There was range to the Sundance Film Festival this year. If you asked attendees to name their top films, you’d hear a lot of healthy variance. As usual, social issue docs had a strong showing, a notable thread that jumped out at me was “writing history.” Three documentaries fit together so well that it made me think “getting it on record” must be part of the Zeitgeist. Since there’s only space for two here, I’ll start by mentioning Reagan, by Eugene Jarecki (The Fog of War and Why We Fight), an exceptionally balanced doc which aims to shed light on the real Ronald Reagan, beyond the mythology of the 48th President that still dominates the conservative political discourse here in the United States.
Some people buy into myths, for a variety of reasons, Jarecki aims to right the scales, to emphasize what Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan Jr., says about his father, “He was both smarter and better than the left think he was, and less the giant than many on the right think he was.” Like Jarecki, two other filmmakers added their takes to history:
How excellent would it be if you were sifting through the vault at a television studio, looking through film reels for a project you were researching, when all of a sudden you discovered a huge archive of mostly unseen 16mm footage documenting a vital piece of history? Making its way to Park City from Scandinavia was The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, directed by Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson and coproduced by Danny Glover. Olsson discovered a trough of pristinely preserved footage about the Black Power Movement while working on a movie about Soul Music. He recalls: “The moment we saw this footage we knew we were going to make this movie. I also saw it as my duty to take these fantastic images and make them accessible to an audience.”
Olsson achieved his goal. The doc is paced energetically, cycling through time chronologically, each year focusing on figureheads such as Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and more. Olsson’s not just laying down content, he mashes it up with a soundtrack by Questlove (of the band Roots) and voice-over commentary by modern day icons Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Abiodun Oyewole, Sonia Sanchez, Harry Belafonte and more. They comment on the very footage we are watching, contextualizing the movement’s impact, offering up the perspective of time. For Olsson, The Black Power Mixtape may be a mixtape but it is not a remix: “I wanted to keep the feeling of the material, not cut it into pieces. My respect is not only for the personalities in the images, but also for the original filmmakers.” Interviews, speeches, and outstanding B-roll footage interweave with luminous, even touching, moments like when Stokely Carmichael offers to help a Swedish news reporter struggling to interview his mother, and takes the mic to conduct the interview himself. I couldn’t shake my curiosity about why the Swedes were so fascinated by the Black Power Movement, their access was singular. Extraordinary footage includes an interview from 1972 with Angela Davis from her jail cell while awaiting trial for murder and kidnapping. For Olsson, the hardest part was leaving out footage that did not fit his storyline. He laments: “We had some awesome footage about [the] Shirley Chisholm campaign in 1972 [the first black women elected to Congress].” I think it’s important to view The Black Power Mixtape as a piece of history, not as a complete history, as it lacks a critical view – for instance of the movement’s complicated relationship with sexism. Nevertheless, it’s a must-see work, a creative missing link to our collective history.
Filling in another vital part of history overlooked – or suppressed – by mainstream culture is the momentous !Women Art Revolution (!WAR) by Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose standout hybrid doc Strange Culture screened at the 2007 edition of Sundance. Like The Black Power Mixtape, the film includes footage shot a long time ago – this time, it was Leeson herself doing the shooting. About 40 years ago, in the late 1960s, Leeson, who is also an artist, began interviewing friends and colleagues integral to the women’s art scene in the United States.
“This film is peppered with images you have never seen,” narrates Leeson, “because there was no access to them.” You quickly realize !WAR is not just about art, it’s about the history of the lack of visibility of women, it’s about freedom of speech, oppression, politics, equality, activism, empowerment, liberation. !WAR documents a civil rights movement, a revolution, all its own. “The personal became the political,” Leeson reminds us about the era, “and the very personal became art.” Lesson subtitles her film “a (formerly) secret history.” We meet artists then and now (Judith Baca, Nancy Spero, Eleanor Antin, and so many more), meet their compelling artwork and collaborative performances pieces, including footage of a sort-of-coup of the Modern Museum of Art in the 1970s to expose the absence of representation by female artists. I am reminded about the vast histories that are left untold: can we rely on our schooling to teach us? Must we always be vigilant about selfeducation? It is shocking to realize that, not that long ago, one woman’s distaste for patriarchy expressed through her art (that featured vaginas) was a subject for debate on the floor of the United States Congress.
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was deemed “too offensive” for presentation, you could almost see the hostility wafting from the breath of the congressmen. This was 1990. Accompanying Leeson’s film at Sundance was a sister project, RAW/WAR, an interactive, community-curated archive and installation. RAW/WAR “provides a forum in which users can come together, share their stories and collaboratively contribute to the history of women’s art. … The project is generated from the idea that history is about access and authorship and that we, as a global digital community, can now all participate in its creation and change the way history itself is constructed,” explains Leeson.
There are vital things about Leeson’s project aside from the content. First, her video diary archive is publicly accessible online. It is housed by Stanford University and includes over 1000 hours of interviews and transcripts from the film. Because of the retrievability of this information, there are no outtakes, which, Leeson points out, subverts traditional notions of filmmaking. Leeson realizes her film can only represent a “nanosecond” of history; the public archive is a brilliant way to counter the limits of a film’s running time. Additionally, her RAW/ WAR online project adds the global community into the mix and is self-curated, think of it as a crowdsourced Wiki. “RAW/WAR is allowing users to add, and ultimately, remix, their own stories.”
While I was writing this article, events in Egypt were unfolding. Mubarak left Cairo! It was hard for me to turn my attention back to my work, tears of joy, of deep respect for the brave democracy fighters, of solidarity with goodness and possibility, filled me. The flow of information via the internet played a role in this historic sea change. One can hope that stories will never be lost in a basement somewhere, that voices will never be left out. That is, of course, up to us.
Links of interest: