“The Stuff that they had Discarded”

The third installment of the Film Love series, “NOW! Short Films on African American Experience in the 1960s,” gave a fantastic overview of documentary and experimental film being done in that era. Andy Ditzler, of Frequent Small Meals, presented a great selection of rarely seen footage in a variety of formats (DVD, VHS, and even 16mm).

The night opened with a 1966 CBS-TV interview between Mike Wallace (weird to see him so young) and the rising star of the Black Power movement, Stokeley Carmichael, who was portrayed in this broadcast as a potential threat to Martin Luther King’s leadership in the Civil Rights movement. This interview was interesting to me on several levels. First the sequence opened with the presentation of Carmichael speaking at a rally using low-angle shots to portray him as looming over camera. But, more than anything, as Ditzler noted, it’s interesting to watch how the major networks “presented” these conflicts within the Civil Rights movement.

The CBS broadcast was followed by a screening, in 16mm, of experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs’ Perfect Film. Jacobs, who frequently made use of found footage, reports that in the case of Perfect Film, he essentially left this footage alone because it was already “perfect.” The footage, discarded outtakes from a TV studio, primarily consists of an interview with a black radio reporter giving his eyewitness account of Malcolm X’s assassination. Mixed with the interview footage, we see other interviewees on the street, and a detective giving his account, but what makes this film more intriguing are the gaps of black leader and the “silent” exterior shots of Harlem buildings, to which the director would have presumably added voice-over or music later. The effect of the footage as it stands is to produce contemplation about Malcolm’s life and that era of American life.

There were two major highlights for me. First, Santiago Alvarez’s energetic agit-prop film, NOW!, powerfully uses Lena Horne’s civil rights anthem over still photographs of lynchings and police brutality mixed with shots of protest and revolt. Despite the heavy use of stills, Alvarez’s restless camera pans and zooms, giving the film a very energetic feel. Worth noting: Extreme Low Frequency Films has re-relased some of Alvarez’s work, including NOW!, on a 2-DVD compilation, He Who Hits First Hits Twice: The Films of Santiago Alvarez (here’s an Austin Chronicle review).

The other major highlight was a 1964 cinema verite-syle documentary by Eugene Marner and Carole Satrina, Phyllis and Terry, which focuses on two black teenage girls. The two girls have an incredible sense of comic chemistry, playing off each other, finishing the other’s stories, with an ease in front of the camera that is utterly compelling.

Another item on the program was “Malcolm X: Nationalist or Humanist,” an episode of the NET public TV series, Black Journal, a newsmagazine-style show about black culture, politics, and arts. The episode was made several months after Malcolm’s death and emphasizes his attempts to internationalize the Civil Rights movement. Some great footage of Malcolm giving a speech in Mississippi. This Malcolm X material fit nicely with Third World Newsreel’s presentation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In both cases, the emphasis seems to be on the role of alternative media in addressing African-American experience in the 1960s.

In that sense, the program fit very neatly together in providing an overview, or introduction, to this material. I would have loved to have seen more of the innovative film work by Jacobs and Alvarez, but this particular Film Love screening has certainly provided me with many other avenues for exploration. In fact, if I can get my hands on the DVD at some point, some of Alvarez’s work might fit neatly into future Introduction to Film or Experimental Film classes. I’d certainly encourage others to attend future Film Love screenings. Ditzler put together a great program of rarely seen films, and this material certainly deserves a wider audience. My only gripe: I would have enjoyed a brief moderated group discussion after the screenings to hear reactions from other members of the audience.

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