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Life As An Echo Park Film Intern III

I couldnt resist the creepy film guru picture of Paolo

I couldn't resist the creepy film guru picture of Paolo. Of course the photographer positions Lisa in the back doing the actual teaching.

Creating Passionate Audiences

“I am passionate about everything in my life—first and foremost, passionate about ideas. And that’s a dangerous person to be in this society, not just because I am a woman, but because it’s such a fundamentally anti-intellectual, anti-critical thinking society. I don’t think we can act like it’s so great for men to be critical thinkers either. This society doesn’t want anybody to be a critical thinker.”

bell hooks “What’s Passion Got to Do With It: An Interview With Marie-France Alderman”

I only just this year discovered yet another reason to love and be inspired by bell hooks as one of my favorite critical thinkers and writer: not only does she position herself as not solely an intellectual but an artist, she also tracks her passion for movies back to independent filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Trinh T Minh-Ha. I found that she shared a love for independent film, a form of  representation often partitioned off from other forms of political work and position as solely self-indulgent elitism, and that she saw it as central to her political understanding of the world. It is rare that I find people that create such a broad path for those that follow them, but bell hooks provides this for so many of us seeking a lifetime of critical thinking and constantly seeks to position this idea of opening up new and expansive possibilities for living and representation as one of the most important feminist ideas.

In looking for books to read alongside my internship at the EPFC, I stumbled upon her collection of essays Reel to Real and jumped for joy (and I know I don’t mean figuratively). The quote above is from one of the essays compiled in it. I tried desperately to remember where I had read it because I wanted to pull it out for my earlier post on the passionlessness of the academy. Another essay, “Back to the Avant-Garde,” resonated heavily with the work I’ve been taking part in at the EPFC. In it hooks talks about the responses black audiences initially had to Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. She describe the situation:

“[t]o a grave extent the film had to be positioned aesthetically before many viewers could see and appreciate it on its own terms. When viewers came looking for conventional cinema and did not find it, many were disappointed and enraged.”

As an artist invested people who make the kind of work that often gets designated as inaccessible, difficult, alienating, elitist, it is extremely high on my priority to find ways to reposition art in ways that broaden the possible audiences or shift the potential audience. Hooks identifies as the main barrier to the audiences she watched film with enjoying it as seeming to be the expectations built into the setting they watched the film in. Marketing campaigns are essential to film industry as currently constructed and they always position films as unimaginatively as possible (not to say that they aren’t imaginative in how they frame the product, but never in service of the imagination of the filmmaker- on this note check out the fascinating New Yorker article on this tool from Lion’s Gate films). In the recent La Weekly profile of Paolo he addresses this issue, but in framing the possibilities:

“I realized people were hungry for film. Not just in the two-hour-pay-twelve-dollar multiplex scenario, but also the funky experimental film on the side of an RV in Idaho. Not everyone loved it. The old guys sipping beers out of their cozies would say, ‘I don’t get it. This stuff’s crap but I like what you’re doing, kid.’ It created an interesting dialogue. That experience led to what I’m doing now.”

He’s talking about his experience traveling the country projecting his own experimental works wherever he could. I fervently believe in the potential to build on the interactions where the audience didn’t like what he showed them, but liked the fact that he was showing it to them in the first place. To like experimental film, or any form of art is not to like or understand everything that comes before you, but to not write off a whole medium or genre as a result. I think that people appreciate when they are given opportunities to be welcomed into and when they have an ownership of the spaces in which they encounter art.

I think these kind of arguments tend to get easily dismissed when they are discussed in middle class settings, partly I would say due to the fact that for most people art is positioned as a mechanism for obtaining social capital solely and so it can even be viewed hostilely as an obligation people resented but pursued in order to be classified as culture. In their minds art is not a central part of community (in fact US capital often encourages us to increasingly dis-identify with any community as we gain more financial privilege).  There are so few public locations that cater to working class and people of color communities in any way, especially ones devoted to promoting creativity. We are a culture deathly afraid of a mixed public sphere that is not accidental, but intentional.

To sit in the EPFC on a typical afternoon is to encounter a wide range of people who just wander in because the building is weird, there are cameras of all shapes, sizes and ages hanging around. It is positioned as a community center, so this kind of interaction is encouraged in a way that is not the case for most galleries. Community groups also come in to use the space on different nights of the week and most of the events put on by the EPFC are free. I can’t speak for how fully realized the goal of providing a feeling of ownership in the center throughout Echo Park, but I at least know that the local youth definitely do as they are an integral part of the center.

The biggest hopeful note for the future of truly imaginative art being appreciated in the future came from a conversation with a fellow TA who started as a student of  EPFC. She was describing documentary as the most interesting type of film and about how many ways a documentarian can creatively approach zir subject. She articulated documentaries as how I feel like they should be, but in a way that I feel like most of us aren’t used to encountering. When I told her that I often find documentaries to be frustratingly unimaginative as a genre, she admitted that she felt that way about the way they are treated within the mainstream, but that her frame of reference are the films she made at the EPFC and the films/filmmakers  first seen there.

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Life As An Echo Park Film Intern II

Yearning For A Different Time

(And Place)

As if I needed to add any more underdocumented, underdistributed, theoretically ambitious collectives of political minded independent filmmakers to my list of things overstuffing my brain, I recently came across the work of the Black Audio Film Collective. I had heard of their film Seven Songs of Malcolm X before, but knew nothing of its connection to the agenda of a larger group. As part of one of my independent studies this semester I pursued as many roads into Afro-futurism (see Timeless post) as possible and came across the film Last Angel of History, directed by John Akomfrah (note his oh so sexy accent).

The film won my heart over easily with an intentionally strange coloration embracing the unnaturalistic potential of video and a narration told through a character called the Data Thief from the far future. Last Angel counted among its interviewees as diverse figures as George Clinton, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Kodwo Eshun, and Samuel Delaney (among others). Oh yes and it involved time travel and the idea that by poring  through the tradition of black music within this country a code for understanding the universe is discoverable.

When I started to look more into John Akomfrah I discovered that this work, along with many of his others were created out of the combined efforts of the BAFC. As I tried to find out more about the group, I found their work hard to get my hands on and that not a lot of literature has been produced on them, but I was able to find a book co-edited by Kodwo Eshun produced as the documentation of a retrospective created of their work in 2007  the Ghost of Songs. The book includes several critical essays, a complete bibliography along with screenings, and a compilation of the collected critical writings of the group. As I learned more, I realized the BAFC constitutes a link for most of my current scholarly and personal interests. They were a group of British intellectuals and filmmakers of color concerned with exploring the limitations of Britishness, especially in the face of blackness and the immigrant experience and exploring the potential for expanding and questioning the construction of blackness within art as well as society. Their films include Paul Gilroy,  Tricia Rose, and Robin DG Kelley who I am currently in the process of trying to institute as intellectual ancestors for myself. Arthur Jafa, who was one of a group of talented filmmakers of African Descent who began collaborating at UCLA film school that includes Charles Burnett and Julie Dash, served as cinematographer for some BAFC films.

Ghost of Songs served well as a transition from my time as archivist to TA for the youth filmmaking classes because the BAFC consistently returned to the archive as a major site of intervention for their works, but they also consciously positioned themselves as activist and outside of art-world/academic spaces. Their first work Signs of the Empire involved layering gels upon still images pulled from archives of British colonial history and narration that denaturalized and recontextualized the visual representations of the empire as well as the colonized. Their first film Handsworth Songs dealt with the 1986 riots in Handsworth, Birmingham using archived footage taken of immigrants as they arrived in Britain from newsreels and institutional sources. Here they share a relationship to this footage similar to the historiographical concerns articulated with Mining the Home Movie.

As drawn as I am to their films, at least the few I can get my hands on, the model of the BAFC itself intrigued me to an almost equal degree. They emerged in a period of collectives and workshops from filmmakers of African Descent supported by the Greater London Council that also included Sankofa Films (which Isaac Julien was a part of) and Retake films among others. At some later post I think I want to explore more the legacy of state funding of the arts, particularly film, in Britain and why it is so much better than ours (one name is an initially good response: John Grierson). It also brings to mind the issues at stake in the arts funding or “Creativity Stimulus” tip Jeff Chang has recently been on.

The BAFC not only produced works, but they held workshops that included a mix of technical training and conceptual discussion. These workshops particularly targeted working class people of color to address the great deficits of access for these communities. Handsworth Songs was produced to, among other things, be shown on public television. The picture above shows their works, though they very much engage in the rich visual experimentation that usually considered only the domain of the avant-garde, were not relegated to smaller, isolated, elite spaces. BAFC understood the disservice that radicals and independent filmmakers are paid when not only knowledge, but the means of knowledge production are not shared out across as many audiences as possible- particularly working class audiences.

And now I finally get back to the supposed subject of this post, how this relates to my experience as an intern. What impressed me most about the EPFC when I first encountered it and listened to Paolo Davanzo explain how it came about was how incredibly politically subversive the center is. Paolo contextualizes the center as his way of continuing the Leftist political work of his parents, but beyond that the EPFC safely passes under the radar of most of the attacks that radical work usually attracts. Nothing is more empowering in this overmediated age than democratizing the means of production and image-making. It consistently blows my mind to talk to the students who study at the center because they ask smarter visual questions of the work they see than the majority of media studies students graduating with me this year. Not only do they approach visual media as creators, not passive consumers, but they also understand representation as political. I won’t easily forget the first day I met some of the student of the class I am assistant teaching and they were working on a sock puppet project from another class. The sock puppets wandered through the forced labor of chinese railroad workers and the film ended with an indigenous character refusing to help the main character because he is sick of native american representations being limited to noble savage and wise sage.

In this sense, my title might be misleading. Though I would love to be part of some of the energy that British funders supported, I also recognize this work lives on in spaces like the one I am currently fortunate enough to work within.

Life As An Echo Park Film Intern I

*not actual hands

A Budding Archivist

I began interning at the Echo Park Film Center late January of this year after first encountering it in a field trip for Professor Jesse Lerner’s Handmade Film class (a class that has now reached a semi-mythic status among some staff at the center for its regular incorporation of Paolo Davanzo and the organization into the course). I came into my internship eager to soak in as much of the work done at the center as possible, especially since I find all aspects of the EPFC fascinating. The organization brings together pretty much all my loves right now: a political subversiveness mediated through education, empowerment, expansion of access to resources along with skills, and love; the cultivation of a community space accessible to whoever wants to walk in while also bringing in a constant stream of experimental, independent, avant-garde, filmmakers and performers; a library of movies on film, VHS, and DVDs and film-related books; an ethos of creating lasting personal connections best expressed through the dubbing of all involved as La Famiglia.

The first task I got assigned to was archiving a number of 16mm, 8mm, and super 8 films donated to the EPFC by a visiting artist Julie Saragosa. My projector skills, only recently acquired two semesters before, rapidly improved and my aversion towards a splicer kit gradually dissipated. I found myself descending surprisingly quickly into that subculture of people drawn to making romantic claims about the aesthetic quality of the materiality of film itself and developing an attachment to celluloid. Much of the apparatus and structuralist based film theory I’ve read began to grow slightly less murky as the act of transforming a series of still images into moving images projected onto the wall gained a new personal significance.

My understanding of the moving image sprung up in an era where nearly all domestic applications relied on digital means of transmission (from VHS to laserdisc to DVD) and so much of the fascination many avant-garde and experimental filmmakers hold for the transmutation of a more recognizable still form of representation into the mythical space of cinema didn’t resonate much for me. I pulled apart a fair number of VHS tapes in my day, but never gained any surer an understanding of the mechanisms involved nor a more tangible relationship to what ended up on the screen.

To provide an theoretical framework for the work I was doing, I dusted off my copy of Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories. The texts contained within the anthology provided an interesting counter-point to the practice I engaged in at the EPFC and to the way the assortment of mostly amateur films were used by Paolo and friends.

The anthology’s editors Karen Ishizuka and Patricia Zimmerman approach home movies and the broader designation of amateur films from an academic perspective, with an interest in their potential impact on the historiography of various disciplines, and with an international scope. Though I missed this weekend’s Orphan Films Symposium West hosted by the Cinefamily and so I don’t know what kind of audience comes out for this sort of screening, I feel relatively safe asserting that most of the archives and organizations discussed within the anthology serve a radically different purpose and demographic then the Echo Park Film Center. While in a certain sense EPFC shares a similar aim in seeking to democratize the possibility of access to the works in question and return them to a contemporary relevance, the fundamental impulse driving this aim seems quite different in the context of a micro-cinema and film center.

The anthology in many ways desires to demonstrate through the breadth and depth of the scholarship represented that home films should be taken seriously within the rareified domains of the academy, the museum, more general film archives, and by historians of all sort. Many of the writers represented, though they are not all archivists or historians themselves, seek to argue for the importance of preservation vehemently. I understand the urgency in the tone as celluloid is a constantly dying medium with the odds against any significant portion of film history remaining in any comprehensive way (see Paolo Cherchi Usai). Still, this stands in sharp contrast to what I, in my admittedly short time working here, see as the driving force behind the archival work at the EPFC. The majority of the writers here reflect a primary concern for the preservation of the object itself, though I understand this reflects a very pragmatic view as once the object deteriorates everything else attached to it is lost as well.

The work I’ve been doing at EPFC feels anti-preservationist, but I acknowledge the possibility that this is a false opposition- a thought I will return to a bit later. My own associations with the act of preservation include a setting apart of that which is preserved behind a glass case or within faux-embryonic fluids, but always an isolating. othering force running concurrent with the preservation. In that respect, that which is preserved is no longer of use except as an object to study at-a-distance. The films I have been archiving are archived to the end of being scratched upon, chewed up as inexperienced hands feed them through a projector, cut up, spliced, painted, tied into loops, used to demonstrate what 16mm film stock actually looks and feels like. They are meant to be touched, to encourage touch, to dispel any lingering mysticism or intimidation.

What is preserved is not the material, but the culture of appreciating and understanding film. Here is where the distinction might collapse because the continuation of film archives or orphan film foundations requires a base of people who have been inducted in a culture of film. My desire to separate out these pursuits might stem primarily from my coming of age in a digital age where I am resistant to anything I perceive as taking for granted that film will continue to be respected at all, much less in its more marginal incarnations.