Memory, Images, History
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
This week I had the pleasure of meeting Jamaa Fanaka in Hollywood when he paid me a visit, because he had agreed to put his films on deposit at UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Jamaa is an African-American filmmaker in Los Angeles, who directed the hugely successful Penitentiary (1979), followed by Penitentiary II (1982) and III (1987). Like his earlier features, Emma Mae (1976) aka Black Sister’s Revenge and Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975) aka Soul Vengence, Fanaka’s films play with the conventions of “Blaxploitation,” while simultaneously commenting on the genre in a highly self-reflexive genre.
The term “Blaxploitation” was originally dreamed up by Variety for a wave of Hollywood films with all-black casts, often centered on crime, drugs, and prostitution that began with Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971). During the 1970s, Hollywood produced more that seventy Blaxploitation films, many directed by black directors, and therefore a genuine expression of African-American popular culture. But there were also many “pimps n hoes” quickies, shot in the Philippines.
Ironically, Jamaa Fanaka belonged to a unique group of African-American film students at UCLA in the 1970s and early 1980s that film historian Clyde Taylor has labeled the “L.A. Rebellion,” because they specifically reacted against mainstream Hollywood cinema’s hijacking of African-American life to create a stereotyped and largely negative cinematic image. Indeed, the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers identified themselves as the first sustained and geographically specific effort in the United States by a group of black film artists working with a common purpose to forge a cinema practice that would be responsive to the lives and concerns of African American communities and the African diaspora. The most prominent of the group are Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Ben Caldwell, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Jacqueline Frazier, Barbara McCullough, Zeinabu Irene Davis, and Carroll Parrott Blue.
Surprisingly, neither UCLA Film & Television Archive nor the film school had ever attempted to stay in touch with or collect the films of this group of filmmakers, nor had there been any sustained attempt at historisizing the “movement.” Only a few isolated film titles had entered into the Archive.
In 2009, we decided to change that and begin a truly holistic research and preservation project, by bringing the “L.A. Rebellion” home.
It is the first time the Archive is not waiting passively for films and television to “walk in the door”, but rather is going out and saving a specific group of films we believe are important. We have assembled a team of scholars, filmmakers and professionals to research existing film and paper collections in libraries and archives; conduct and capture oral histories with participating filmmakers; collect film elements for conservation, restoration and exhibition; collect paper documents from filmmakers for the special collections library; publish a book which will contextualize the L.A. Rebellion and frame it in relation to its time period and parallel developments in film and the arts; strike many new prints for a massive retrospective exhibition in Fall 2011. We have received initial funding from the Getty Foundation, since the “L. A. Rebellion” film exhibition will be screened in the context of the Los Angeles wide art exhibition, “Pacific Standard Time.”
I first talked to Jamaa last Fall on the phone and then began an email correspondence, when I became “a friend for life.” When the sixty-something filmmaker arrived at the Archive last Monday, he had a lovely young women on each arm and appeared to be totally in his element. They were Professors Jacqueline Stewart and Allyson Field, two co-curators on the L.A. Rebellion project, who had met Jamaa previously at Roscoe’s Waffles ‘n’ Chicken. Interestingly, like so many of his film school colleagues, Fanaka had financed his films independently and thus knew where his pre-print elements (negatives) were stored, something many mainstream director’s don’t know. So Jamma’s main concern was that UCLA would not only store the films, but actually restore them, the way we have previously restored Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977). Happily, Jamaa Fanaka’s films constitute the first collection to be placed in the Archive.
Given the fact that we have now identified more than fifty different individuals in the L.A. Rebellion, our journey (and our fund-raising!) have only just begun.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
As we enter into the second decade of the new millenium, moving image archives have taken a few more steps towards complete professionalization by establishing formal training programs for moving image archivists. Not surprisingly, the major impetus for the yearly Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference had originally been the real need for training and the professional exchange of archival methodologies and practices for moving image preservation. Thus, the second official AMIA conference instituted workshops where older colleagues spoke to novices and younger colleagues, a sort of moving image archiving 101.
Beginning in the mid 1990s, then, film archives in connection with universities began for the first time to offer professional training courses for moving image archivists. One of the first programs in Europe was founded as an M.A. in Film Archiving at the University of East Anglia in England. The Selznick School at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., was established in 1997 as a one-year non-academic certificate program. The school now offers a Master’s Degree in conjunction with the University of Rochester. The first graduate degree program in Moving Image Archives Studies was established at UCLA in 2002, followed a year later by New York University’s Moving Image Archive Program.
These formal training programs which incorporate theoretical and research oriented studies with real world archive internships, move beyond the autodidactic approach that previously characterized training in the field. Many individuals presently working in moving image archiving and preservation have received on the job training and little else. I may be one of the few archivists of my generation to actually receive a semi-formal training in moving image archiving. In 1975-76, I spent a year at George Eastman House as a postgraduate intern, funded by a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship program for Museum studies.
Now a young generation of academically-trained moving image archivists and curators is rapidly moving into the field. Most entry level positions in this still expanding field of moving image archiving are now filled by graduates from the above programs, as well as others established at the University of Amsterdam, in Germany, Italy, the University of Texas Austin, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Just this last week, my alma mater, George Eastman House, where I was the institution’s third curator, named Dr. Caroline Frick as its 6th curator of film. She is the first graduate of a film archive M.A. program to ascend to a leadership role in a major American archive.
These academic programs are important, however, not only to train film archivists, but also to establish methodologies and best practices. We have to remember that despite decades of practical work, moving image archival practice has until quite recently been based on nothing more than an informal set of anecdotally communicated “recommendations.” Few standards had been theorized or codified, even fewer practices had been formalized in a program of action. Most of what we call archival ethics and theory had been borrowed from other fields, whether the library and information sciences or curatorial practices in museums. AMIA’s founding in 2001 of an official journal, The Moving Image, began to change that, as over the last decade it has built up a body of literature on many aspects of archival theory for moving images.
Numerous contributions to The Moving Image originate at one of the academic institutions involved in the field. It is a project that must continue, if the field hopes to produce competent professionals, yet one that cannot be completed by working archivists alone. In fact, the establishment of codes and practices for moving image preservation, whether in the analogue or digital realm, must be conceived as a huge, collaborative project between working professionals, professors in academic programs, and students. By questioning informally established procedures, students force both working professionals and professors to explicate and rationalize their current use. Documenting these types of discussions in protocols, student papers, and formal academic articles will create a body of knowledge for moving image archive professionals and hopefully engender better technologies and methodologies for saving our visual heritage.