I think if we’ve all learned anything from the last few decades of study and research about women in cinema is that there has been a paucity of women creating cinema since the silent era, i.e. from when cinema started to be seen as a viable industry and not just a hobby or a sideshow. This means a lot of women’s work in cinema has been in non-commercial spheres like the experimental avant garde, or else in oppositional contexts, and that is where we find the French/West Indian filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, who chose her surname and began to make films with her Angolan nationalist husband after having been an assistant on The Battle of Algiers. That first short I review below was also made in Algeria, but is specifically about the Angolan situation, before its independence. She made a feature film a few years later, Sambizanga (again filmed in absentia in the Republic of Congo/Brazzaville, but about Angola), which I will be covering shortly in my Global Cinema series when we get to Angola. Sadly, Maldoror died earlier this year, in April 2020, as a result of complications from COVID-19, at the age of 90. The three short films below were made available for a short time by Another Gaze journal, in support of a panel featuring her daughters, poetry recital, and a discussion amongst film critics, which was insightful and also, for me, rather unusual in centering the experiences of African and Caribbean women.
This week, for a change, I’m doing a special director focus on Mikio Naruse, who in light of contemporaries like Ozu and later filmmakers such as Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, is perhaps an underappreciated Japanese cinematic master. A couple of weeks ago I rounded up a number of his 1930s sound films, and I’ve previously mentioned his biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936), but I realised I still had enough reviews of his great 1950s works, not to mention his earliest silent cinema, to merit an entire week dedicated to him. These silent works are collected on a boxset from the Criterion sub-label Eclipse, dedicated to lesser-known films presented in bare bones DVD editions, albeit with good transfers and liner notes. [NB Outside of the context of this director-focused week, I intend to do future posts about other Eclipse boxsets, though watching them all can sometimes take a bit of time.]
One of the primary ways in which I tend to use YouTube is as a resource for watching short films, which are often ill-served by other platforms (whether online streaming services or physical media, not to mention film festivals and cinematic screenings, or even TV). Whether that’s catching up on the work on the LA Rebellion’s women filmmakers, random recommendations like Possibly in Michigan, the short films that feature on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favourite 1000 films list (one of which, Adynata, I review below), some short films littering the lower depths of Kristen Stewart’s filmography (I can’t bring myself to review them here though I pondered doing a post), or of course music videos, amongst other ephemera. There’s a lot there to enjoy, and I expect if I do future posts about short films, YouTube will be a key resource.
Khalik Allah has built up a distinct style over a number of short films and now a couple of feature films — lyrical imagery of people at the bottom of the power structure, previously the down and out denizens of NYC street corners (of his early shorts and first feature), as well as the inhabitants of Jamaica in his most recent feature Black Mother and an earlier short. His filmmaking seems to have predated his photography, but having taken up the latter form, it has become integral to his vision as a filmmaker, it appears. Sound and image, in particular, are usually rendered separately in his films, often working together but sometimes juxtaposed to make points that photography itself cannot always do so successfully. His art feels particularly masculine, though even in the gritty urban portraits there’s a softness to his approach, an empathy so often lacking in such environments. He has also notably contributed to Beyoncé’s film Lemonade as a cinematographer. A number of his short films are available on YouTube, which is where I watched many of them and hence I’m fitting this post into my seen-on-YouTube themed week.
I grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, and during university I lived in a flat perched just above the Aro Valley, which at that time in the early-2000s was an area of economic desuetude, as the threat of a motorway bypass that might cut through the area depressed property prices and generally caused a certain level of stagnation — ideal for a thriving community of students and bohemians. In fact, since this is just a personal blog and I’m hardly a professional film writer or noted expert, I might as well say that for those first few years after I finished university I was sharing a flat with the filmmaker in the title of the 2010 documentary reviewed below, which would probably disqualify me from ‘reviewing’ any of these films, but let’s look at this as sort of a personal journey shall we? More of a nostalgic trip down memory lane perhaps.
Campbell Walker, a filmmaker who also at that time worked in the Aro Street Video Shop, was somewhat the epicentre of a filmmaking scene that grew up in the Aro Valley in the late-1990s, though he was by no means the only practitioner. After all, the two feature films I’ve reviewed below are co-directed by Alexander Greenhough and Elric Kane, both expatriate Americans who grew up and studied in Wellington, and who had made one previous film, I Think I’m Going (2003), which was at least partially filmed in that very flat. One of Walker’s actors in his debut feature Uncomfortable Comfortable (1999), Colin Hodson, went on to make a few of his own films (Shifter and OFF. are the two I remember seeing, both mining some of the same emotional terrain, though in a different style), and I’d tangentially include Gregory King’s Christmas (2003) as at least adjacent filmically, if not geographically. What all of them shared was a commitment to the aesthetics of digital filmmaking, being the available source of affordable technology, and a complete lack of any kind of budget whatsoever. This means these were made with friends and favours, and while Walker’s style tended towards the improvisational — as if channelling the Jacques Rivette of Out 1 via the leafy suburbs of Wellington — other filmmakers within the scene (like Greenhough and Kane below) preferred a tightly-controlled and well-scripted approach to their drama.
Anyway, I moved away in 2003 and lost track of some of these guys, as well as the films they were making. In time, that bypass got built and Aro Valley has gentrified, meaning that most of them relocated, anyway, and now live in Australia or the United States, and while I know all of them still work in various tangents of the film world, none are actively directing films, which is a shame. Still, this little moment stands in time, supported by the New Zealand International Film Festival (which screened a few of the films), the Victoria University film department, and a certain spirit of resistance. You can track down a few of these films (and others by related directors) on various Vimeo accounts, and I think there was a link to Uncomfortable Comfortable at the NZ Film Archives, so some may require dedication to find (the two features below had a tiny release on a NZ DVD label, hence how I saw them), but all are worth seeking out I think, if you like slow, observational films about students and twenty-somethings falling apart.
The now veteran television documentary producer Madeline Anderson got her start in filmmaking in the 1950s, after studying at NYU and falling in with vérité filmmakers like Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. She made a number of compelling early short documentary subjects focusing on Civil Rights at this time, which were shown in the UK by the Cinema Rediscovered Film Festival a couple of years back.
I don’t usually devote reviews to short films, but I really liked this short documentary subject and it was particularly good to see it with a panel discussion afterwards (with the filmmaker present) to talk out the issues it raised about sex, consent and the legal frameworks of justice. It can be watched on YouTube.
While the screening I saw this film at was in a partly academic setting, that’s not to say the film is only of academic interest, though the rather unusual A4 aspect ratio makes it feel tailored to that kind of audience — in formal respects, it is perhaps the most literal interpretation of “documentary”, in visually presenting only document-based evidence (reports, newspaper clippings). However, the images are accompanied by vocal testimony from someone involved in the case being covered (one from the early-1990s involving sado-masochistic sex acts amongst a group of consenting men), which in some senses has come to define the boundaries of p0rnography and the “acceptable” limits of sexuality in the UK, and still has troubling implications for consensuality quite aside from what it says about our toxic media and political debates. This voice we hear speaking is one of the men who participated in what we see in the documents described as a loathsome, morally depraved sex crime, but he is by some measure the voice of reason and stability against which the pictured voices of authority (of the police and the media and its commentators parroting the police’s official line) lose their power. The film, in its quiet way, effectively confronts and destabilises the accumulated power of the “official” accounts, suggesting the limitations not just of what we think to be true from what we read, but also the way that such assumptions are embedded into our very legal system, and the systems of control that are exercised over our (consensual) bodies and behaviours.
Director Charlie Lyne; Length 14 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Goldsmiths, London, Thursday 21 November 2019 (and before that on YouTube streaming at home, London, Saturday 13 April 2019).
I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.
The so-called “LA Rebellion” was a movement of sorts that arose amongst African-American filmmakers enrolled at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their work was challenging the mainstream cinema, which certainly at that time — and you could make an argument for even now — remained a largely closed industry, in the process expanding the range of visual representations of the Black experience in the United States. The most well-known filmmakers to come from this movement remain the men: Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, most notably. However, there were also a large number of women making films within this movement, some of whom would go on to work elsewhere in the film industry, but none of whom were ever given much of a chance beyond the film school.
Probably the best known of the women associated with the LA Rebellion has been Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust may be the single work most associated with the movement, but even she was not given the chance to direct many films (aside from some made-for-TV films). One of her earliest works is the short dance film Four Women (1975), which may be seven minutes of interpretative dance, but there’s beauty and grace, fabric and texture, hair and body, power and defiance in this dance, and in the Nina Simone song that soundtracks it. She followed it a couple of years later with Diary of an African Nun (1977, pictured above), which has a beautiful quality even in the imperfect decaying 8mm grain as it survives in a restored (as much as possible) print. Based on a story by Alice Walker, the film has a dreamy poetic quality that appears as if through a haze, with its central character finding it difficult to reconcile herself to her religious calling. Probably her finest film prior to Daughters is Illusions (1982, pictured at the top of this post), which may be little more than half an hour, but packs a lot into its World War II-era story of Mignon (Lonette McKee), a woman passing for white in a film studio’s production office. Mignon meets a darker-skinned woman employed to dub white women’s vocals in the pictures. The film nimbly enacts the way that race is deployed and erased, sometimes literally (here represented by an army censor), as well as the complex interactions between representation and reality. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted.
Another key figure in the movement is Alile Sharon Larkin, who has spent most of her career as an educator, with scandalously few directing credits. Her first student film was The Kitchen (1975), which touches on issues that are still very present and relevant in our own day — topics, indeed, that dominate a lot of the discourse I see online about the treament of women (particularly Black women and other women of colour). In this film, for example, there’s a sense that Black women are put in institutions and stigmatised with mental health issues for being different within mainstream white society. There’s a lot of play with hair in that respect, and the main character seems to be traumatised by memories of her natural hair being tortured into place with red hot irons, which leads to her donning a wig, directly linked to her being placed into care. These themes are undoubtedly even more visceral to those who live within these beauty constraints, and despite being under seven minutes in length, Larkin’s film captures this well. Like Dash, Larkin went on to make a longer work a few years later with A Different Image (1982, pictured above). There’s a certain earnestness, perhaps borne of the era in which it was made or the seriousness of its intentions, but this is an affecting 50-minute drama about the way that sexualised images in the environment affect socialisation between men and women. The film is never heavy-handed in the way it deploys this theme, with passing images contextualised by the men looking at them — at first, easy to laugh off, like a young boy laughing at the sight of our leading lady’s underwear, or her (male) work colleague’s interactions with another of his friends (who ostentatiously reads Playboy and wants to know if his friend has got some action yet). Progressively these become darker and more troubling, and the film continues to hint at an inability of men to see beyond women’s sexual attributes. It’s nicely acted and well shot by Charles Burnett.
Another woman within the LA Rebellion is Barbara McCullough, who went on to a career as a production manager (particularly within visual effects), a little older than some of her contemporaries, but who made a number of short films at the time. The one I’ve seen is Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). There’s real beauty to this short experimental film, beautifully restored on 35mm, as a woman interacts with a sparse, impoverished environment. It’s all fairly oblique but ends in an act of purifying defiance.
Among the lesser-known figures was Anita W. Addison, who went on to direct TV shows in the 1990s as well as getting involved in production, but who died in 2004. I’m not clear if her short film Eva’s Man (1976) was made under the auspices of UCLA, but her name is linked with the LA Rebellion (at least on the Wikipedia page). Her film obliquely tells the story of a woman who kills her husband, with flashbacks to give a sense of why she might have done it, and sustains a nice claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of free jazz on the soundtrack.
One final filmmaker I wanted to mention is Malvonna Bellenger, who later worked in local television and the recording industry, and who died from breast cancer in 2003. Her short film Rain (Nyesha) (1978) is ostensibly about a rainy LA day, though it’s not exactly about rain per se. Instead it’s about the possibility of a change coming, washing things away that existed before. And it’s about a young woman who seems from her voiceover to be disconsolate who finds herself becoming more certain as the rain comes down and Coltrane plays in the background. It finds its tone somewhere between elegiac and active, and it sticks to it.
Kevin Jerome Everson has been working for fewer than two decades but has already amassed a prodigious body of work, including a huge number of short films. A number of his features and a few short films were presented online as part of a retrospective on Mubi in 2018, which introduced this filmmaker to my attention. Clearly he has his themes and his interests, but with so many films it’s difficult to give more than a hint at his distinctive style.