Billy Woodberry nasceu em Dallas, em 1950. É conhecido como um dos principais nomes da chamada L.A. Rebellion, uma geração de jovens cineastas afro-americanos que procuraram a construção de um novo cinema negro. A sua longa-metragem “Bless Their Little Hearts” (1984) é umas das obras essenciais deste movimento, com uma forte influência do neo-realismo italiano e do chamado Third Cinema. Venceu os prémios OCIC e Interfilm do júri ecuménico no Festival de Cinema de Berlim do mesmo ano. Além de realizador, participou no filme “When It Rains” (1995) de Charles Burnett, um dos seus colaboradores mais próximos, e emprestou a sua voz nos filmes “Red Hollywood” (1996) de Thom Andersen e “Four Corners” (1998) de James Benning. O seu trabalho tem sido seleccionado para os festivais de Cannes e Berlim e alvo de retrospectivas no MOMA, no Harvard Film Archive, no Camera Austria Symposium, no Human Rights Watch Film Festival, no Tate Modern e no Centre Pompidou. Billy Woodberry é também professor de Cinema na Escola de Artes da Califórnia (CalArts) e ainda na UCLA.



12 April 2019

Times, Conditions, Examples: An Interview with Billy Woodberry
by Andy Rector

Andy Rector:  You were born in Texas in 1950 and came to Los Angeles in the late 60s. Was that move occasioned solely by your pursuing university there, or were there other factors? Did you start out majoring in cinema?

Billy Woodberry:  I came to California in 1967 to attend Junior College and to play American Football. I spent two and a half years doing that and transferred to an HBCU (Historically Black College and University), as they are called now: Morgan State in Baltimore, 1969-1970. Exactly one year. At that point I gave up on football and decided I really like school and should devote myself to finishing my undergraduate degree. I returned to California where one of my best friends from Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) was playing and studying. I enrolled the following summer and graduated from California State University at Los Angeles, in a year and a half with an undergraduate degree in Pan-African Studies/Afro-American History. I decided I wanted to go to graduate school and study African Studies. I applied to some schools and in the interim, awaiting an answer, I learned about a course in the Latin American Studies department on the History of Cuba. It turned out the class utilized a lot of the then contemporary documentary films that portrayed the revolutionary process aimed at transforming Cuban Society. After this experience I decided to enroll in the graduate program of Latin American Studies and eventually earned Master Degree.

I should say that like a lot of young people of the era, I developed a social and political conscious as a consequence of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and anti-war movements which were challenging many long-held assumptions and claims of American society and government. It was an environment where one was inclined to search for answers in books, find intellectual and political engagement in various forms. Reading, thinking critically was encouraged by the times, conditions, and examples. I was already reading about and interested in Cuba and its impact on the movement for revolution and national liberation throughout the world and found the class stimulating. There, for the first time I started to think of film or cinema as a way to be politically and socially engaged.

Like many of my friends and associates I was encouraged by more mature friends and mentors to take my political and intellectual development seriously. To read beyond the assigned texts for class and to join or form study groups to pursue theories and knowledge not offered at the university. To read Marx and revolutionary theory more generally, in an attempt to understand the world hopefully in a more radical and profound way. Once I was exposed to Cuban and Brazilian cinemas, this inspired me and lead me toward the history of cinema, all that I might have missed that informed the New Cinemas.

A.R.:  You are a teacher and historian of photography. Photographs have become the main raw material of your most recent films. When and how did you become interested in photography?

B.W.:  In 1988 I came to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) with an appointment in the Art School and created a seminar on Race and Representation. I was then approached to teach in the Film School. In 1990 I was hired half time in the Photography Program within the Art School, and in the Film School.

I had an interest in photography but much of what I learned about it came from my colleagues in the program. I had an intellectual interest in some areas of photo history and developed a course based on those topics, movements, and schools. “Film and Foto” was a course I created following the 1929 exhibition of avant-garde works of European and some American filmmakers and photographers. I learned a great deal about this from Allan Sekula, Thom Anderson, and Hartmut Bitomsky. It was a way to bring my interest and knowledge of film together with a developing knowledge of photography, to encourage still photographers to consider the moving image.

I was already interested in photography and collected photography annuals, books, and images, and understood something about this while studying at Film School. I was admitted to the school with a small portfolio of photos. Helen Levitt was already a favorite and the work of the Workers Film and Photo League was important, linked as it was to my interest in the radical culture and politics of the 1930s. James Agee was a source of inspiration through his work with Walker Evans; and Helen Levitt, Sidney Meyers and Janet Loeb’s work on THE QUIET ONE (1949). I was learning all of this at the same time.  (I speak more about this in an interview with the young Portuguese scholar Luís Mendonça in 2013, here.)

The two films with still photographs (AND WHEN I DIE, I WON’T STAY DEAD [2015], MARSEILLE APRÈS LA GUERRE [2015]) came about after years of teaching and trying to understand the relationship and possibilities of work with these images in a cinematic form; nearly twelve years plus the experience of making the film about poet Bob Kaufman. I knew there were many still photographers working in San Francisco and New York who were actively recording and creating images during the “Beat” era, many more than were filming.  After much research and digging I located very good images that were critical in trying to represent that world, and I used many in the final film. Working and thinking with these images along with a really creative editor Luís Nunes, who was very sympathetic and game, gave me the confidence to make MARSEILLE APRÈS LA GUERRE, working with a trove of anonymous photos from the National Maritime Union Archive.

The latest film, A STORY FROM AFRICA (2018), came about during a research trip to the Museu do Aljube Resistência e Liberdade, while researching a completely different time period and subject, definitely related but another era. Following the subject of the originally encountered photo lead us to the related archive collection and, again working with Luís Nunes, the journey began, to see if we could create something interesting and meaningful with the images.

This is not so original… others such as Santiago Álvarez, Chris Marker, Godard and the Cine-tracts of May ’68 worked with still images a lot. This is also a source of inspiration. I was thinking about the Cine-tracts, and have taught them at the (CalArts) Film School in recent years.

AR:  I’m very curious about the years 1970-1980. The activities at UCLA of the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers a.k.a the L.A. Rebellion are well-documented, but could you speak a little about your formative experiences during that time in Los Angeles; the scene, the films, the politics, the groups?

B.W.:  UCLA in 1970-1980 was an exciting place to be and to study. This had a lot to do with the social world beyond the campus. The larger social, political and cultural on context. It was an important research institution with world renowned faculty and resources. The Film Department in the School of Theater, Film and Television was said to be one of the top three schools in the country. The school was undergoing a change by the time I entered in the early 70s; it had reluctantly opened itself to accepting Black, Latino, Asian, and women students. This was after a struggle by the then current students who insisted on this change. At the time there was a significant number of students from Iran, other Middle Eastern countries, South American and Africa. This expanded our knowledge of films beyond what was happening in American film at the time, as those from other countries arrived full of references to the newly emerging cinematic landscape, from places like India and Egypt, which had large and old film industries that were barely known at UCLA, or the United States at all.

Probably the most important aspect of the experience was to be in an environment completely devoted to film and filmmaking. And with the creation of the Masters and Doctoral Programs in Film Studies during those years it was a rich place to be.

A.R.:  You made THE POCKETBOOK in 1980, based on the Langston Hughes short story “Thank You, Ma’am”. There have been so few film adaptations of Hughes, despite his renown. In Hollywood there’s an aversion to Black writers, and I assume this also has to do with language, with the boldness and intimacy required to put Black vernacular on the screen, because in Hughes, the dialogue, even the intonation, is there. The use of Black vernacular seems to affect the very form of the film. Even on the white side, to put the “country” English of John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH onscreen it took no less than John Ford. In BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS (1984) I think you and Charles Burnett take this work with language very far, with little concession to the outsider of Black experience. Was the language and its performance a challenge to put on film?

B.W.:  Language and the way people use it, adapt it, and enrich it: this has been and is important for writers in many parts of the world. Langston Hughes is really important for his commitment to Black speech and did a great deal to devise and refine the use of this language in his poetry and prose. Through language he attempted to render the various modes of expression that can be said to derive from the lived experience of Black people; the creative and expressive ways they thought, reflected upon, and communicated about life, the world. I think Hughes’s range was very broad as he was one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan Black or American writers of his era. He was interested in the “people” and wrote about them with great sensitivity, respect, and compassion.  I am not linguist or philologist but this has been a preoccupation of American writers and artists for a century: what is the “American” idiom or mode of expression? In the case of Black literature this was the case since Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was certainly an influence on Hughes and many others that followed. Part of the attraction of adapting the story was that I felt I had a key to the inner world of the characters. How do I render this on film?

With BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS, (its screenwriter) Charles Burnett was equally interested in the language and expression of the characters within the world they inhabit and this influenced the flow, pace, and rhythm of the film. THE GRAPES OF WRATH has become one of my favorite films. It was the result of artists, intellectuals, writers, and musicologists discovering America during 1930s and the Great Depression: the WPA.

Was it a challenge to put on film? It’s always a challenge to realize on film. Audiences adjust if they are touched or moved by what they are watching.

A.R.:  When you made BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS with Charles Burnett, was it a very concerted decision of yours to make an intimate film sticking to the reality of one working-class family, rather than to make a film that declared a revolutionary politics, where the characters come to consciousness, with the energy of the Third World liberation movements of the time, as in the agitational films of Glauber Rocha’s or your colleague Haile Germia’s?

B.W.:  Maybe the explanation is, that Glauber Rocha and Haile Gerima are singular, unique figures that exist in a special time and place. Their personalities, temperament, and predisposition is to be bold, challenging, daring, and provocative figures in their work and in their pronouncements and stance in the world. I once heard Nelson Pereira dos Santos reflecting on Glauber and he said that maybe there was something in Glauber’s Protestant background that explained why he was always in mode of contestation and revolt. The point is: their work, personalities, and ways are not to be followed easily.

As to why the intimate approach to the life of a working-class family, it’s probably because this is equally under-explored. And perhaps this was a concern of Charles Burnett which he expressed in discussions with our fellow students, many of whom were committed to making work dealing with the working-class and its struggles. Charles Burnett was always arguing that things were more complex in the communities where the Black workers lived after the job. Given the degree of social segregation in the United States there is a great deal of truth in his position. I think we ended up with an intimate work that alludes in various ways to the larger context, obliquely… but it is there.

A.R.:  Between BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS and your next film AND WHEN I DIE, I WON’T STAY DEAD there is a 30 year gap, during which I know (as I was your student) that you were a great teacher of film and photo history at CalArts in Los Angeles. But I read mention of a film project of yours from 1990, based on an Ernest Gaines novel called MY FATHER’S HOUSE, to be shot in Louisiana with Charles Burnett as cinematographer. What is the story of that project?

B.W.: IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE is a wonderful book, published in 1978 by Ernest J. Gaines. I started working on the adaptation in 1988. The theme and issues were timely, as many were reflecting on the Civil Rights movement, its aftermath, and the divide that separated the generation that lead the movement, and the more radical strains that followed.

It was to be my next film after BLESS. It was going to be a professional film with a proper budget, producer, and crew. I did most of the work myself, from acquiring the option and the rights to the book, to securing development funding from American Playhouse, which was at part of PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service). I wrote the script, got approval, and a commitment from American Playhouse and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Ultimately, after four years of trying to find a co-production partner in the United States and Europe, American Playhouse decided to give up. Finally the film didn’t happen.

After this experience I had to find another path if I wanted to be involved in making audio-visual work at all. The small video formats were becoming available: Hi-8, MiniDV, DV CAM. I decided to start making images using these devices. abandoning the needs and requirements of feature narrative film production.

A.R.:  After the long research and production process of your film on poet Bob Kaufman (AND WHEN I DIE, I WON’T STAY DEAD) how did you end up making the ongoing Portuguese connection with its editor and producer Rui Alexandre Santos, who also produced MARSEILLES APRES LA GUERRE and your latest film A STORY FROM AFRICA?

B.W.: I came to Lisbon for the first time in nearly thirty years in November 2013 to participate in “Harvard na Gulbenkian.” At the airport I met Rui Alexandre Santos, who was then working as an editor and producer at Rosa Filmes, the production and distribution company owned by Joaquim Sapinho, a filmmaker and one of the organizers of the series at the Contemporary Art Museum at Gulbenkian. They, the team at Rosa Filmes, asked to see the film and then offered to help me complete the post-production work. I agreed and over a series of month-long trips to Portugal, the film was finished and released to festivals in 2015. It was a very rewarding and productive experience to work with the team to complete the film. Rosa provided me with all the conditions to finish the film in the best possible way. Rui Alexandre Santos started his own company in 2016-17 and we have worked on the development and pre-production of a feature length documentary for two years, pursuing support to start production.

A STORY FROM AFRICA came about during the research for the longer documentary (forthcoming) with a visit to the Museu do Aljube Resistência e Liberdade, where I saw the photograph, the first image in the film.

A.R.:  Would you like to offer any thoughts on the current state of cinema? Do you see much these days, whether the Hollywood blockbusters like BLACK PANTHER (2018) or Godard’s latest film?

B.W.:  As my friend Haile Gerima says “I am always anxious to see a new work by Godard, he always teaches me something new.” My thought and feeling exactly!

(texto traduzido em português por Rita Bernardes e Nuno Marques no Jornal dos «Encontros Cinematográficos»)