Activist Resistance and Organization in Portland and Elsewhere: Penny Allen on Her Career
This weekend, Metrograph hosts a bona fide repertory first for New York City: a retrospective of four films by activist-director Penny Allen, who grew up in Portland and is currently based in Paris. I was one of a relative handful lucky enough to see Allen’s 1978 gentrification satire-docudrama Property at a packed Light Industry screening in 2014: the film was an anthropological curio concerning a handful of Portland hipsters — a clique a far more “Dogpatch,” to use Allen’s term, than the upscale suburbanites currently associated with that particular epithet — who band together to save their neighborhood from gentrification by buying out the block. Cut from jaunty handheld 16mm takes that allow for a loose-limbed narrative flow, Property sharpens as it closes in on its narrative terminus, a trip to the Portland Development Commission, where a real-life banker exasperatedly explains to (Lola Desmond) that the equity requirements of a $250,000 loan are only complicated “because it’s your first time.” This ragtag portrait of people’s ability to protect their alternative lifestyle is equal parts a winking manifesto and a document of internecine logjam, never less than emotionally generous on either side of the camera.
Permanence and short-term stability are at loggerheads again in her sun-kissed 1981 followup Paydirt, wherein a winemaking couple (Desmond returns as lead, opposite onetime tenant representative Eric Silverstein) take to growing marijuana to stem their flagging business. The duo find themselves scraping up against an inevitable vigilante mentality, or perhaps its hideous frontier underside — suffering a ripoff different from the one that spurs Property, but no less rooted in the story’s geospecifics. These works bear clear linkages to the more oft-retold sweeps of independent film history, including the participation of renowned poet and Mala Noche author Walt Curtis (to say nothing of Gus Vant Sant’s first screen credit, working sound on Property.) Watching Paydirt, the thought crossed my mind that a truly regional cinema can’t always strike an imprint ready for mass consumption; there’s a grit (or maybe it’s more of a “funkiness”) to Allen’s antihero enclaves that still feels niche and marginal today, even if the films have accrued insane value as time capsules of Pacific Northwest cinema.
In 2005 Allen collaborated with one “Sergeant R.” on the photo-comic strip War Is Hell, using stills from video footage he shot while fighting in the Iraq War; the two met because Allen happened to be seated next to her subject on a flight from Paris back to the States. She made a documentary about it — The Soldier’s Tale, an unsparing examination both of R.’s souvenirs and an interrogation of what Allen’s privilege as an antiwar activist sees her bringing to the table. Finally, Allen’s Late For My Mother’s Funeral probes the life history of its nominal Algerian-Moroccan jewel thief matriarch by examining constituent stories from her life as told (and/or portrayed) by her ten surviving children, one of whom initially approached Allen after seeing The Soldier’s Tale. If one had to try guessing a trademark from Allen, these four films suggest it could be the formal collapsing of real-life stories into knowingly imperfect narratives, always under embattled circumstances. (Metrograph is also screening The Dider Connection, a documentary shot in the 1970s but finished in 2014, about a young French boy Allen tutored in Portland.)
On the eve of the retrospective, I had the chance to speak with Allen over the phone about her disparate careers in art, activism and filmmaking.
Filmmaker: There’s a lot I’d like to ask, but let’s begin with Property — tell me who these people are/were, how it came together, where in the real world one could trace its influences.
Allen: With Property there were three elements that came together: in the neighborhood where I was living, I was a witness to a situation like the one in the movie, in the Corbett-Terwiliger-Lair Hill neighborhood of Portland. It’s very close to the center of town, so of course it was a target for the construction of high-rises. It was happening a lot in that era, and so it was scheduled for demolition. The neighborhood kept it alive by buying up portions of it. I had a theater troupe at the time, so I was working with a lot of actors, many of whom are in the movie. The third thing was really that I had started working with Eric Edwards, the cinematographer, on video. The idea was “Let’s make a movie!” — that kind of thing. That’s how it happened with those three things. Eric was the one who contacted Gus Van Sant, who had also gone to with Eric in high school in Portland, and then they went to Rhode Island School of Design at the same time. So Gus came up and was our sound man. It isn’t necessarily related to how Paydirt happened, although Eric shot the movie again, and there were some of the same actors…
Filmmaker: But is it a straight dramatization of what happened? It feels a little woolier, a little more collaborative…
Allen: It’s not very much like the actual event, because those events took more than a year — in the movie it happens more rapidly. And there were many, many people involved, whereas Property only has eight or ten characters. That’s another difference. But also, the way it happened, I was picking up on things I found interesting — for example, the fact that most of the black people were squeezed out, so that’s in the movie with one actor in particular. It’s a written feature; some of the scenes were workshopped. I like very much working with people to arrive at something, and that’s how we were doing it in the theater troupe: arriving at what we wanted to do, and doing things over and over and over until we arrived at what we wanted. That’s how it went with some of the scenes in the movie, but there’s no live improvisation onscreen. For instance, the table scenes — where everybody is sitting there talking about what to do — I knew what the characters were going to say, and there’s no way we could have shot that without writing it down ahead of time.
Eric and I were doing a weekly video show called Urban Free Delivery; it was cable-cast only to our neighborhood, by a fluke of fate. It was a way of organizing in our neighborhood, actually. And I was teaching English to that little French boy – the story behind that short is, we shot it on ½” magnetic tape, and all the material was lost for 37 years. I would occasionally look for it or ask somebody if they knew where Dider was, if they had any idea abouat the footage — finally, the rushes did turn up in a basement, all moldy. One of those marvelous people that can restore material like that did so and made a DVD out of it. It was an unlabeled box, which is part of the reason it was never found. Eric was doing all this in Portland; I was living in Paris. He said, “Oh my God, it’s Didier!” He sent me the rushes and I edited that into the short that now exists. It’s a very strange movie, you know — terrible quality, to restore something all moldy, but it’s kind of charming because you’re recovering the past. The past is not quite visible, not quite clear, and that movie has played festivals around the world and played television in three different countries, so I guess it’s carried by its charm.
Filmmaker: Since you mentioned using video as a means of community organizing, tell me a little bit more about your longer-term transition into filmmaking.
Allen: The transition from theater into video occurred because the person who was in charge of that cable channel asked me if I would do a weekly program. I said yes and I asked Eric, because he lived in the same neighborhood, and he’d just finished at RISD. We did that for a year, once a week, and got pretty accustomed to one another’s processes. He wanted very much to do a movie, so this big idea came along with Property. It was the natural thing to do: he borrowed a camera from someone and that’s how it started.
Filmmaker: What future did you envision for this movie when it was finished? It played the Utah/US Film Festival, which would become Sundance….
Allen: There was a small distribution process that grew out of the movies that were at Sundance, the movies that were part of an independent cinema coalition that was being put together by [IFP founder] Sandra Schulberg. Beside that, Property went to a lot of film festivals, all over the world, and that went on for a long time. All these years, there have always been screenings of Property; it’s kind of amazing to me, and there continue to be. It was on WNET in New York, back after it was made, and well-reviewed in The New York Times. It had a life before 2014, but probably nothing for a couple of decades.
Filmmaker: Did you lose money on the film?
Allen: Not really. It was financed by a grant.
Filmmaker: Was Paydirt more expensive? On the one hand, there are a lot of scenes at the one farm location, but on the other, more complicated setups, less handheld.
Allen: There was a producer named Jack Yost who raised money at that time. He put together a lot of individual investments in what would become Paydirt. It was probably much more expensive than Property, actually — a lot of Property was done on exchanges on various sorts. I think Paydirt cost $150,000 total.
Filmmaker: I don’t have the best handle on arts infrastructure then vs. now. From one angle the late ’70s look like a wild west for low-budget filmmaking, but you’re also telling me Property was financed by a grant.
Allen: The tax law was different then. I don’t know what it is right now, because I haven’t been in Oregon for quite some time, but when Paydirt was made, if someone made an investment and didn’t get repaid, they could just write it off on their taxes. I don’t think you can do that now. That’s how it was done at the time, so the people who put up $10,000 each could afford to lose it.
Filmmaker: Both movies are rooted in organic, quotidian circumstances. Coming off Paydirt, did you have plans to sell scripts to Hollywood? Did you think of yourself as a full-time filmmaker?
Allen: I did go to Hollywood, because Paydirt, too, was at Sundance. I was invited by somebody from a studio to talk about a new film I wanted to make. But what ended up happening was, I left Portland and went to live on a horse ranch with my lover for eight years, in eastern Oregon. I didn’t do film at all — it was my choice to step aside, essentially. But I loved making movies and wanted to do it again, but it just wasn’t in my life at that period of time. But then we moved directly from this horse ranch to Paris, where it’s kind of a closed circle, cinema. It never occurred to me that I would be able to break in in Paris, and it did take a lot of years — but I wasn’t trying, really, it happened by accident. By encountering this soldier, the idea occurred to me again
I did have all this material — the videos, the photographs, and I thought something should be done with this material. I sent it to a bunch of producers, one in New York and the other in Hollywood. They both said the material was great, but that we’d have to build a whole thing around it, we’d have to go to Iraq and all this. I said “that’s never gonna happen,” so I decided to make a romain-au-photo, a comic book but with photos instead of drawings. People are talking in bubbles. You can see it on my website: it was four pages long in color, it was published in Liberation, and then a lot of people all around the world saw it. I ended up publishing it in nine different languages in seven different countries. It was also here in New York at Exit Art.
After that I received a lot of emails from people who had seen it, and they were asking: “What happened to this guy? Is he dead? What happened?” because the strip ended when we were re-entering the United States, through immigration. So I thought, “I’m gonna have to make a movie,” so I arranged to meet up with the guy — that’s where the motel stuff came from, and Eric shot that again. I just went into it with the knowledge that it was terribly important, and I did what was necessary — The Soldier’s Tale came out in Paris, it had a life, and it’s on streaming. So in that way, I had worked myself into the back door of the French cinema industry.
Filmmaker: You wrote a novel about the period in your life on the horse ranch.
Allen: You’re talking about A Geography of Saints. It’s conflated into one year, but it’s the story of my time on the horse ranch. Several themes were extremely interesting during that time — I wove three of them together. It’s fairly political (laughs).
Filmmaker: But was it painful to say goodbye to shooting movies? Or did your interests just keep moving?
Allen: I was doing something else. No, I truly didn’t think about it — I’m always very involved in whatever I’m doing at the time, so no. I only began to think about it when it became obvious that I would be making The Soldier’s Tale. On the ranch I was already writing my novel and doing a lot of environmental activism. In eastern Oregon it had to do with saving old-growth forests; I really learned a tremendous amount, participating fully. Me and an awful lot of people even went to lobby in D.C. None of it had anything to do with cinema, and I continued in France, working for the former Minister of Environment, working on international issues — Chernobyl, things like that.
Filmmaker: For all its warmth and camaraderie, Property also portrays infighting, intra-community dysfunction, you know – the collective has a flirtation with self-sabotage. I don’t know how much of that belongs to them as leftists vs. as bohemians, or neither, or both.
Allen: The Corbett, Lair Hill neighborhood was a very bohemian community — it was full of low-rent people, artists, hippies. It was very idealistic, very dynamic, and it had been going long before I had lived there. I arrived in 1971. People were doing all sorts of things. The gentrification story began to happen, so that was the movie’s inspiration. When I go to Portland I still stay in that neighborhood, and it has survived — many of the people who were living there when we made Property haven’t moved. The way I see it, it’s still dogpatch in a way, but there are certainly people who have come in to buy one of those rundown houses and make it into a palace. But even they’re charmed by the community, they want to become part of it.
Filmmaker: The two feel like building blocks in a trilogy – people striving on the margins, on their own terms. In Property they’re organizing to maintain their neighborhood, but Paydirt gets into layers of sub-economy.
Allen: They are the first two legs of a trilogy, but the third part turned out to be that book, A Geography of Saints. A community of people confronted with an authority who have to figure out how to deal with it. So that’s one of my themes.
Filmmaker: You never wanted to adapt your book into a movie?
Allen: I think it would be great if somebody else did, because it’s an extremely good story. But no, I don’t want to, myself — I’m not into the past, I’m into the present. Find somebody for me!
Filmmaker: Were there legal repercussions to either of these movies once they were out in the world?
Allen: There were some repercussions — the banker in Property was a real banker, and he left town actually. Maybe he realized that story was going to get told. Maybe from other parts of the community there were some, but it wasn’t horrible or anything. As far as Paydirt went, nobody ever told where the plantation was, and nobody was ever threatened about it.
Filmmaker: Was there an attempt to make Paydirt less self-conscious, narratively?
I have to say that’s just the way it turned out — it was a more scripted film. And speaking of the trilogy: I always thought Property was the land-use movie about the urban situation, housing and things like that. Paydirt was the rural one — about legal and illegal use of your own land. As a result of it being rural, people talk less, it’s a more taciturn film. It encouraged much more visual elaboration, how you fill silent spaces, things like that. I wasn’t rejecting what had gone before, just taking a different direction — and not necessarily in anticipation of what was to follow.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the pragmatic challenges of making these movies.
Allen: Paydirt was different from Property, there was dirt and dust, as you say — but those aren’t really problems, it’s just a different situation. The difficulty of getting someone to let us use their marijuana plantation, we were blindfolded when we first went there so we wouldn’t know where it was. But that’s just how it was at the time — dangerous, illegal.
If you’re looking for danger, Late For My Mother’s Funeral was full of risk — that was the first time I confronted that. Algeria is an autocratic state, a highly controlled society, ruled over by the police and the military. We had innumerable encounters with the police, and also the fear of trying to exit the country with rushes — it became obvious we were going to be thoroughly searched before we left. Fortunately, with digital, the rushes aren’t huge — perhaps about 80 hours of rushes were wrapped up in an airtight, watertight package, and one of the sisters who goes across the Algeria-Morocco border to earn her living took it to Morocco. It was easier for us to come and get the material and leave Morocco without it being confiscated. And the material was then stolen, a fact I had to live with for about 10 months. I was unsure I’d ever get it back — we ultimately did, and it was in perfect condition, so the movie could be edited. We edited around all the missing material, so in doing that I must have believed I would get it back. I had to not become hysterical about it.
Filmmaker: Sometimes a film is pulled back into the limelight decades later for some reason — it could be curatorial, it could be an homage in a contemporary work, whatever, and meanwhile, the filmmaker feels they’ve moved on. Does it bother you to talk about Property or Paydirt so long after the fact?
Allen: Well, both movies’ scenes still exist but they’re very different. The wine-making community, there were very few vintners at the time and they were all struggling — now there’s something like 150 in Oregon. Oregon wine is on the map. The neighborhood story still exists but it’s not the same, and neither are the issues people are confronted with, so it couldn’t possibly be the same story now. I don’t mind talking about them — I’m something of an activist, I guess, so they’re subjects of a film, or a book, but they’re also part of my own life.
Filmmaker: It all forms the same practice, but the two later films are very different from the first two.
Allen: But that all has to do with living in a different country. You know, The Soldier’s Tale is a confrontation between the two sides of the United States: in my case, it’s somebody who actually left America for very political reasons, and that’s what’s behind the movie. Late To My Mother’s Funeral is far away from America, more closely connected to France; I’ve lived there for 25 years, so it’s necessarily a post-colonial story. That family, too, is a collective — even The Soldier’s Tale is about collectives, because the soldier carries his entire unit with him when he’s speaking. Even if we don’t see them in my movie, we see them in his little movies. So there’s continuity there.
Filmmaker: So is filmmaking an extension of activism or a sideshow? The question of futility is on people’s minds.
Allen: It isn’t an extension. I was always exploring the frontier between fiction and documentary, from the very beginning — I’ve been working on an aesthetic without consciously writing it down, articulating it as “this is why I’m doing this or that.” But it’s certainly not a sideline now. Maybe you don’t want to talk about the present, but I’m in preproduction on a pretty big movie that’s fiction, set entirely in the present. I’ve evolved and you’ll be able to see where I’m going. But it also deals with a collective.
Filmmaker: Can you say more?
Not really. It’s a French production with an American producer collaborating, and it’ll be my first movie working within the French system. Late For My Mother’s Funeral was still self-produced.
Filmmaker: Do you go see new movies?
Allen: Yeah — I thought Manchester By The Sea was really great. I’ve recently discovered Lucretia Martel, just in the last few months, and I’m definitely a fan of hers. I try to discover people all the time, and see as many movies as I can get ahold of.
Filmmaker: Is there anything you learned strictly as an activist that comes back around to filmmaking?
Well… I’ve always thought that a rough situation stimulates theater, stimulates movies, subject matter, literature — I don’t know if it stimulates painting, for instance. I don’t know. But it allows people to position themselves aesthetically. That’s my positive take on this horrible situation, which hasn’t even started yet. At the time of Property I was sort of a community organizer, and it had to do with land use. I’m good at community organizing, reaching out, bringing other people in, that sort of thing — and I’m having to do it with the movie I’m currently preparing. But it isn’t an issue that’ll show up in the movie — I’m always using what I’ve learned before. Making the movie just involves a lot of community members, and the only way to get them involved is to organize again.