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in Filmmaking
on Mar 29, 2007

Today in New York at the IFC Center Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep receives its U.S. theatrical premiere… 30 years after its completion in 1977. Made as the writer/director’s UCLA thesis film, Killer of Sheep went on to win awards at the Berlin Film Festival and Sundance, and it was declared a “national treasure” by the Library of Congress. The story of a slaughterhouse worker, an insomniac, struggling to raise his family in ’70s Watts, the film blended the work of non-actors and poetic visuals with a deeply humane sensibility that contrasted sharply with the blaxploitation films that appeared in theaters at the time.

Because Burnett made the feature as, essentially, a student film, he didn’t clear his music rights, and those clearances have prevented the film from a proper release. Now, Milestone, with help from Steven Soderbergh, is releasing the film at the IFC Center in New York, with, presumably, further bookings to come. We’re working on the Spring issue of Filmmaker now, and it includes writer/director James Ponsoldt’s interview with Burnett. But since the film is opening today, I thought I’d run an excerpt:

Filmmaker: How do you think the film relates to the world in 2007 versus the world in 1977?

Burnett: I think you can see the seeds of some of the future in the film. The Watts riots were in ’65, and we filmed in the early 70’s, and you can see that little was done to help the community. In a way, you look back and it’s even worse now, in many ways. Then, to some degree, you could get a job doing manual labor, of course there’s always been a job crisis, but now everything is so technical. Then you could at least pick up a trade from your family who were carpenters, or plumbers, and now you have to go to school for it. In the film there’s an anti-southern thing—like the son calling his mother “My dear,” which is like a country code-word, and she tells him not to say that—and there’s a rejection of certain values, and you sort of need those foundations. To Sleep With Anger was partly about the loss of that, and some of My Brother’s Wedding is about your responsibility as a person, and how qualified you are to be responsible for another human being.

Filmmaker: Do you think you were trying to explore how rural, or Southern values, exist within a more metropolitan environment like Los Angeles?

Burnett: More so in To Sleep With Anger and My Brother’s Wedding. Growing up it was a constant clash, of rejecting southern values, and the south, and if you were from the south, people called you “country.” So it was a negative more than a positive. But if somehow you let those values seep in, through osmosis or whatever, you look at your life and realize it’s relevant. And you find people that don’t have those values, and it’s like they’re missing something. I feel sorry for people who didn’t come up with any value system. In the neighborhood where I grew up, the neighbors were like extended family. That’s all missing now—most of it. It’s so urban now, but Los Angeles used to be full of vast, open spaces. It was rural—like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn! You could see for miles. City Hall was the biggest building. You could see the mountains every day. You could have chickens, rabbits, ducks—anything—in your back yard. It was a great place to be at that time. It felt country. There was a sense of community. Now, it’s really dirty. If you go to Africa, in some parts it’s like it’s brand new—you can see for miles, it’s not polluted. You go through Namibia and there are elephants on the road. There’s a sense of newness. It’s not totally exploited.

Filmmaker: I read that you wanted to make a film during your UCLA days about the black revolution, and you told this to some older men, and they laughed at you, said that they loved America. I find your films both incredibly human and political. Do you feel like your films are an attempt by you to reconcile anger, political anger, with telling gentle stories about human behavior?

Burnett: I didn’t want to make a revolutionary film about taking over the city or the world, necessarily. What happened was that I was thinking about how to make a film that reflected the reality of the situation, and I used to always get my hair cut in Watts at a particular barbershop. There was always some conversation or argument with these older guys inside. I went in there one time, and it was Paul Robeson’s birthday or something, and I went there excited, and their attitude was against Paul Robeson, because they felt he’d turned against his country. And I thought they were mad! They were talking about this guy who was a spokesperson for injustice all over the world. So we got into a big debate, and they were saying things like, “I’ll give you a plane ticket to Russia if you promise not to come back,” but then I realized that they’d lived through the war, they were from the south, they’d been through segregation, experienced the worst of that, yet they still had a profound patriotism and love of America. It was hard for me to reconcile. So they weren’t a part of the Watts rebellion, but they were responsible people who were into supporting America—very democratic, believed in the system. It made me look closely at people who were, say, economically at the lower end, but they still believed politically that they had opportunities, and never thought of themselves as poor because they were working and making a living. It was an eye opener, in many ways.

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