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First Urbanworld Film Festival

By Steven Montgomery

Jana Elliott, a while older lady with glasses, captured while talking. From Bertram Verhaag and Claus Strigel, 'Blue Eyed' profiles the life and work of Jana Elliott, a former teacher who was the subject of the 1960s film 'Eye of the Storm' and who has committed herself to leading a fight against prejudice and racism in society

Forty years ago, a forum to examine Black culture in America would likely have presented films made by White American Producers. In fact, a clip of one such documentary from the 1950s, about Black sharecroppers in the American South, showed up in one of the featured films at the recent Urbanworld Film Festival. A subtitle in this patronizing documentary reads, "The public school term for negroes is only 90 days. Attendance is not obligatory and ignorance is inevitable." Since the '50s, the Black American experience has been chronicled by the media with aid and influence of Black scholars and the radical vision of Malcolm X; over time, social change was wrought by masses of Black Americans led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. Generations of Black filmmakers struggled to prominence, while African-American Studies departments were established in universities across the nation, many of which make significant use of documentary films as a teaching aid. At crucial junctures in this development, the White point of view on Black America was not welcomed—it was even discouraged.

As a measure of how far we have come and how much the documentary scene has evolved, the Urbanworld Film Festival held in New York, August 21-26, presented six outstanding feature documentaries focusing on African-American and African culture. Views from both Black and White filmmakers were represented. From St. Clair Bourne, a pioneer of contemporary African-American filmmaking, was the awe-inspiring film John Henrik Clark: A Great and Mighty Walk, chronicling the life and work of the highly-respected African-American historian. Also showcased was a film by Macky Alston, a White filmmaker whose highly engaging documentary Family Name baldy investigates the slave—holding past of Alston's own family. And premiering at the festival was the work of two producers from Los Angeles: one Black-Keith O'Derek; and the other White, John Corsini—who grew up in racially segregated neighborhoods of L.A., yet struggled together for five years to complete the hardhitting documentary Straight from the Streets, about the lives and music of South Central rappers.

As New York's hot summer was winding down, Urbanword festivalgoers from diverse cultures caught subways and taxis to three New York theaters, uptown and downtown, for 33 dramatic features, documentaries, shorts and experimental films exploring worldwide Black culture with a special focus on America. Festival co-founder Ariel Parets identified Urbanworld as "the first American competitive film international festival in existence that is wholly dedicated to redefining and enhancing the role of Black film in contemporary international cinema."

The Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary went to John Henrik Clark: A Great and Mighty Walk (1997, 90 min., U.S.A.) by St. Clair Bourne and Kimiko Jackson, with Wesley Snipes serving as executive producer and narrator. The film documents the life and ideologies of one of America's leading scholars on African and African-American history. Director Bourne interviewed Clarke on a soundstage with two cameras and a 24-person crew; resources were provided by Snipes who during his teenage years used to sneak into Hunter College to hear Dr. Clarke lecture.

Born into a sharecropping family and self-taught long before he entered a university, Clarke demonstrates in the film an astounding knowledge of the roots and branches of African history. Through this dramatic interview, illustrated by archival footage, we learn of a radical rethinking of Black history-with novel insights into Atlantic slave trade, European colonization, appraisals of Malcolm X (whom Clarke influenced), assessments of Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi (both of whom he has mild criticisms), and a look at Minister Louis Farrukhan (of whom Clark disapproves). The film's stirring impact stems from Clarke himself, who from humble beginnings dedicated his life to a quest to make sense of history. The filmmakers succeeded in locating archival footage of Harlem, the decades and events which shaped Black history. Combined, the footage from the past, and Clark's perspective in the present, enable his vision to radiate powerfully from the screen.

The subject of slavery, touched upon in Bourne's film, was highlighted further in Family Name (1997, 90 min., U.S.A.) by Macky Alston and Nicholas Gottlieb. As a child growing up in Durham, North Carolina, director Alston noticed that some of his Black classmates shared with him the family name of Alston. The documentary follows Alston's search for descendents of slaves and slave-owners named Alston. He travels with his film crew to family reunions, picnics, housing projects, churches, graveyards and back to the original Alston plantation, asking questions and digging up clues—capturing on film the stories of a hidden common history. The suspense of the film builds as Alston encounters and befriends several Black Alstons: with their assistance, they are firmly established as descendants of slaves owned by his ancestors. Alston expects anger from them, but their reaction is more along the lines of, "What can you do? That's the way life was. Thank God, things have improved." The atmosphere of the piece is at times eerie, as Alston presses ahead for clues that he might actually be related by blood to some Black Alstons. He searches old gravestones, faded family portraits that have a ghostly air, and he pressures both Black and White Alstons for haunting family stories about the times of slavery, stories that some are reluctant to share. He tries to draw a parallel between his own experiences as a gay man reluctant to "come out"—and his family's unwillingness to be honest about its slave-holding past. This analogy is all but forgotten as the film reaches a powerful conclusion where Alston families, both descendants of slaves and slave-owners, gather for a concert, in acknowledgement of their shared past, at a former plantation in North Carolina.

While the emotion of anger is beneath the surface in Family Name, it is front and center in the documentary Straight from the Streets (110 min., 1997, U.S.A.), by Keith O'Derek and Robert Corsini—featuring performances and interviews with West Coast rap musicians such as Ice T, Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre. The film begins in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots which erupted following the announcement of the Rodney King verdict, and ends with 1995's Million Man March in Washington, taking viewers on a journey as colorful and complicated as the many individuals who appear in it. The filmmakers respond to the criticism that rap lyrics glorify violence by offering the view of rap as a voice from the inner city that needs a platform for public expression. A mosaic of images and sounds, including interviews with gang members and community activists, tells an emotional story of the inner city and uses the lyrics of rap music to explain what the struggle is all about. In an interview after the screening, Rapper Carlos Brown—who appears in the film—explained: "A lot of anger is pent up in a brother." For Brown, the anger comes from job discrimination and being whisked off the streets of L.A. to jail for no reason. "Rap is a plea for understanding and compassion," he says.

The film Blue Eyed (93 min., 1996, U.S.A./Germany) by Bertram Verhaag and Claus Strigel is also a powerful plea for the kind of under tanding called for by Brown. Blue Eyed dramatically profiles the life and work of Jana Elliott, a former teacher who was the subject of the 1960s film Eye of the Storm and who has committed herself to leading a fight against prejudice and racism in society. Here we join a diverse group of 40 public employees from the Mid west—Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, women and men in a con­trolled experiment. Elliott divides the group on the basis of eye color: the blue-eyed members are subjected to public harangues and disrespect from both Elliott and the brown­ eyed group. In just a few hours under Elliott's withering regime, we see grown professionals become despondent and distracted, stumbling over the simplest commands. Elliott, strutting back and forth in front of the room like an arrogant general, tells the blue­ eyeds that the humiliation they feel is only a small sampling of what Black people have felt throughout their lives, living in Amer­ica. Black people in the audience tell poignant stories about their lives to back up Elliott's assertion. The film dares to be as didac­tic as any teaching film of the 1950s and '60s-and it succeeds overwhelmingly. At its conclu­sion, the festival audience burst into sustained applause (and in the coming weeks, this reviewer was deeply affected by the message imparted by this film).

Deluge (Ye Wonz Maibel), (68 min., 1997, U.S.A./Ethiopia), by Salem Mekuria, is like Family Name in that it uses ancestry and family conflict to explore dramatic issues having meaning beyond the household and its individual Deluge members. Deluge tells the story of the filmmaker's family, tom apart by the momentous events taking place in Ethiopia, 1974- 1991, in which she and her brother took opposites sides of a political struggle. The film chronicles the Ethiopian student revolution of which brother and sister were a part, along with the tragic aftermath of a brutal military dictatorship. The film is also a memorial to Mekuria's brother who disappeared in 1978. His letters to her, photographs, archival footage, paintings and music, movingly bring the characters and events to life, helping us to understand this complex period in Ethiopian history.

Equal parts documentary and fiction film, Asientos (52 min., 1995, Belgium/Senegal) , by François Woukoache and Patrice Bauduinet, vividly evokes the grim aura of a decrepid prison in the Goree Islands off Senegal, once used as holding place for Africans being sold as slaves to the West. The film tells the story of a contemporary African who visits the prison: while he is trying to escape from the violence he suffers in the modern world, he finds himself confronted with a piece of history for his people­ the slave trade. Though the place is seemingly empty, he imagines the brutality wrought by instruments of torture he finds in cells­ when he reaches out to the freedom of wide open seas beyond, he is overcome by the grief and suffering that the collective memory the prison holds.

Urbanworld Festival founders Stacy Spikes, Ariel Perets, Helena Echegoyen and Tracey Rice deserve hearty congratulations for overseeing the selection of outstanding and challenging films. The founders' philos­ophy is "that the art of cinema transcends all colors, genders, ethnicity and geographic boundaries and also that filmmakers and audiences of all walks of life can have an affinity and appreciation for Black life and culture." Plans are underway to make the Urbanworld Festival an annual event. For more information, visit the festival website at:

STEVEN MONTGOMERY produced the documentaries Hobie's Heroes (1981) and Morocco: The Past and Present of Djemma el Fna (1995), and he is a former president of the New York Film/ Video Council. From 1983 to 1990, he studied the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, a philosophy concerning mankind's relationship to the world.