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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Two great social justice filmmakers return to...

Screen Grabs: Two great social justice filmmakers return to the screen

Skip Norman's revolutionary '60s-'70s films and Glauber Rocha's daring 'Black God, White Devil' play BAMPFA.

Two late filmmakers very much concerned with probing inequities of race, class, and justice are given a spotlight at BAMPFA starting this week. Both Baltimore-born Skip Norman and the Brazilian Glauber Rocha began their careers in the 1960s, each becoming significant figures in that era’s use of the medium to simultaneously fuel and reflect emerging social justice movements.

Norman, whose family moved to Washington DC when he was a child (he’d pass away there in 2015, at age 81), saw his life path greatly influenced by an early interest in German language and literature. In 1961 he got a scholarship to attend the University of Gottingen, where he got very involved in theater. But five years later it was Berlin’s DFFB Film School that he applied to for further studies—during which period he often worked on the projects of other students, some soon to become well-known.

His own films, and those he participated in later on, were much attuned to issues of African American identity and political struggle—their treatment from a perspective of both Marxist critical analysis and experimental documentary collage, two things that flourished in non-commercial cinema for a time. (The tenor that makes these films seem distant foreign artifacts now would have seemed ordinary, possibly even a little dated to your average college student half a century ago.)

The BAMPFA series Skip Norman Here and There starts this Thu/25 with a program of his “DFFB Years” (1966-69), shorts whose avant-garde flourishes—including a lot of meaningful black screen—underline content that serves as both indictment and radical agitprop. Speech audio from Black Panther Bobby Seale, a dialogue excerpt from LeRoi Jones aka Amiri Baraka’s incendiary one-act play Dutchman, onscreen quotes from Franz Fanon, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey P. Newton, and still photos of racist violence provoke dialogue on Black Nationalism and the myriad reasons for it. A bill of “Collaborations” on Feb. 14 finds Norman as cinematographer for German fellow students like Harun Farocki and Helke Sander, taking a similar approach to different targets of protest including patriarchal society and the Vietnam War.

After completing his degree, Norman devoted himself wholly to urgencies of American Black political consciousness, creating three mid-length 1970 films (all showing Feb. 22) that expand the earlier works’ template. On Africa is an essayistic overview of the continent in political, historical and economic terms, the uniting theme being ongoing colonialist/imperialist exploitation. Closer to home, Washington DC November 1970 and Black Man’s Volunteer Army of Liberation chronicle specific acts of resistance and progress—the second portraying an experiment in communal living, community outreach, and healing (especially drug rehab) as antidote to what Seale called “the pig power system.” These are celluloid news bulletins of the era—artful but primarily educative, aiming to empower.

Also an accomplished, frequently-exhibited still photographer, Norman eventually focused more on teaching, in a lengthy academic career that included stints at universities from Mississippi, Ohio and DC to Portugal and Turkey. But in the 1970s he shot two adventurous features for other directors that will be shown at BAMPFA—and which, like most of this series, have scarcely been seen in the US for years, if ever.

Playing Feb. 1, Lothar Lambert and Wolfram Zobus’ 1974 1 Berlin-Harlem is a narrative curio, reeling from quasi-documentary to melodramatic camp, with Conrad Jennings as a handsome Black ex-GI who decides to settle in Germany’s capital. But nearly everyone he encounters, male or female, gay or straight, can see him only as an object of sexual exoticism and/or threat—no matter that he gets a job in computer technology. A sour indictment of not-so-evolved German society, like a more haphazardly crafted version of Fassbinder’s same-year Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, it includes glimpses of various New German Cinema personalities including Fassbinder himself. The rambling narrative is lifted by the sharp visual documentation of various mid-’70s Berlin scenes, though Norman was not the sole cinematographer.

Five years later, he was the principal director of photography on Ethiopian-born, US-based director Haile Gerima’s (Bush MamaSankofaWilmington 10—US 10,000. Its two hours ambitiously chronicle and contextualize the story of the titular activists (nine male African-American youths, one older white female anti-poverty worker) given lengthy sentences for alleged arson committed amidst violent racial tensions in 1971 Wilmington, North Carolina. The case against them was so flimsy, it became an international symbol of institutionalized US racism. Eventually all the incriminating evidence turned out to have been fabricated, leading to overturned convictions, pardons, and financial compensation—but not until well after they’d languished years in prison, and some had died. This documentary mosaic closes the Skip Norman series on Feb. 29; for info on the entire schedule, go here.

A pioneering figure in the Cinema Novo movement, Brazil’s “new wave,” Glauber Rocha introduced it to international audiences with Black God, White Devil, which BAMPFA is showing in a new digital restoration this Sat/27 as well as February 15. Movies evolved rapidly during the ’60s, but this one remains startlingly advanced for something that premiered mid-1964. Its simultaneous advocacy and dissection of violent revolution against corrupt authority was hardly fashionable as yet, while the combination of brutality and surrealism anticipated subsequent work by Pasolini, Jodorowsky, and many others. Mixing raw neorealism and more artificial elements, its stylistic freedom is impressive, arriving at results sometimes spare, sometimes grandiose (esp. the rather incongruous orchestral soundtrack swells of Heitor Villa-Lobos), sometimes chaotic.

The story is a folkloric hero’s quest—peasant Manoel (Geraldo Del Rey), hoping to buy some measure of independence with the fruits of his hard labor as a ranch hand, is enraged when the wealthy boss makes an excuse to cheat him of his wages. In a fury, he kills the man, then must flee, dragging wife Rosa (Yona Magalhaes) along.

First Manoel seeks salvation from a religious cult leader (Lidio Silva) who thinks himself the reincarnation of St. Sebastian, but whose perverse mission ultimately demands drastic sacrifices from his acolyte. Then Manoel falls in with a piratical roving bandit (Othon Bastos) whose pretense of being a latterday avenging Robin Hood turns out to be hollow—he doesn’t want to give to the poor, just rob, rape, and run amuck amongst the rich. Meanwhile all the above are lethally pursued as agitators against the status quo by a hired assassin (Mauricio do Valle) in the employ of mainstream Church and State.

Long, increasingly phantasmagorical, alternately frenetic and soporific, Black God, White Devil remains an uneven viewing experience, but one whose daring—located somewhere between Bunuel and Sweet Sweetback—carries it over the rough spots. It’s easy to imagine the effect it must have had on Skip Norman and other film students (though in fact Rocha was his junior, being only 25 in 1964) likely to have seen it around the world. Rocha made more features in a similar political-allegory vein, before and after conflict with Brazil’s military dictatorship forced him into exile for what would turn out to be a short life’s final decade—he returned to Rio shortly before dying from a lung infection in 1981, aged just 42. For more info on the BAMPFA showings, go here.

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