DISSENT ! Lav Diaz


11 November 2015 14:00, Bozar Cinema, Brussels.

Lav Diaz in conversation with Stoffel Debuysere, preceded by a screening of Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History) (2013, 250′). In the context of the Lav Diaz Retrospective Brussels/Antwerp (10/09 – 26/11/15).

“The endless search for redemption is man’s gift and curse–because man can’t be relegated to the generic, to being a genre, to being just a dreaded cliché; because man comprehends the need for change, for progress; because man comprehends the perils of retrogression and relapse. And so, he struggles for the ideal. Struggling for the ideal means man will perpetually suffer, and thus, the vision of redemption becoming perpetually inherent to liberate him from that suffering. Hence, his concept of humanity is redemption. And his concept of redemption is great humanism. The thesis of my cinema gravitates to this discourse. Art is part of that struggle. I am trying to be part of the struggle.”

How to come to terms with the history of a country that is haunted by memories of colonization, rebellion and oppression, a country that continues to wrestle with itself in search for meaning and identity? The weight of this question makes itself felt in every frame, in every face, breath and gesture inhabiting the films of Lav Diaz. From his feature debut, Serafin Geronimo: Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), to his latest From What Is Before (2014), all of his films are deeply rooted in the history and politics of his home country, the Philippines. They bear the wounds of a troubled past that have never been able to heal, as the shadows cast by the Spanish and American colonization, the conflict between Moro Muslims and Christians, and Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of Martial Law still loom heavily over the country. Even though the dictatorship has come to an end almost thirty years ago, the harms and injuries produced by the past have never seemed to wither away, but have grown ever more inward. This legacy of trauma and disempowerment, of “stifled hands and silenced voices,” as Alexis Tioseco wrote, is what can be felt reverberating in Lav Diaz’ shattering tragedies of sin, guilt and redemption.

It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that 19th century Russian literature, especially the work of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, has never been far from his mind. Already in Serafin Geronimo, which starts out with a quote from Crime and Punishment, Diaz seems to have established his main theme: the search for redemption, a theme which continues to run through his oeuvre, from the Tolstoy-inspired Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), in which a onetime political prisoner confronts his former interrogator, to Norte, the End of History (2013), which begins with a Raskolnikov-like figure committing murder, but develops into an allegory about Marcos. And just as the Russian novelists sought to depict “the Russian soul” by making full use of the temporal spaciousness of their prose epics, Diaz’ portrayals of the lives and suffering of the Filipino people unfold over epic lengths of time, stretching over multiple hours. This duration gives Diaz a grand canvas on which he patiently sketches painstaking diagrams of the factors and events that shape the multiple, interconnected lives of the people he observes, unfurling into panoramic meditations on morality, violence and death, torn between humanist faith and materialist despair.

Cinema as window onto the troubled soul of the world, as a quest for the inner life of reality in all its mystery and ambiguity: in Lav Diaz’ work yesteryear’s dream of André Bazin appears to have found a contemporary follower, a filmmaker who is not about to tone down his search any time soon. As he himself has said, “I would go to any extent in my art to fathom the mystery of humankind’s existence. I want to understand death. I want to understand solitude. I want to understand struggle. I want to understand the philosophy of a growing flower in the middle of a swamp.”

The Lav Diaz Retrospective Brussels/Antwerp is a collaboration between CINEMATEK, Courtisane, BOZAR, VDFC, University of Antwerp, Cinema Zuid, Jeu de Paume, Paris, Le Festival d’Automne à Paris, Austrian Film Museum, Cineteca Bologna and with the support of the Philippine Embassy in Belgium. On November 10–12 the filmmaker will be present in person to talk about his work, as well as that of Lino Brocka, who has made an indelible mark on the culture and cinema of the Philippines, and to whom Diaz paid homage in Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004).

DISSENT ! is an initiative of Argos, Auguste Orts and Courtisane, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent), with support of VG.


How can the relation between cinema and politics be thought today? Between a cinema of politics and a politics of cinema, between politics as subject and as practice, between form and content? From Vertov’s cinematographic communism to the Dardenne brothers’ social realism, from Straub-Huillet’s Brechtian dialectics to the aesthetic-emancipatory figures of Pedro Costa, from Guy Debord’s radical anti-cinema to the mainstream pamphlets of Oliver Stone, the quest for cinematographic representations of political resistance has taken many different forms and strategies over the course of a century. The multiple choices and pathways that have gradually been adopted, constantly clash with the relationship between theory and practice, representation and action, awareness and mobilization, experience and change. Is cinema today regaining some of its old forces and promises? Are we once again confronted with the questions that Serge Daney asked a few decades ago? As the French film critic wrote: “How can political statements be presented cinematographically? And how can they be made positive?”. These issues are central in a series of conversations in which contemporary perspectives on the relationship between cinema and politics are explored.

Notes on courtisane (3)

What is a festival but a way of being together? Please don’t take this the wrong way: we do not want to rekindle the great flowerings of communalism that came with the era of hippies and bohemians in the 1960s and early 1970s. Holding hands and singing roaring chants of freedom and harmony? No, this is not the time for the kinds of new age utopianism that tend to advance a collective and contemplative withdrawal from the meaningless chaos of the world. Besides, there’s already plenty of European-style Buddhism to go round, whether it is pursued by taking up yoga, birdwatching or botany, or by reading step-by-step guides on how to reclaim the inner child. And there’s already more than enough babbling and blathering on the bliss and comfort of local community lifestyles and the empowerment of citizens as merry prosumers to last us a lifetime. We are not promising you a rose garden, and neither are we claiming to be some kind of bastion of resistance that could offer a safe haven from all the rubbish and rubble that keeps coming our way.

But isn’t cinema meant to be a vehicle for escapism, you say. Isn’t the world of appearances shimmering in front of our eyes meant to sweep us away to another world, where we can dream of being somewhere else, someone other? Perhaps, but not only. We like to think there’s more to cinema than meets the eye. True enough, what is in front of you is merely a surface, it is not some portal to unknown destinies, from which we return with bloodshed eyes and newfangled convictions. The screen is not some membrane that is capable of producing new cerebral circuits and revitalizing the lost link between us and our world. It remains a surface, but one that allows for a process of exchange: between what we get to see and what we come to remember, the sounds and voices we hear and the dreams and hopes we foster, the apparitions before us and the world around us. We all hear, see, feel, “understand” a film in as much as we compose it into our own cinematic poem. Not that it comes easy, on the contrary: it takes work. But the work is yours to do, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. At the risk of sounding too corny: perhaps we can think of a festival as a vast collection of poems. In which case they are yours as much as they are anyones.

Cinema is something else too: it is a place, and it is a culture. There might not be much left, at least in comparison to the good ol’ days of cinephile glory, but what good would it do to drift into the melancholic morass of nostalgia? So we keep treading forward, one step at a time, not really blind but certainly not all-seeing either. Tentatively, sometimes carefully, sometimes impatiently, we’re groping our way towards something that never stops taking shape. Surely, there are various silhouettes and outlines we are imagining while we make headway. One of the things we love to do is to devise associations: for example, between the work of Pedro Costa and Thom Andersen, who come from very different backgrounds but seem to have so much in common; between Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays itself and the films of the L.A. Rebellion movement that feature in it; between Paul Robeson’s singing voice in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and his appearance in Oscar Micheaux’s Body & Soul, which will here be infused with new life by William Hooker; between Costa’s Horse Money and the music of Jakob Ullmann, both of which owe a great deal to Olivier Messiaen. But these are just some of the countless possible connections – or disconnections – that can be made within this festival program. To each one’s own resonances, as to each one’s poem.

So here we are, amongst this collection of poems, amidst this chamber of resonances. And since we are all here, perhaps we can ask ourselves: what is it that we can do together?

Written on the occasion of the courtisane festival 2015

In Remembrance of Shadows Forgotten


Transcript of a short Q&A with Pedro Costa, after a screening of Juventude em Marcha (2006) during the courtisane festival 2015.

After having just seen Juventude em marcha again, and Casa de Lava yesterday, I couldn’t help noticing quite a few resonances between the films: for example, the reference to the title, the card playing, the letter, … As if there’s some kind of continuous movement of rediscovery, re-imagination, reinvention. Do you consider your films as part of an ongoing work of progress?

More or less. It’s doing something in cinema that I can’t do in life, which is to continue side by side with the same people, loving and caring for them. It’s very simple. It’s being very afraid of people dying and going away… I like being in the same places, in the same spaces. Doing the same work. That’s why things seem to have this continuity or this permanence. The filmmakers that I like also have their own small part of the world. You’re there, you stay there and you remain more or less faithful to that.

Like John Ford going back to Monumental Valley?

A little bit. There’s always a difference between life and cinema. But it’s a conversation, an attempt to balance something. In cinema I think I can balance better than in life.

I remember Daniéle Huillet once saying that the most important aspect of filmmaking is the collective work. Earlier you mentioned that you have no convictions, at least not the kind of convictions that filmmakers like Straub and Huillet have. Is this collectivity, this search for a kind of solidarity something that keeps you going?

It’s one of the things, yes. I had this panic moment in my “professional” life, let’s say. There was a moment when I said: “I don’t like what I’m doing, I don’t like the way it’s done”. I didn’t even like to go to see films, except for the Fords and the Ozus. It was boring. So I said: “something has to change”. So something changed. But it was a very frightening moment. Then I discovered things – or perhaps they were just mysteriously there: a certain place and people and words and colors … They were there and I thought: “perhaps these are the things that I’m here for”. That was twenty years ago or more, and it’s still new every day. My ideas for making films depend on that place. Now it’s not even a place anymore, it’s an imaginary place, because that particular place does not exist anymore. What you see in Juventude em marcha is the moment when the change happened, between the old place and the new place, the transformation to new rules and new lives. But it’s still there, the community is still resisting a little bit. This solidarity between us still exists. Making these films depends on a lot of things that are not the usual spices of filmmaking. Of course it’s money, machines, camera, energy, desire. But then it’s also a lot of different things that I wouldn’t like to tell you about, because it seems very abstract and sentimental. You don’t have to know about that.

Is it still frightening for you? Is the fear still there?

Yes, for everybody. Because it’s very connected to something which is essential. It’s the core or heart of cinema: what’s next? It’s very frightening. It’s always there when you’re involved in making films: what is the next shot, what comes after this? Well, Hitchcock knew about all of that.

Where does the desire for making a new film stem from? If I’m not mistaken Juventude em marcha started with a memory of Ventura.

This came more from me, I think. The making of the film before, No Quarto da Vanda, was very traumatic. It was about a lot of young people, people in very problematic situations: there were drugs, suicidal cases, it was very tough. Some of them never saw the film. Even Vanda held a very critical distance, even though she is, I could say, the co-director of the film – she did almost as much of directing as I did. So after this film, after working with people of more or less my age I thought I would like to see different ages, I would like to see how it started, that place I thought I knew then. So I wanted to do some kind of historiography or anthropology. It still is a bit sociological. I really like sociological films. I really do. Like Thom’s (Andersen) films for instance. Remember: sociology used to have a good name – like shoemakers. I’m fed up with philosophy in cinema, I prefer sociology or anthropology. For me, Ventura was a kind of detective or historian, going around collecting memories and stories. This mysterious, more abstract moment in this shack with his partner, for me, is the past, the beginning of the present.

There seems to be a tension between two approaches, two modes of consideration: on one hand there is what you call “anthropology” or what others might call the “documentation” aspect – chronicling the lives of the people you work with. But on the other hand the films also has this epic, mythological side, something that’s even more present in your new film, Cavalo Dinheiro. Is that what you meant when you earlier talked about the struggle with realism?

I think you can say that of other filmmakers work too. Probably it comes from Straub. But it also comes from filmmakers before Straub, this epic tradition – it’s not even a tradition, it’s an affection. You cannot but try to treat these people with the best lens you can get. I have a very shitty machine, but my lenses I think are ok. They have to be seen like they’ve never been seen before. It’s a bit of a cliché but they have to be bigger than their lives, the lives as they are represented in the papers or on tv. It has to be something else. And it was something else with Brecht, Ford, Straub, Godard, Bunuel, poetry too – the letters in this film come from the French poet Robert Desnos – all these guys… From some it comes visually more obvious, for others it comes from another aspect of their work. For instance this film is really between an odyssey, an epical voyage, and what in music or poetry you can call an elegy. An elegy you sometimes do for past, dead friends, or lovers, people you admire.

You were just talking about the need to search for new approaches, for “something else”. Does this get harder within the limitations that you have set for yourself or do you have the impression that you are getting closer to some kind of “secret”?

There’s no secret. There’s fear, being afraid of what’s next, of what comes up, of what tomorrow will bring. But there’s really no secret. You only get older, your body gets weaker, your mind gets a little bit less clear… In cinema it’s very simple: you get used to something and if you’re serious you get more aware of certain details, like in painting. I’ve always liked routine. Every time I have my camera with someone, It’s like it always used to be, and that’s very reassuring for me. That’s why I changed production mode, let’s say. I hated the variety, the novelty, the newer and the bigger – that kind of ideology and mythology of difference-making. It’s very present in filmmaking today, but I don’t care for it. For me it’s the same old thing, the same old shot, the same old work. Even the people I work with never change. I would like it to be like that forever. But we have to change sometimes and I think it’s bad – I made a film called “Don’t Change”, so…

What do the films mean for the people you work with? Is it just work for them? What happens when you show the films?

Their relation to cinema is different than mine. They work and they act in the films, but it stops there. I don’t believe in this mythology of how cinema can change their lives or how making films is good for them. Perhaps it is a little bit – though not on the financial side, because they get very little money, like myself… But I have always worked with people who are more on the unemployment or retirement side, people who are there, just there. That’s also important because they are people who have a distance, have a way of thinking about or looking at things, like Vanda, Ventura or now Vitalina. They have this, I almost could say “unemployed” look at things. Vitalina is terrible and terrifying but that’s very useful for me, because it’s critical, powerful. There’s a tension, a certain kind of dramatic tension that I could perhaps not get from actors, something that you cannot fake. I’m not only interested in artistic qualities or the tensions that you can see – the eyes, the hands, the words – but I’m interested in the truth of that, doing that kind of work. If you’re a serious filmmaker, artist or teacher you are or should be naturally interested in the question of how we can make things better, how can we solve problems, asking ourselves “what happened? Why is it so bad, so difficult between us, so dark and cold?” There are no good films but these ones. But it’s becoming more difficult – I created my own prison, that’s the problem now. I still believe I have my freedom in this way, but it’s also a prison, a very confined space. I’m more and more making the films with leftovers. Well, it used to be leftovers, like In Vanda’s Room. When I say leftovers, I mean I didn’t have any money to make the film, I made it with the most awful camera in the world – I mean, she’s my adored friend, I owe everything to her, but you can buy it in the Media market. I mean it’s not what cinema wanted. I did In Vanda’s Room with cigarettes and change. Vanda used to say something every day that made me cry. She used to say: “I could have been a girl”. That’s unbearable. So the film was made with those ruins. Now there are not even ruins left. I’m making the films with what they allow me to make the films with. Which is also very good because it reduces my small space even more and that makes me think: how can I solve this dramatic problem, visual, sound, … ? But every filmmaker has his or her own kind of method or working, of moving forward or backward.

I remember you saying that you would like to work more with the younger generations in that neighborhood. Has that proved to be more difficult?

You don’t see them in the films, but they help me. I don’t know what the future will bring. By chance I was drawn to Ventura and then to other people, to this memory lane. Now I’m stuck in this thing, because I don’t have anything else. I don’t have the money or even the desire to do much more than watch people remember. We’ll probably move closer to theater, or to some form of theater.

Or musical, like Horse Money?

Yes, or between both. With music and theater you’re safe, you’re home free. The problem is that cinema refuses a little bit the word and music. I’m not Godard or Ozu or Ford to make those kinds of things. Somebody up there talking or singing or just the music pouring out of there, you don’t do it just like that. It’s very difficult, hard work.

(Then, one of my most beautiful memories of the festival: a young girl comes all the way down from the last row of seats to tell Pedro she loves the way the people in his films move, stand, gesture and touch one another. She asks “I wonder how consciously do you ask them to do this?” Thank you Manon.)

It’s not like there’s only one way. Each person is very different. Because they are not actors, there’s something that they can give me and you and cinema that actors can perhaps not. Mind you: I’m not against working with actors: there are very good ones, I love some. But these people, they give some very small – or large – mainly priceless things that you cannot pay for, cannot dream up. Each one of them has their own singular movement. In Colossal Youth, There’s this scene with Ventura playing a record, while the other guy is drawing or doing something on the table. I thought that scene should have been shorter than it is. Now it sways very slowly with the music and that’s because Ventura felt like doing it like that. It’s not a question of direction or organization. I remember I said that the scene was too long. Sometimes, you get afraid and you don’t really realize what you’re doing. Because I have a lot of things to take care of, lots of things I’m worried about, so many things escape me. Sometimes you think “this is going on forever”, so you try to speed it up. I could never with him. It’s just his tempo, his way of moving, of expressing himself. Vanda is completely different. You can see that. What’s interesting is the shock, the confrontation between them, it’s like movements that collide. When Ventura and Vanda are both on the bed, it’s amazing because she’s always very stressed, nervous, paranoid and he always seems very calm. But I know that he was much more tense than she was. He was really nervous about everything, about her, her state of mind and condition. This is interesting with people who are not actors. With actors it tends to be predictable, here it’s in constant motion – from the first to the second take, everything can change, the position, the speed… if they want to. I’m not the director of everything: moving a finger is something I cannot dream of, something I don’t want to imagine. Those things are always very surprising.

Do you discover these little things while editing? I know you never liked to watch rushes.

Today there’s no more rushes, we have camera’s that have their own lcd screen. I see it immediately, everyone does. In Vanda’s room usually there was Vanda and her sister or someone else, and when somebody got off-screen, they came to sit next to me to see what was happening with the one that stayed. Normally they were joking, making faces… – very “cinema”. They are not actors. Perhaps they are a bit more naïve. Well, not naïve, but more direct. There’s no intellectualization, it’s simple action-reaction and taking care of a kind of movement and – if words are involved – a text. But what I like is the constant surprise of this kind of work. It seems very controlled but it’s really very evolvative – it changes all the time. If you would see the rushes, you would see that the takes are very different. It’s like Chaplin’s method of rehearsing on camera: doing exactly the same thing five hundred times. Then you see the finger or the wrist moving. But there are a lot of things that I cannot explain to you: actors, shots, technical stuff. We can never talk about that in Q&A’s. We can watch the film shot by shot and then it’s a bit more serious, like I did with the film with the Straubs. I always end up saying banalities, more or less.

Audience member: What is your relationship towards the audience? What are you hoping to convey to the spectator?

Lately I’ve been having these weird dreams, thinking “oh, they probably won’t understand”. It’s very recent. For the last film I thought “they probably won’t understand this connection or this jump”. “They” meaning “you”. Because I myself was not understanding certain things I did. Why should I understand everything? Or make it understandable? I don’t mean that I want to make pure poetry or abstract painting or pure philosophy in motion. I still believe that the best movies are the ones that narrate, which is not the same as telling a story. There is something called narration, and that for me is fundamental, it’s crucial. If it’s not there, I give up, I abandon things. But I have a feeling of what it is because I come from the study of history. It’s almost organic, genetic for me. I know that everything is narration, everything. It’s like a huge, immense, subterranean flow. It’s everywhere, but it’s very difficult to control, to organize and to construct. And in film it’s even more difficult than in a novel, especially after so many great narration masters like Griffith, Ozu, Ford, Godard, Straub, Rosselini. There are so many of them that changed things. And the world being what it is today, which has never been as bad… This is the worst moment, I think. Not just because we’re living it. For film it is for sure: just think about the digital ideology. It’s not only about the story: shooting with the cameras I’m using, I need twelve times more time than I used to with 35mm. Because even the camera is designed to do something else. It’s a camera that for instance does not allow shadow. Everyone knows this. Perhaps I exaggerate in shadows, because I like them. But these digital cameras do not believe in shadows, they don’t think about them. So I’m trying to remember, remember shadows.

Yesterday I don’t know if you were here to see Farrebique. I mean, it’s two hours of science fiction. It’s just doors and dogs and people walking. Like you’ve never seen those things before. It has been years since you have seen a baby cry in a film. So that’s also one of the tasks of the filmmaker today, I think: to remind people that a door shuts with a sound and people go through the door and come from the door and not only fly through walls. And that people are kind and don’t kill five hundred guys per second. This is just a cliché, but there’s much more: like the shadows…

I’m very fond of a Korean filmmaker called Hong Sang-Soo. I think he’s doing a magnificent job. He’s a guy who’s working in a field that is much needed: small sentimental comedies. Films that, I think, are much better than Woody Allen’s. Woody Allen used to be good, he’s weaker now… Hong Sang-Soo is the guy who took over an I think cinema needed that, needs that. He does it in a, for me, very wonderful way. He’s reminding people: do you remember these kind of situations between people, how we used to feel watching this kind of things. There’s also the Chinese Wang Bing doing his work and showing some other things. Which is also about reminding people: don’t let certain things happen or watch this closely. If you see something like this, watch out. It’s about warning sometimes. So I’m saying “sociology”, “warning”, “message”. I’m doing the complete no-no Q&A. But I do like sociological films with messages.

Talk with Stoffel Debuysere. Thanks to Lennert for recording, Ruben for the transcript, Manon and Frederik for the questions.

Figures of Dissent : Jean Rouch

21 may 2015 20:30 KASKcinema, Gent. In collaboration with courtisane.

Petit à petit (1970, 35mm, 96′)

“Cinema is a wonderful tool to approach people, cultures, societies, on the condition that it is at the service of the liberty of thinking and acting. I have always used cinema in that sense. To break interdictions and taboos. It is without a doubt this dimension of my work that explains the scandals that my films have oftentimes caused.”

Jean-Luc Godard once called him the savior of French cinema, and Jacques Rivette even deemed him “more important” than Godard in that regard, although he deplored that “too few people realize it”. Half a century later, a decade after his passing, the work of Jean Rouch still feels overlooked. Yet one could also say that it is overbranded. For some Rouch is an ethnologist who made films, for others he is a filmmaker who practiced ethnology. In the annals of film history he is credited for launching the “cinéma vérité” movement, elsewhere he is celebrated for introducing the concept and practice of “shared anthropology”. But for all these credits and praises, labels and titles, there’s another designation that does him as much justice, if not more: that of bricoleur. The joy and patience of researching and inventing, with whatever is at hand, with whatever comes one’s way: isn’t that what Godard meant when he said of Rouch that he “hasn’t stolen the title on his visiting card: in charge of research for the Musée de l’Homme”, before adding: “Is there a better definition for a filmmaker?” Always the tinkerer: he started filming with a hand-held camera when he lost his tripod in some rapids on the Niger river, and he developed voice-over narration because synchronized sound was at first unavailable to him. But he was also one to inspire a love of tinkering in others: if he eventually became one of the first filmmakers to use a 16mm camera with sync sound – so crucial for the development of the cinematic new waves – it was because he stimulated engineers André Coutant (Éclair camera) and Stefan Kudelski (Nagra tape recorder) to explore unchartered pathways – as he did with many of his companions and co-workers. When he asked Damouré, a Sorka friend, to help him film a hippopotamus hunt, it set off a collaboration that would last almost four decades: Damouré not only captured the sound for many of Rouch’s films, but he also played one of the central characters in Jaguar (1954 -1967) and its follow-up Petit à Petit (1970). Always the improviser, the passionate lover of jazz and surrealism: Rouch was the one who, again according to Godard, provided the affirmative answer to the great question: can art be consonant with chance? He was the one who showed that documentary and fiction, reportage and mise-en-scène, are not at all mutually exclusive, that choosing one always tends to lead to the other. He was the one who dared to challenge us to embrace our uncertainties and serendipities: “The moment you have doubts”, he said, “everything is possible.” Always the go-getter, the paragon of Catalan perseverance that kept him going against all odds, in resistance to all taboos and restrictions, all the way guided by a beautiful old surrealist motto that he ultimately made his own: “Gloire à ceux par qui le scandale arrive”.

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

L.A. Rebellion


In the context of the Courtisane Festival 2015 (1-5 April), in collaboration with Tate Modern & UCLA Film & Television Archive.

What’s in a name, really? L.A. Rebellion is first of all a handy and appealing designation for something that might actually be both too momentous and too heterogeneous to contain in a name. Nevertheless, one is faced with some bare facts: at a particular time and place in American cinema history, a critical mass of filmmakers of African origin or descent together produced a rich and venturous body of work, independent of any entertainment industry influence. At this time, in this place, buzzing with the spirit of the civil rights movement and memories of past and future uprisings, these filmmakers – most of whom studied at UCLA in Los Angeles in the late 1960s to the late 1980s – committed themselves to depicting the lives of black communities in the U.S. and worldwide.

But can one really speak of a single “movement”? Is the word “rebellion” appropriate here? And what about the notion of a “black cinema”? Are these even the right questions to ask? Perhaps we could better ask: what is it that we can do with these films today, in this peculiar time, in this particular place? If these films still resonate so strongly with us, it is perhaps because they refuse to be contained in an imposed framework, and instead choose to explore the off-track and the off-kilter, the unsettled and unsettling in the everyday. Perhaps it is because they do not profess to disclose secrets beyond the surface of what is present, and instead make sense of what is too close to see: the internal ghetto of emotional devastation, suffocation, exhaustion, trepidation, disorientation. Perhaps it is because they are about making common cause with a sense of brokenness, without offering a prescription for repair, about finding resilience and dignity in a sentiment that is no stranger to any of us: vulnerability. And perhaps this is how these films, in all their diversity and richness, find resonance in another sentiment long considered useless, but which has in recent years sparked a new sense of collective engagement and imagination. It is called indignation.

L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema is a project by UCLA Film & Television Archive developed as part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. The original series took place at UCLA Film & Television Archive in October – December 2011, curated by Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, Shannon Kelley and Jacqueline Stewart.

Special thanks to George Clark, Steven Hill and Todd Wiener, without whom this program would not have been possible.

In the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent).


Thursday, April 2, 2015 – 13:00 KASKcinema
Passing Through

Larry Clark, US, 1977, 16mm, b&w, 111′

Eddie Warmack, an African American jazz musician, is released from prison for the killing of a white gangster. Not willing to play for the mobsters who control the music industry, including clubs and recording studios, Warmack searches for his mentor and grandfather, the legendary jazz musician Poppa Harris. Larry Clark’s film theorizes that jazz is one of the purest expressions of African American culture. However, jazz is now hijacked by a white culture that brutally exploits jazz musicians for profit. Following the opening credit sequence as an homage to jazz and jazz musicians, the film repeatedly returns to scenes of various musicians improvising jazz, as well as flashback scenes in which Poppa teaches Warmack to play saxophone. It is the Africanism of Poppa, as the spiritual center of Passing Through that ties together Black American jazz and the liberation movements of Africa and North America. The film’s final montage incorporates shots of African leaders with a close- up of Poppa’s eye and close-ups of Black hands holding the soil, thus semantically connecting jazz, Africa and the earth in one mystical union. (Jan-Christopher Horak)


Thursday, April 2, 2015 – 15:30 KASKcinema
Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett, US, 1977, DCP, b&w, 81′

Like a slow crescendo, Killer of Sheep became one of L.A. Rebellion’s most widely celebrated films over the course of many years. Although it was preserved in 35mm in 2000, it took seven more years to clear the music rights for commercial distribution. The momentum might have waned if it wasn’t for the gravitational force of filmmaker Charles Burnett’s captivating vision of Watts in post-manufacturing decline, a community heroically finding ways to enjoy and live life in the dusty lots, cramped houses and concrete jungles of South Los Angeles. The focus is slaughterhouse worker Stan (novelist, playwright and actor Henry Gayle Sanders) whose dispiriting job wears him down, alienates him from his family and becomes an unspoken metaphor for the ongoing pressures of economic malaise. Drawing inspiration from Jean Renoir’s sun-dappled and racially sensitive The Southerner (1945) as well as the poetic documentaries of Basil Wright (one of Burnett’s teachers at UCLA), Killer of Sheep achieves a deeply felt intensity with nonprofessional actors and handheld location shooting. The film also creates a sense of immediacy and spontaneity (though much of Sheep was storyboarded) as well as quiet moments of humor and despair. Burnett finds lyricism by combining quotidian images – children playing on rooftops or Stan and his wife slow-dancing in their living room – with a highly evocative soundtrack of African American music. It’s both a time capsule and a timeless, humanist ode to urban existence. (Doug Cummings)


Thursday, April 2, 2015 – 20:00 Paddenhoek
Bless Their Little Hearts

Billy Woodberry, US, 1984, 35mm, b&w, 84′

Billy Woodberry’s film chronicles the devastating effects of underemployment on a family in the same Los Angeles community depicted in Killer of Sheep (1977), and it pays witness to the ravages of time in the short years since its predecessor. Nate Hardman and Kaycee Moore deliver gut-wrenching performances as the couple whose family is torn apart by events beyond their control. If salvation remains, it’s in the sensitive depiction of everyday life, which persists throughout. By 1978, when Bless’ production began, Burnett, then 34, was already an elder statesman and mentor to many within the UCLA film community, and it was he who encouraged Woodberry to pursue a feature length work. In a telling act of trust, Burnett offered the newcomer a startlingly intimate 70-page original scenario and also shot the film. He furthermore connected Woodberry with his cast of friends and relatives, many of whom had appeared in Killer of Sheep, solidifying the two films’ connections. Yet critically, he then held back further instruction, leaving Woodberry to develop the material, direct and edit. As Woodberry reveals, “He would deliberately restrain himself from giving me the solution to things.” The first-time feature director delivered brilliantly, and the result is an ensemble work that represents the cumulative visions of Woodberry, Burnett and their excellent cast. (Ross Lipman)

Followed by a DISSENT! talk with Billy Woodberry and Barbara McCullough


Friday, April 3, 2015 – 13:00 KASKcinema
L.A. Rebellion – short films

As Above, So Below
Larry Clark, US, 1973, 16mm, 52′

Larry Clark’s astonishing short feature evokes a Black community in crisis, divided between a narcotizing church that preaches quietism, depicted with savage Brechtian satire that nevertheless evinces a hint of affection, and militant struggle that is both in response to and inspired by U.S. military interventions throughout the Third World. “Like The Spook Who Sat By the Door and Gordon’s War, As Above, So Below imagines a post-Watts rebellion state of siege and an organized Black underground plotting revolution. With sound excerpts from the 1968 HUAC report ‘Guerrilla Warfare Advocates in the United States,’ As Above, So Below is one of the more politically radical films of the L.A. Rebellion.” (Allyson Nadia Field)

Four Women
Julie Dash, US, 1975, 16mm, colour, 7′

Set to Nina Simone’s stirring ballad of the same name, Julie Dash’s dance film features Linda Martina Young as strong “Aunt Sarah,” tragic mulatto “Saffronia,” sensuous “Sweet Thing” and militant “Peaches.” Kinetic camerawork and editing, richly colored lighting, and meticulous costume, makeup and hair design work together with Young’s sensitive performance to examine longstanding Black female stereotypes from oblique, critical angles. (Jacqueline Stewart)

Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification
Barbara McCullough, US, 1979, 35mm, b&w, 6′

Made in collaboration with performer Yolanda Vidato, Water Ritual #1 examines Black women’s ongoing struggle for spiritual and psychological space through improvisational, symbolic acts. Shot in 16mm black-and-white, the film was made in an area of Watts that had been cleared to make way for the I-105 freeway, but ultimately abandoned. Though the film is set in contemporary L.A., at first sight, Milanda and her environs (burnt-out houses overgrown with weeds) might seem to be located in Africa or the Caribbean, or at some time in the past. Structured as an Africanist ritual for Barbara McCullough’s “participant-viewers,” the film addresses how conditions of poverty, exploitation and anger render the Los Angeles landscape not as the fabled promised land for Black migrants, but as both cause and emblem of Black desolation. (Jacqueline Stewart)

Child of Resistance
Haile Gerima, US, 1972, 16mm, colour, 36′

Inspired by a dream Haile Gerima had after seeing Angela Davis handcuffed on television, Child of Resistance follows a woman (Barbara O. Jones) who has been imprisoned as a result of her fight for social justice. In a film that challenges linear norms of time and space, Gerima explores the woman’s dreams for liberation and fears for her people through a series of abstractly rendered fantasies. (Allyson Nadia Field)


The Pocketbook
Billy Woodberry, US, 1980, 35mm, 13′

In the course of a botched purse-snatching, a boy comes to question the path of his life. Billy Woodberry’s second film, and first completed in 16mm, adapts Langston Hughes’ short story, Thank You, M’am, and features music by Leadbelly, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. (Ross Lipman)


Friday, April 3, 2015 – 16:00 KASKcinema
Bush Mama

Haile Gerima, US, 1975, 16mm, b&w, 97′

Inspired by seeing a Black woman in Chicago evicted in winter, Haile Gerima developed Bush Mama as his UCLA thesis film. Gerima blends narrative fiction, documentary, surrealism and political modernism in his unflinching story about a pregnant welfare recipient in Watts. Featuring the magnetic Barbara O. Jones as Dorothy, Bush Mama is an unrelenting and powerfully moving look at the realities of inner city poverty and systemic disenfranchisement of African Americans. The film explores the different forces that act on Dorothy in her daily dealings with the welfare office and social workers as she is subjected to the oppressive cacophony of state-sponsored terrorism against the poor. Motivated by the incarceration of her partner T.C. (Johnny Weathers) and the protection of her daughter and unborn child, Dorothy undergoes an ideological transformation from apathy and passivity to empowered action. Ultimately uplifting, the film chronicles Dorothy’s awakening political consciousness and her assumption of her own self- worth. With Bush Mama, Gerima presents a piercing critique of the surveillance state and unchecked police power. The film opens with actual footage of the LAPD harassing Gerima and his crew during the film’s shooting. (Allyson Nadia Field)