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“Black Life Has Always Been Better Than Black Cinema”: Documentary Makers Speak at Full Frame’s “Black Frame: New Voices of Documentary” A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

One of the few upsides to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s necessary pivot to digital was the smart decision to take its A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy discussions online with the rest of the fest – and one step further. Now these always inspiring panels have been expanded to year-round, free virtual events. While the palpable camaraderie at this southernly hospitable fest unfortunately can’t be replicated through Zoom, the insight from the many brilliant doc-making minds Full Frame consistently brings together still shines through.

And the most recent edition “Black Frame: New Voices of Documentary,” which took place January 13, proved to be a gem. (A video of the event will be posted on the site shortly.) The panel was deftly moderated by Mark Anthony Neal, who is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African-American Studies and Professor of English, and Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. (The “Black Frame” series itself was recently launched in partnership with Neal’s department.) And the three faces joining the professor and prolific author on the screen were familiar ones to indie audiences. There was Time director Garrett Bradley, who nabbed the Best Director Award in the US Documentary Competition at Sundance 2020, and went on to win this year’s Gotham Award for Best Documentary Feature; also Black 14 director Darius Clark Monroe, whose Evolution of a Criminal received the Grand Jury Prize back at Full Frame 2014; and rounding out the quartet was self-described “liberated documentarian” RaMell Ross, whose 2018 film Hale County This Morning, This Evening was one of the rare experimental features ever to be nominated for an Oscar.

Neal began the conversation by bringing up the fact that most Black documentaries have historically been about Black America – rather than from Black America. Which prompted Ross to chime in regarding the dominant media’s conditioning of Black people in how they choose to frame themselves. He spoke of having to shed traditional modes of looking, traditional modes of using the camera, in order to shoot authentically. Once more Black filmmakers start participating in the film industry “we fall into the mode of industrial cinema” that “others ourselves,” he cautioned.

Bradley noted that she has only made films that came out of her real relationships with people. She hopes to evoke the spirit and the beauty of the individuals she’s documenting. She added that there’s a tension between universality and individuality – and that she’s looking at the specificity. (Marketing, in contrast, focuses on the “universality” question.) Monroe, for his part, described less a feeling of being embedded with a subject than being a part of a specific separate universe. He spoke of himself as a “witness” and a part of this tribe he films. He’s forever pushing against the dumbing down of Black experiences. The very existence of Black people, and the value of archiving that, is itself crucial. To not be controlled by the dominant culture was his foremost concern.

Neal then teased out this idea of capturing a world that doesn’t need validation from the dominant culture. Unsurprisingly, given Full Frame’s IRL North Carolina location, this led to a discussion of depictions of the South by non-southerners. Bradley, a New Yorker, said she was attracted to Louisiana because it provided an escape from both coasts’ narrow focus on the future. She saw the South as a way to gain a better understanding of the past. Ross, who grew up in northern Virginia, described himself as a “vicarious southerner.” He likewise appreciated the sense of time in the South, of being in the present. It was an “inter-dimensional” thing – and much different than in the North, where a job and future-oriented mindset is the norm. The South gave his work and sensibility a home since he considered it “the home of the Black image.”

Neal then turned to Monroe to ask about a particular aspect of Evolution of a Criminal: the notion of taking ownership of mistakes in a world that doesn’t expect one to do so. What was it like for him to hold himself accountable onscreen? Monroe admitted it was tough. He emphasized that what happened to him as a result of the prison industrial complex was a separate conversation from his responsibility as a human being to right a wrong. (Which prompted me to realize that Monroe is embracing accountability in the way society should but shamefully never has.) It was a terrifying experience, especially because “in a state like Texas you can get shot” for trying to apologize to those you’ve harmed. We are all “works of progress,” he added.

Neal then pointed out that both Monroe’s and Bradley’s films deal with bank robberies – i.e, focus on folks in dire straits to begin with, who commit crimes of desperation. Too often it’s the entrepreneurial drug dealers that grab the spotlight. (Which caused me to think that it’s just easier, and lazier, to glamorize and romanticize flashy hustlers than to deal with their everyday reality of poverty onscreen.) Neal asked specifically about Bradley’s main character, whose struggle to survive is indeed riveting. Bradley responded by pushing back on the implication that documentary is always presenting “the truth” – when really “you start packaging something” the moment you begin filming. It was important for her to home in on how Fox presented herself to the world, and that she leaned into that. There’s power and illumination in focusing on how one chooses to present themselves. She just didn’t feel the need to get under or around that. “I’m not there to interpret somebody’s soul – and then flip that on its head. I’m there to honor that person and their story.” (Amen. Nonfiction filmmakers do tend to prioritize access above all else, including over honoring and deeply listening to a person’s lived experience.) Neal agreed she’d succeeded. “You’ve made one of the best films about the criminal justice system that’s not actually about the criminal justice system,” he enthused. To which Bradley responded that “issues” are made up of human beings before calling for a conversation between films like hers and Monroe’s, and also Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Neal then asked Ross about the term “experimental” and how that definition changes when the word “Black” is added to it. Black “abstract” art might be a better term he hypothesized. Ross concurred, adding that Hale County was his “freshman piece” that he’d been making his whole life. It was also his reaction to documentaries full of graphics “but not actual art.” The focus on “journalistic integrity” often holds filmmakers back, he lamented. And his aesthetic was likewise a reaction against things like the industrialization of time. Abstraction – not “towards the extraterrestrial but towards the banal” – actually allows him space for a new meaning to be addressed. Black people have too long been approached as part of something else, he added. He viewed his abstract art as a needed return to simplicity, noting that “None of us have ever seen a Black person before.” What he meant was that every added misrepresentation over the years has led to Black people onscreen that don’t actually exist in reality.

Neal then took a nuts and bolts question from a Zoom viewer about short doc distribution. Bradley mentioned that she’d cold submitted her idea for her short Alone to NYTimes Op-Docs. (Much to the shock of Ross who exclaimed, “That film won everything at Sundance!”) She urged making films “by any means necessary. Make things when nobody is looking, when nobody cares.” Rather than focus on results filmmakers should “lean into the process.”

Which caused Neal to wonder about the moment when each panelist was able to call themselves a “documentary filmmaker.” To which Monroe answered that he’d always been a filmmaker, a storyteller, in both fiction and nonfiction genres. Making Evolution was like “going through a doctoral program,” he added. That said, he was still unsure about the term “documentary filmmaker.” He remained most comfortable just being a storyteller.

Ross admitted that he’s always been hesitant about dispensing advice since he’s “never lived a practical life.” His whole film “was a gamble.” And most unusually, he had always been just fine with the possibility of not getting distribution. He prized being allowed to fail. Ross then mentioned that as a former athlete he’d often pushed back against being called an athlete, and all its inherent assumptions. He felt that filmmakers should “know what you’re doing and why you want to do it,” but also be “open to change and evolution.” He then suggested pursuing filmmaking “outside of making money. Get a job because you need to eat.” He deemed it unwise to rely on one’s art to play that role.

Which prompted Bradley to stress that there’s a difference between craft and career. “Many of the greatest artists on earth have always had other jobs.” Besides, a filmmaker needs to be engaged with the world — not with the insular microcosm of the industry — in order to create.

Neal then wondered how both COVID and the racial justice protests had affected the panelists’ filmmaking in 2020. Ross replied that the biggest challenge of making work is reaching a broadly different ideological audience — which was true before COVID brought the world to a standstill. He guessed that anyone who’d watched his doc upon discovering it while stuck in lockdown at home likely would have found it anyhow. He then wryly added that Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh probably had not seen his film. “The levels of different realities that people live in” and the consequences of that is actually what shook up so many white people in 2020. Racism, and the knowledge of it, had always existed. He called for change-making artists to approach their work from a marketer’s point of view. Messages needed to be multilayered and complex (rather than directly confrontational. The BLM movement has become an easy right-wing bogeyman because it’s not seen with nuance, unfortunately).

Neal soon took another question from the Zoom audience about wedding sound to image. Sound is crucial for interpreting images, Bradley stressed. Right from the research phase she listens to music and figures out “the sonic landscape.” She added that she’d struggled with Time and didn’t arrive at incorporating Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s music until the editing process. (Surprisingly, it was the YouTube algorithm that had led her to the Ethiopian nun’s work.) She described her fortuitous discovery as the “saran wrap” that the film needed. “What it is you want to say and do” determines the music, she explained.

Another viewer inquired about the panelists’ inspirations. Monroe noted that he’d grown up “in a family of artists who didn’t call themselves artists.” Yet it was the landscape of Houston that had always inspired him visually. Just riding around the city, going to a high school that had cattle roaming nearby, watching colors and fabrics at parties, he’d felt “the spirit and energy of generations of people” who’d never made it to NYC or Chicago or LA. This all informed his work.

Ross offered that “Black life has always been better than Black cinema.” Writing and jazz seemed to be the only artistic spaces that really reflected the African-American experience. Which spurred Neal to ask if the Black cinema lag had historically been an access problem. Ross, however, was more concerned that with the necessity to “prove Blackness” and “narrativize struggle” comes a fundamental Black ceiling. He emphasized that he finds inspiration in the work of non-Black artists as well, always playing the game of “What if this was Black?” (To illustrate his point, Ross described literally coloring in all the characters of a Shel Silverstein book to make them Black. The result? “Holy shit! These are not the same poems! This alligator is eating this Black child!”)

Striking a more serious tone, Neal noted that “unmediated Blackness is so compelling,” and reminded that the white frame is always part of Du Bois’s double consciousness. To which Bradley responded that William Greaves “broke my brain.” She brought up those who doubted Greaves was even in control of his own camera with the avant-garde Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. (And Ross was quite impressed with Bradley’s ability to pronounce the title.) “If Miles Davis is doing the score to your film you damn well know what you’re doing,” she scoffed. To which Ross stressed that sound and vision are both factors of attention. Sometimes he’ll be walking down the street and a soundtrack will get in his head, which will in turn influence how he sees his surroundings. Greaves, of course, internalized this.

“Were you ever surprised by something you did in your film?” Neal then wondered. Monroe replied that with the all-archival Black 14 he’d waited six to eight months for Greaves’s archival material to arrive from the Library of Congress, resulting in a surprise beyond his wildest expectations. Bradley said that she was surprised by what she was not able to achieve (a surprising admission in itself). Watching the racial justice protests in 2020, hearing the “echoes of Emmett Tills’s mother,” had highlighted for her the “lack of optics” when it came to the prison system. Which, needless to say, was by design. She felt she needed to make the intentionally invisible visible. But even a drone couldn’t capture the immensity of the 18K acres of land at Angola. She considered this a failure. People actually saw what was happening on the ground in Vietnam, and now “we live behind green screen.”

Which prompted Monroe to agree that it’s his responsibility to talk about something that he and the Black community did not create. But he also stressed that white filmmakers needed to do the same. He took issue with documentarians who “fly all over the world” recording all manner of things, yet refuse to turn their lens to their own history, figuring it’s the job of people like Monroe to tackle racial injustice and the prison industrial complex. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve lived it,” he emphasized. “I’m still living it.” It’s the white people who’ve put that racist system in place, and re-traumatizing Black people is not the way to fix it.

To which Bradley countered that white people aren’t stepping up, though. She feels compelled to delve into the humanity of incarceration, to provide “food” for the Black community (and yes, to let others deal with the trauma element). “The abstract only has value in the social,” Ross added. He said that he likes Donald Judd but “Who cares what a square is?” Why is Judd’s art only accessible to a certain segment of the population? Why can’t human beings all share the same values? He considered it a fundamental failure that we have godlike tech yet don’t all put the same premium on humanity. Black artists “need to make work that consolidates our values.” He theorized that it’s not even possible for Black artists to make work that isn’t entwined with elements of oppression, of history. We are all the sum of a holistic part.

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