Materials on the Film, Filmmaker, and Artistic Context
Black Female Filmmakers ◊ Experimental Cinema ◊ Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification ◊ Liberation Aesthetics
curated by Wolfgang Boehm, Dafna Kaufman and Jazmine Hudson
Black Female Filmmakers
Contributions from Shady Patterson and Daniel Van Jeigerhuis
The L.A. Rebellion tradition, an ex post facto collectivization of Black artists who went through the UCLA film school through the establishment of the Ethno-Communications Program, subsisted between the years of 1967 until 1989. (Stewart). Barbara McCullough along with a few other women of color brought new ideas, strategies and techniques to the UCLA’s film program in the 1970s. The second wave of the popularly known L.A. Rebellion filmmakers was dominated by women of color including McCullough, Alile Sharon Larkin, Julie Dash, Jacqueline Frazier, Melvonna Ballenger, O. Funmilayo Makarah, and Carroll Parrott Blue. A look at their Project One films clearly reveal new approaches on popular themes of community, family, political activism, race and personal experiences. These filmmakers also developed their style by experimenting with form and function, turning their cameras into weapons to fight in an age of upheaval. (Stewart).
This willingness to experiment in film as an act of revolution influenced Barbara McCullough, a student, filmmaker, black woman and mother, to pursue experimental, decidedly Black, feminist art. Her creative fire was fueled by a friendship with Julie Dash, whom she met while Dash was completing Four Women (1975), before Dash joined the UCLA community (Jones). McCullough was impressed and inspired by her and later developed Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979) (Jones). Her first encounter with Dash reinforced her desire to make films, specifically challenging, experimental film. After first meeting Dash and viewing her work, McCullough realized that “This was the first time I had ever seen a Black female image in film that reflected my community. And what knocked me out was that her character was dancing to the music of Nina Simone” (Jackson). McCullough initially studied dance before turning to filmmaking, and in the face of the free and unrestrained Black femininity in Dash’s Four Women, she sought to carry that energy forward (Masilela). Barbara McCullough and Julie Dash formed an important link in the chain of great artists who sought to make their mark through film in the L.A. Rebellion movement.
Barbara McCullough presented a personal portrait with photographic stills and moving images in her Project One film, Chephren-Kafra. While her attention to Africa and the diaspora were interesting, they were common themes already explored by male UCLA students. This film articulated an Afrofemcentrism, which examines the location of family, destabilizes the boundary between home and work, and visualizes cinematically unfamiliar ideas of the black female imagination.
Alile Sharon Larkin’s The Kitchen and Julie Dash’s The Diary of an African Nun, both produced in 1977, theorize the relationship between desire, social constructions of beauty and propriety and their effects on the black female body. Reminiscent of “the goddess” in Phillis Wheatley’s 1775 poem Enclosure, Larkin’s protagonist sees hair as a function of how one is treated or mistreated in society. While Wheatley describes “golden hair” as key to “unnumbered charms and recent graces,” Larkin pictures straight/coiffed hair as the portal to a better life. However, unlike the controversial poetry of an enslaved poet, Larkin’s short film narrative shows how this psychosocial disturbance traumatizes the body and the mind by presenting the character in catatonic states, inflicting abuse on her daughter, and ultimately restrained and held captive in a psychiatric ward. Primarily through editing, Julie Dash takes this theme a step further in her adaptation of Alice Walker’s story of the same name. The Diary of an African Nun visualizes the body/mind’s vulnerability to social pressures by exquisite framing, fast-paced editing, high-contrast cinematography, and manipulation of affect through musical choices, narration, and sound amplification.
Jacqueline Frazier and Melvonna Ballenger both thematize reproduction, but in very different ways. Frazier’s Hidden Memories (1977) explores childbirth and abortion as two possible outcomes of a woman’s pregnancy, divided across different time periods through the use of flashbacks and montage. Lingering gazes, echoing dialogue, and the returning Diana Ross and The Supremes “Reflections” theme song also complicate notions of space and time. As Frazier raises concerns around biological reproduction, Ballenger symbolically multiplies or reproduces the meaning and implications of the seemingly quotidian idea of rain. Rain(Nyesha) opens with fragments of rain-themed songs, a rainy weather report, and the dismal emotions of a rainy day. Quickly, this rain develops into a metaphor for social conflict and labor injustice without losing the icons of rain in the mise-en-scene. This re-production of rain ushers in polysemic effects of rain as an agent for change, cleansing, personal reflection, and group-solidarity.
Even though O. Funmilayo Makarah’s 1975 critical meditation on patriotism, equality and racism in Apple Pie (1975) predates Atlanta-based conceptual artist, Paul Benjamin’s, Oh Say (2016) audiovisual installation, it’s just as unsettling and provocative. While Benjamin collects and layers found audio and visual clips of male and female African-Americans singing “The Star Spangled Banner” dating back to the 1960s to the present and projects it on a wall in a gallery, Makarah approaches her Project One film like a social experiment, in which she asks multiracial, male subjects to sing the U.S. National Anthem. According to Makarah, the phonic dissonance she gathered is reflective of the state of political discord in the United States. Despite a constantly changing political and technological environment, Makarah’s film experiment continues to reverberate and contribute to contemporary American discourse in art, film and politics.
Carroll Parrott Blue’s social documentary, Two Women, explores the relationship between two Black women of different generations. Her interests are not just philosophical, but ontological. She examines the life of her aunt, an older black woman, and a teenage girl. She seeks to understand what it means to be older or younger, a woman, and Black.
While each of these filmmakers produced either feminist and Afrofemcentric texts challenging dominant conceptions of the black female body, the spaces they are found in, and what they could do, Chephren-Kafra, further expanded the limits of the mother’s black mind/body by including her youngest child in the frame. To reflect on Alice Walker’s collection and quest, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” the films of Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight, and many more are the “flowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spirea, delphiniums, verbena…and on and on” of these L.A. Rebellion/UCLA women.
Contributions From Corey Couch and Reggie Hill
In his book The Most Typical Avant Grade: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles, author David E. James discusses the contradiction inherent in the idea of “popular culture as it applies to Los Angeles: on the one hand, popular culture refers immediately to the Hollywood industry and on the other, it should also describe the presence of avant-garde independent filmmakers, i.e, a popular culture “produced by the people themselves. He writes, “independent filmmakers in the company town live both the hegemony of the entertainment industry and the social segregation of cultural alternatives in hyperbolic terms” (James 11). In the introduction to his book, James notes the important mixture of geography, economics, and cultural differences that led to the rise of experimental and avant-garde filmmakers in Los Angeles, who made films while existing in these contradictions, perhaps commenting on them. As Jacqueline Stewart notes in her essay “Defending Black Imagination: The L.A. Rebellion School of Black Filmmakers,” “But for artists working in the entertainment capital of the world, the stakes would seem to be especially high either to reject the aesthetic and business models exemplified by Hollywood or to assimilate them. For Los Angeles-based artists who are black, furthermore, the complex legacy of black performance (so aggressively confined to modes aimed at pleasing white audiences) complicates efforts to be taken seriously as creative agents and to develop affirming creative practices that are financially sustainable, let alone autonomous.” (Stewart 1) Hollywood was the epicenter of the film industry, overtaking New York in the 1930s and establishing itself as the place to make movies because of its weather and financial advantages. However, based on the racial politics in America, marginalized groups of people, specifically black people, did not have as many opportunities to act in, produce, or create cinema that reflected their unique experiences. Black independent filmmakers also dealt with the discrimination and power of the film industry and its capitalistic practices that mirrored their own oppression, which may explain why avant-garde or experimental aesthetic practices became a necessity in their films. The combination of racial oppression from a white supremacist society with the economic and classist oppression from the film industry and society in general led to films that both made political statements and strayed away from conventional Hollywood practices. As Kelly Jones notes in her introduction to Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, this change in aesthetic practices also occurred because of the changing demographic in Los Angeles: “Yet we can also ascribe this social energy to changing demographics as the number of black citizens migrating to California rose during the twentieth century, creating growing majorities in places such as Los Angeles. These new city users (as scholar Saskia Sassen calls them), fleeing old lives, laid fresh claims to the possibilities of democratic change and social freedoms.” (Jones 2) Without the big budget technology or studios supporting them, these filmmakers found a unique stylistic approach that led to films such as Barbara McCullough’s Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). A film which utilizes an abandoned urbanized area in Watts, a jazz soundtrack, African cosmology, and nature, it is indicative of the experimental cinema that was created from this paradoxical arena of avant-garde filmmaking in Los Angeles. In addition to viewing Barbara McCullough’s work as a notable contribution to black, feminist, and political cinematic discourse, we must also situate this work as a highly reflexive, experimental body of work, one that consistently points towards broadening the uses and functions of the apparatus. Why do we refer to some works as experimental cinema while others with distinctly experimental qualities find themselves located in predominantly social categories? To bridge this gap first requires understanding the properties of experimental cinema.
Akira Mizuta Lippit conceptualizes experimental cinema in relation to an exergue which “refers to a space outside the work, outside the essential body of the work, and yet part of it, even essentially—a part and apart” (1). The exergue, like a liminal space, is simultaneously the form that constitutes the work and the meta-examination of that very form, criticizing conventions and suggesting a movement beyond. It is situated at a point invested in the text but also external to it. He describes this position much like a place of suspension: the text is temporarily suspended to explore its very existence and returns with the possibility for new direction and sensibilities (Lippit 3).
Lippit sees it as a continual crossing in and out of the threshold of intra/extra text. The experimental work, then, is situated on this boundary of participation and reflection, fragmenting meaning to multiply the available stylistic choices and pave the way for new opportunities. To better relate this to the broader social question at hand, I find it important to take a step back from the single event of reflection and envision this as a continual loop, much like stitching. If we conceptualize it this way we must sustain the idea of an eventual whole, implying the process simultaneously creates limits while it liberates, sealing off certain potentialities to move forward into unexplored territory. This similarly demands a cyclical approach that becomes a repetitive, rhythmic process where meaning continually fragments in new directions to be selected or omitted in the creation of the whole. It is the repetitive movement from content to reflection that binds a text to its larger scope and direction.
How might we liken this movement to the experimental cinema of Barbara McCullough? When we view this as an intra and extra-textual examination of what is past and what is possible, we can see how this is especially pertinent to black and feminist cinema. Placing these bodies in contexts that clearly deviate from preconceived categories requires a re-working of past notions and their gradual expansion going forward. This creates a doubled examination in addition to the doubled body of work. Experimental cinema reflects on a consciousness of cinema, pushing its boundaries and conventions as a separate, outer text, while simultaneously internal to the cinematic space. This is a necessary push in an uncharted direction, revealing options for the cinematic future. At the same time, the terms “black” and “female” have specific implications and more narrowly constructed definitions. With social modifiers, experimental cinema inherently attends to social notions. We see this in multiple ways in McCullough’s work, particularly in her movement from Water Ritual Number 1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979) to Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space (1980) that takes her own experimental work and pushes beyond cinema’s newest advancements. The latter begins with the former, blending colors into the film using video effects. In these instances, she not only reflects on a consciousness of cinema but also pushes the boundaries of social constraints, placing herself and her textual subjects in spaces beyond the dominant narrative and showing the social apparatus what it can do.
Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification
Contributions From Danielle Cummings, Ashley Jones, Dafna Kaufman, and Harifa Siregar
Los Angeles “has a very complex symbolic relation to the rest of the US” (Carby). Los Angeles’ “complex symbolic relation to the rest of the US” metaphorically renders the city as ash and her people as phoenixes rising from the fireHarlem artists were primarily concerned with the pursuit of artistic freedom, three decades later LA artists were in pursuit of social, political, and economic freedom. The California city, known for a number of tragedies, was also the birthplace of inspirational and controversial artwork between the 1960s-80s. As Kellie Jones writes, “The rising strength of the black community in Los Angeles was representative of the new political, social, and economic power of African-Americans across the nation in the period from 1960 to 1980” (Jones). Through using assemblage art as activism, directors, writers, and videographers could become agents of social change . (Keith) “Betye Saar’s mixed-media sculpture Imitation of Life (1975) is an example of how black artists reconfigured images from popular culture.
Barbara McCullough, a female artist within the LA art scene of the late 1970s and 80s, created distinct cinema intersecting unique characteristics of black feminism, avant-garde jazz, and the anti-colonialism of Third Cinema into a captivating critique of the commercialization of black lives. McCullough works within what Widener (2010) calls the “revolutionary engagements” (257) of a political movement that creates oppositional readings to false narratives of living the black life in America. She does so often by using ritualistic elements, which she understands as forms of symbolic action. In an interview with UCLA’s show The View (1979), McCullough speaks about how her film, Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979), is a work combining the symbolism arising from the props and set and the ritualism evoked by the movements of Yolanda Vidato, the actress in the film. McCullough’s film presents a woman, Milanda, walking through industrial ruins and performing a ritual with found objects. After the ritual, she is shown walking naked through the area where she squats and urinates. In this way, the five-minute film “incorporates African spiritualism and ritual in its poetic treatment of a woman’s relationship to her environment” (Springer 36).
The film recalls Betye Saar’s fine art print To Catch a Unicorn (1960) with the use of the black feminine body to change “what constituted African American identity” (Jones 1) in a time and place where African-American culture was building in strength against white repression. McCullough described the filming process as “not only a filmic exercise for us, but it was also sort of a cathartic experience.” “Though quite varied in form and style, these films share a self-reflexive impulse to examine the challenges L.A. poses as a particular site in the twin struggles for creative freedom and black liberation” (Stewart). McCullough uses the symbolism of shells, cornmeal, a broken record, etc. to create art from the objects found nearby. Similar to Betye Saar’s attempts to challenge representations, McCullough likewise counteracts stereotypes. Through her work in Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification, McCullough expounds and explores the African diaspora within the Los Angeles community. By incorporating the junk and assemblage art movement in her film via the collection of found items, she includes an “anti-art” visual aesthetic. Because Yolanda is featured nude in a starkly contrasted setting, the film speaks additionally to black spirituality, black feminism, and black culture through ritualistic acts with the gods.
While the act of urination could be seen as simply provocative, McCullough has explained that it “symbolizes the woman coming to grips with her cultural confusion by dispelling her frustration in order to turn her attention to creating a better society” (36). Thus, the woman in the film represents “all Third World people who are displaced in the world and forced to live according to values that are not their own” (36). McCullough’s film uses themes of African heritage and spiritualism to depict the struggle of African-American women to find their own psychological and sacred spaces in American society (Stewart). In fact, Milanda performs her rituals, including urination, with no remorse or shame.
For McCullough, purification relates to “water,” and like many traditional rituals, water relates to cleanliness and purity. The filmmaker’s use of water is different, however, as she utilizes the symbolic ritual as a form of “rebellion,” to produce an act of purification. Water Ritual #1 challenges the standardized norms and values of how women should position themselves in relation to perceptions of bodily purity. The poetic choice of endorsing, rather than rejection, abjection, as argued by Ayanna Dozier, sets the foundation for interpreting the social and hierarchical relationship of affecting responses attached to particular body fluids: arousal with sperm, sympathy with tears, and disgust with excrement and menstruation. McCullough is not only displaying her understanding of traditional rituals of purification, but she also shows that purification is not only related to water from the outside, but also water from the inside, so to speak. Overall, McCullough’s film challenges the viewer to “rebel” against common, Hollywood interpretations of womanhood, purification, and blackness.
Contributions from Wolfgang Boehm and John Quinn
A notion of liberation film aesthetics—a way in which the very form of a film can alter, awaken, or catalyze a subject within ideology—must begin with a brief overview of the movement known as Third Cinema. Starting in the 1960s/70s, Third Cinema consisted of filmmakers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, who found that Hollywood films function primarily as a platform for the promulgation of imperialist, capitalist, and racist values in the United States and abroad. In Teshome Gabriel’s seminal essay, “Towards a Critical Theory of Third World Films,” he contends that Third World films are concerned primarily with deconstructing the reality of imperialism and colonialism. Third world filmmakers generally seek to re-engage with the roots of culture, rather than the frameworks of western art. As Gabriel states in his essay, “A Child born in a Western society is encased, from the initial moments of birth, in purposive, man-made fabricated objects”, while “a child in a rural Third World setting is born in an unrestricted natural landscape” (196).
For these filmmakers, the cinema’s potential as a revolutionary apparatus had yet to be fully realized, as the dominate mandate for Hollywood was—and is—the production of entertainment that will maximize a studio’s profits. Third Cinema thus sought to rebel against this system of production in both form and content. Jean-Louis Comolli and Paul Narboni write that a film is always embedded in ideology by way of its depiction of reality, and the way a film “show[s] up the cinema’s so-called depiction of reality” determines whether a director can disrupt the dominate system (Comolli and Narboni 25). Third Cinema thus attempts to politicize the film on the level of signifier and signified. Their films were made to serve as catalysts for awakening political consciousness in the minds of those populations who found themselves victims of European and North American colonization. This demanded a film aesthetic different, if not antithetical, to the dominant traditions of Hollywood and European art-house cinema.
Thematically, Third Cinema directly addressed the political woes and economic injustices experienced by oppressed people. However, changing a film’s story and characters was not enough, as the style, form, and aesthetics of Hollywood likewise needed challenging. The fluid, continuity editing of Hollywood, its ‘cult of the celebrity,’ big budget spectacles, and dependence on stages and sets, were among many of the aesthetic or formal qualities these filmmakers sought to challenge. Instead of hiring actors, these films would use non-professional, everyday people who often closely resembled the characters they played. They likewise would shoot in the communities they sought to depict, and cut from narrative images to newsreels, blending documentary with fiction. Rather than develop strict formal and aesthetic qualities, Third Cinema filmmakers emphasized the role of the viewer in meaning making, often including in the exhibition of films breaks for discussion and reflection. Their films disallowed the audience from sitting back in their seats in a dark cinema, but instead attempted to challenge, enlighten, and embolden the spectator.
Through her connection to the L.A. Rebellion of the 1970s, Barbara McCullough is partially working within the tradition of Third Cinema, as many of the filmmakers came from Watts, described as an “internal colony” of the United States. Her films, such as Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification, place emphasis on spatiality in relationship with the colonized subject, contrasting the activity of the subject with the mise-en-scene, inducing a strong sense of alienation between character and place.
Likewise, Water Ritual #1 can be contextualized by using Gabriel’s criteria for folk art, the more naturalistic form of cultural art, as opposed to print art, or literate art, which he views as a form rooted in Western formalism. Folk art for Gabriel is its performative presentation. Rather than being confined to the proscenium of print art, folk art performances are held in open spaces like fields or market places. Gabriel translates this difference in terms of film by highlighting the Hollywood practice of shooting on studio sets, as opposed to Third Cinema’s previously mentioned practice of shooting on location. McCullough’s short film fits the criteria for both folk art and non-Western conventions described by Gabriel, as it is set in a ruined house, surrounded by rubble in what looks like a relatively open lot, near a residential neighborhood. The crumbling house presented as the site of the ritual, where the woman has crafted the natural environment into shapes and patterns for unknown mystical or religious purposes, represents this unity across time, especially when we consider the presence of the moving car in the shot. This is a place of the past, but just outside of the present. The woman’s nudity and urination also seem to suggest a return to the natural world: an embrace, rather than a rebuke Gabriel associates with more traditional Western print art.
This is emphasized by the title of the piece, and by the ritual aspect of the film. There is no clear narrative, instead, the film demonstrates a religious rite or ritual that could have been passed down through generations. Ritual invites participation, even a ritual as intimate as this one. Thus, it could be considered an aspect of folk art. Gabriel suggests that one of the most important aspects of folk art is the participatory experience of the audience (197). Folk art is meant to evoke a response, and invites audiences to join in. Viewing the film without previous knowledge of the content, viewers of Water Ritual #1 will likely be shocked by the intimacy of the ritual itself, as the camera holds tightly on the woman urinating. This evokes different responses from different audiences, but still seems to be in line with the participatory nature of folk art, which will ultimately start conversations among its audience that inevitably become a part of the experience surrounding the text.
Thus, Barbara McCullough’s Water Ritual #1 is clearly situated within the realm of Gabriel’s definition of Third World films. It is interested in transgressing boundaries originating with Western conventions and subverts the expectations of a Western viewer by depicting not only a naturalistic location, but naturalistic actions. By juxtaposing the ritual against the surrounding urban decay and by using conventions of experimental cinema, McCullough seems to elevate the importance of what, according to the UCLA film school statement on the film, is a ritual that cleanses not only the woman but the environment around her. McCullough’s film seems to advocate this cleansing of the modern world, to seek a return to diasporic culture among the economic shambles of a neighborhood. It transcends what might be considered a simplistic definition of folk art by incorporating aspects of the modern world. Through the ritual the film seeks not a return to the past, but a unity in time.
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