct the film that was based on a novel by Romain Gary. The result is unmistakably a Fuller work, a highly-concentrated tale with dynamic, at times brutally direct, images that is gripping and has a clear message. Upon release, this exceptional film, a lucid appeal for tolerance and forgiveness, was misunderstood as being racist and only gained well-deserved acclaim years later.

ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (Robert Wise, USA 1959, 10.7. & 26.8.) The aging white criminal David Burke comes up with the perfect plan for a bank robbery that he thinks cannot go wrong. His accomplices are the black musician Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) who has a gambling problem and urgently has to pay off some debts and the white ex-convict Earle Slater who distrusts him and threatens to mess everything up. With its morally complex characters, this film noir directed by an old hand in Hollywood was an ideal vehicle for exploring the themes of racism, fears and tensions in society. It was produced by Harry Belafonte and his HarBel Productions company whose aim was to expand and diversify the representation of African-Americans in Hollywood cinema.

THE COOL WORLD (Shirley Clarke, USA 1963, 11. & 31.7.) New Yorker Shirley Clarke was a pioneer of independent US cinema, with an interest in non-linear narratives and a documentary aesthetic. In THE COOL WORLD she used a visual language without frills to tell the story of Duke, a 14-year-old member of a Harlem street gang who gets it into his head that he needs a weapon to become the leader. The raw energy of Harlem was directly transmitted by a jazz soundtrack by Dizzy Gillespie, and despite its depiction of daily life and dysfunctional families, drugs, violence and marginalization, this film was not a work of social reportage.

A DRY WHITE SEASON (Euzhan Palcy, USA 1989, 16.7. & 21.8.) is about the gradual political awakening of a white South African man in 1976. History teacher Ben (Donald Sutherland) leads a comfortable life that could not be more different from the harsh reality of his black compatriots. He still believes in the system when the son of his gardener Gordon is brutally beaten up by police at a demonstration calling for education rights and then murdered in jail. But when Gordon himself disappears without a trace, he starts having doubts and is forced to admit that South Africa’s legal system is a farce. Born in Martinique and educated in Paris, Euzhan Palcy was the first female black director of a film produced by a major Hollywood studio. She travelled to Soweto undercover to conduct research ahead of the film, which was at a clear indictment of apartheid but also a gripping mainstream film with American stars Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon and Marlon Brando alongside famous South African actors Zakes Mokae and Winston Ntshona.

WITHIN OUR GATES (Oscar Micheaux, USA 1919, 17.7., on piano: Eunice Martins) A young woman moves to the South to become a teacher in an under-financed school. She travels to Boston to collect funds and meets a doctor and philanthropist who support her cause. “Oscar Micheaux’s bold, forceful melodrama, from 1919—the oldest surviving feature by a black American director—unfolds the vast political dimensions of intimate romantic crises. (…) With a brisk and sharp-edged style, Micheaux sketches a wide view of black society, depicting an engineer with an international career, a private eye with influential friends, a predatory gangster, devoted educators—and the harrowing ambient violence of Jim Crow, which he shows unsparingly and gruesomely. Along with his revulsion at the hateful rhetoric and murderous tyranny of Southern whites, Micheaux displays a special satirical disgust for a black preacher who offers his parishioners Heaven as a reward for their unquestioning submissiveness. Micheaux’s narrative manner is as daring as his subject matter, with flashbacks and interpolations amplifying the story.” (Richard Brody)

KILLER OF SHEEP (Charles Burnett, USA 1978, 17.7. & 7.8.) A number of black filmmakers studying at UCLA from the late 1960s onwards started looking for alternative ways of representing African-American life to those found in classical Hollywood cinema and also Blaxpoitation films. The key figure of what became known as the L.A Rebellion was the cameraman and director Charles Burnett. His grainy and poetic black-and-white shows vignettes of the life of the sensitive dreamer Stan, who lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. Simple pleasures, such as dancing or drinking a cup of coffee, allow Stan to forget the harsh realities of life for short moments. A "heroic demystification" (David E. James) of the working class, far from any sort of romantic clichés and carried by jazz and blues sounds.

LA PERMISSION / STORY OF A THREE-DAY-PASS (Melvin Van Peebles, F 1966, 25.7. & 21.8.) The young Afro-American soldier Turner is stationed in France. On leave, he meets a French woman and spends the weekend with her. “With a script financed for $60,000 by the CNC and shot over six weeks in Paris and Étretat with a $200,000 budget, Melvin Van Peebles' first feature film takes a counterintuitive approach to the question of racism. Rather than dealing with economic and social injustices or police persecution, La permission elaborates a situation where its protagonist, a young soldier stationed on an American military base in France, is slowly filled with happiness. But at every moment and through every channel (language, gesture, fantasy...), misunderstandings, misinterpretations, mistakes, and prejudices are introduced that reign not only between people but also within the psyche. At the peak of joy, the conscience remains wounded; the highest pleasure is reached by climbing up the scaffold of compensation; separation is at work within fusion. In a racist world, there is not the slightest psychic salvation, whatever success an individual fate may have. But this permanent disagreement of the self with itself, between self and the world, populates the image and soundtrack with doublings, superimpositions, and symmetric and asymmetric echoes that attest to cinema's genius in understanding the affective resonances of a conflict that traverses, structures, and goes beyond its actors.» (Nicole Brenez)

LOSING GROUND (Kathleen Collins, USA 1982, 1. & 15.8.) The New York philosophy professor Sarah works on artistic ecstasy. Her husband Victor (Bill Gunn) has just sold a painting to a museum and wants to spend the summer in upstate New York, regardless of the fact that she needs access to a library for her work. He falls for the country life and for another woman; she takes revenge by accepting a role in one of her students’ films. Reminiscent of Eric Rohmer in its lightness and subtlety, this comedy about the complex relationship of a middle-class couple was Kathleen Collins‘ first and last feature film. She died of cancer at the age of 46 in 1988. The film received little attention and wasn’t distributed in the US. Released in 2015, it has since enjoyed the status of an almost forgotten masterpiece.

GANJA & HESS (Bill Gunn, USA 1973, 1. & 15. 8.) In this horror film, the anthropologist Hess Green (Duane Jones, the lead in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) is conducting research about the Myrthians, a made-up ancient African nation of blood drinkers. One day, his psychologically unstable assistant (played by the director Bill Gunn himself) injures him with a dagger that the Myrthians used for their ceremonies before killing himself. The next day, Green’s wound is healed but he himself becomes possessed with the need to drink blood. He starts a relationship with his late assistant’s wife. In the wake of the success of Blaxploitation films, an independent production company commissioned the theater director Bill Gunn to make a vampire horror. Gunn delivered an a work that was experimental, oneiric, hypnotic and mysterious from the very first minute and one in which the vampire myth is an allegory. The original version was well received in Cannes, but a US box office flop, which is why the producers released alternative versions. We are screening the original version of this bold film poem, which was reconstructed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (al/gv)

arsenal cinema: Forum 50

08:00 pm Cinema 1


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Helvio Soto Chile 1970 35 mm OV with German and Swedish ST 83 min
Showing first: *La bandera que levantamos
Mario Jacob, Eduardo Terra Uruguay 1971 16 mm OV/GeS 14 min

Introduced by Cristina Nord