Filmmakers Julie Dash and Garrett Bradley at BAM

Filmmakers Julie Dash and Garrett Bradley at BAM


– Can we just take a second
to appreciate the craft, the artistry (audience cheering)
of that, what we’ve just seen. So in both “Illusions” and “America” both of you are going
way back into history to investigate the power of the image, that the image in cinema has to shape narratives that have
real, profound consequences. So I’d be interested to hear you both, maybe we can start with you, Garrett, just about coming to these projects, the genesis, the first ideas that inspired you to make this work. – Well first, I just wanna
thank you, Ashley, and Julie, for being here and for
this incredible audience. It’s been really special to see that curation of work together and just how they all tie together. And I–
– Thank you for inviting me. – This is amazing, I feel like I could go on and on about that.
– Please. (laughter) – But I, so I started off, I guess so the importance of images and the role of that, I mean, I think there’s so many
different entry points for how I was thinking about the work. And I think without going too,
too long into the research, I’ll just mention that I think that the, much to the quote in “Illusions”, the importance of images sometimes, those stay with us longer
than text or words or facts. And so I was really interested in creating a visual chronology, so each one of these, the whole 30 minutes is actually a series of 12 vignettes that each represent a year, starting in 1915 and going through 1926, and are visual illustrations of history. So to me it was important
that we illuminate those contributions that have happened, and also insert ourselves in moments where we don’t necessarily see ourselves, like the Boy Scouts of America, or a meteorite falling from the sky. (Julie laughing) And so that, for me,
was the impetus really, first and foremost was like how do we create images that will
last in our mind’s eye longer than anything
else, and perhaps change our perception of ourselves as a result. – And also finding beauty
in those moments, too, is important, right? – Beauty? Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
– And intimacy. – And intimacy.
– It was the intimacy. – Yeah, I mean, I think
beauty is, I think that’s a… Particularly in journalism
and in documentary I think that there’s a question
about the role of beauty and if beauty can incite action in the same way that trauma can. And I’m very much in the camp
of yes, beauty can do that. So I think I enter my work and my process from that point of view. – So and Julie, this is like
a landmark work for you. Can you just talk about,
again, coming to the project and what inspired you to make a film kind of set in war time. (Julie laughing)
– Okay. First, I’d like to give a
shout out to Lonette McKee, I wish I had invited her here. (audience cheering)
She did an incredible job. So what was the question again? (audience laughing) – Just coming to the project.
– Coming to. – Coming up with the idea. – Oh, well I came to it
through several ways. One way was I was up late one night watching an old black and white movie and I just swore that the
person singing in the musical sounded like Ella Fitzgerald, so I was like, “Hmm.” And so I stared doing research about the singing that was
done for these movies, and the tap dancing, you know, they would have someone
off and to the corner adding extra tap sounds, and the Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers. And also it was a way of
interrogating a whole period of the propaganda films
that came out of Hollywood during World War II,
because each major studio had a signal corps officer
assigned to the studio to make these films, to
really keep the people, the public motivated and happy. And whenever the times are hard or there’s a depression or something they pump out more and more
musicals than they do dramas, and I wanted to have a way of inserting a black woman into that space, and I did not want her
to be a tragic mulatto, so that was a challenge, you know. So I got her in there as kind of like a spy in the house of love. So I came to it in many ways. And plus it was my thesis film at UCLA and I wanted to use the stage, I wanted to do a period
piece, and so we did. – Which leads me on to my next question. I mentioned the craft of
these films right up top, because I think it’s really
important we talk about craft and the skill that you’re bringing to it. And sound is really
important in both films. If either of you could talk
about the sound design. And you worked with
Trevor Mathison on this, and the way that sound
operates in “Illusions” is just remarkable. So either of you.
– Well the sound was like a character in Garrett’s
film, it was incredible. The sound in “Illusions” was we tried to make it sound like the 1940s
and it kinda did and didn’t. (audience laughing) But it was, you know, let’s
not talk about the sound. (audience laughing) In Garrett’s film, I just, there was so, each time it was like
another character in your… It was, it’s wonderful. It’s just wonderful. – But you know, so actually
though with the sound, with “Illusions” it’s funny because he was tapping his pencil on the table. – Yeah.
– She was opening up the envelopes, and we
couldn’t hear any of that, and I thought that that was
something I was thinking about in making “America” was the
evolution of sound in cinema and what would it mean to make a contemporary silent film? And so back in the day it was like you would just hear, you’d
just have a silent film and then you’d have live
musical accompaniment. And then you had dialogue
with some music, right, and so it’s actually pretty quiet, they’re actually pretty quiet. And so that actually really struck me, I was like, yeah, that’s so on point. It’s actually so time, it’s so accurate in terms of the time period that “Illusions” takes place
in to not hear that pencil or the envelope opening. – That’s because we were doing it all. (audience laughing)
– But it works. It totally works, it totally makes it, it really catapults you
into that time period and I think that sound plays a huge role in how we are understanding
when the film was supposed to be made, or what
era it’s supposed to be in. And nowadays you’ve got
films that take place in the ’20s but the sound design is, it’s contemporary.
– Yeah. – And so it still feels like
a contemporary film, you know? And Trevor Mathison, who is part of the Black Audio Film
Collective in the U.K., which was in the ’80s and the ’90s, and a really interesting parallel being here in Brooklyn tonight to Spike Lee and sort of like his coming
up into the film industry during the exact same time period, and then making really different work. And I think it was a beautiful moment of black cinema being something that couldn’t really be defined into one aesthetic or approach or even genre. And Trevor and John Akomfrah
work very closely together, and so I had watched
“Looking for Langston”, and this was like once
the film had already been, well I was like kind of cutting it. Cat’s like, oh, you’re out there. (audience laughing) Catherine Gund, our producer
on “America” is here, and Aubin Pictures, shout out to them. (audience applause) Yeah, so I was struggling. I literally ripped
meditation music off YouTube and just threw it in there and was like, “Uh, this is gonna work I think, maybe.” Wasn’t really working. And I thought it would
be, so I emailed Trevor because really the work that
he’d done on Isaac’s film was just so, there’s something
so ephemeral about it and something so emotional.
– I was much influenced by “Looking for Langston”. – Yes.
– On “Daughters of the Dust”. – How? Can you talk about that? Because I’d rather hear
about that right now. (laughter)
– No, no. I wanna hear about yours,
now what about yours. – Okay, we’ll get to that. – But bringing up Black
Audio Film Collective is an interesting parallel
with LA Rebellion. These are very collaborative movements and “Illusions” was a very collaborative project as well, right? – Oh yeah, because the cinematographer was Ahmed El Maanouni and
he came over from France, and so we had, it was an
international crew from, then we had Shigeo Suzuki doing the hair, and the costumes and the makeup, it was, everyone was from all over the place. – And I think there’s, the
most obvious aesthetic, thematic parallel is between “America” and “Illusions” tonight, but let’s talk about “Four
Women” a bit as well. Because “America” has a
very balletic quality. You have two contemporary dance performers kind of anchoring the film. But “Four Women” is obviously based around this extraordinary performance. I’d love to just hear you
talk a bit more about it. – Oh, okay. “Four Women” is performed
by Linda Martina Young. Very interesting how we met. She had had a accident and so she had to have emergency surgery on her knee. She had a torn meniscus. I was in the hospital at the same time having an emergency surgery on my meniscus because I was doing yoga improperly and tore my meniscus.
(audience gasps) We woke up from the surgery, looked at each other across the room and became great friends,
and that’s how we conceived doing the dance film “Four Women”. (audience applause)
– [Garrett] That’s amazing. – Yes. I guess– – I think that’s kinda
the end of the Q&A, right? (audience laughing)
– It doesn’t get any better than that, no. – But talk about Donna and Edward and the dance aspect of your film. – Yeah, so Edward Spots and
Donna Crump, real names, classically trained ballet
dancers from New Orleans. Working with them, so I
wanted to try to think about the parallel to the
source material from 1913 with Bert Williams,
which we see excerpts of, staring Bert Williams and Odessa Gray. Which is sort of, it’s a love story where the unexpected guy
tries to get the girl and gets the girl at the
end, and it’s a love chase. I’m really oversimplifying the film, but I wanted to create a connection, a somewhat narrative connection. And I also was interested again, thinking about it being a silent film, I wanted to learn,
frankly, about performance and communication without dialogue. And they really brought
so much to the film. And they hadn’t, they didn’t really know each other beforehand, and so it was actually a matter of talking with each scene and with
each historical moment about the essence of something. So really trying to like whittle it down to one word or one idea and then really letting
them interpret that. And I think they did an incredible job. So it was as much a
learning process for me as it was clarifying my
direction on those things, yeah. – And before I open it up to the audience I’ll ask one more kind of
broad, topical question informed really by “Illusions”. I think a lot of the time when we talk about issues around cinema we end up only talking about representation and nothing else, which is, you know, we need
to do better than that. And I think “Illusions” is a great example of a film which engages with power, power relations, executive level stuff. So I guess I’d like you to
comment a little on that, and maybe speak about how
things are or are not changing. I know you’ve both worked on
“Queen Sugar”, for example, so maybe speak a little
about the landscape today, if you can. Sorry, that’s a big question. (Julie laughing) – Yeah, we’re the Ava affect. (laughing) Which is a wonderful thing. I met Garrett on “Queen Sugar”,
when we were working there. – Yeah, I’m trying to,
can you ask it again? – “Illusions” is about more
than just representation, it’s about power and
who has access to make, who can open the doors,
who can make the work. And I’d love you to just talk about how you see the landscape today, and how your work relates to that. – Okay. A lot of people thought at the time that it was just a totally
self-reflective film about me saying oh, I’m beating
my head against the wall, I can’t get anything
done through Hollywood. But it’s yes and no. It was an opportunity to
express a lot of things about identity and, like
you said, about power, and about integrated relationships, because when Esther says, “Oh, they can’t tell like we can” it’s kind of like a wink wink situation. It’s funny because the cycle, we’ve gone in a complete circle and in many ways what was
being said in “Illusions” 100 years ago is still
happening today in the studios. It’s difficult for talent
to get representation, so like with the whole Leo
Gaines thing you could only, it’s called being in someone’s pocket. They’re not really signed,
you’re not signed with an agent but if you make some money then you, then they’ll take the 10% and then maybe represent you again. It’s the same thing with directors. It’s, film, it remains the most powerful mechanism for communicating and for turning the tide,
and for misinformation, as we know now with social media. So there are many, many
things that remain the same as what we were talking about
in “Illusions” back then. – Yeah, I mean I would
just add that I think that we are seeing, there is sort of like the, I don’t wanna say the illusion, but there is, doors are opening. And I think what Ava’s
doing, and what many others in different fields are
doing in opening doors to have new voices, that is happening. I think that what’s, what
we need to figure out is that once the door’s open, really, truly having
freedom to express yourself in a way that is authentic to you. And not necessarily saying,
“Okay, well we’re gonna “let you in the room, but
you gotta do it this way.” That I think needs to, that’s
the conversation, I think. And I think actually this program, this whole week is a great example of another way in which you make work but then it’s like, “But how long is it?” And the length and
somehow the amount of time qualifying the value of the work is dinosaur thinking, it’s totally insane. And I think you’re, so I thank you guys for allowing, again,
something to get broken and put back together in a better way. – Thanks, both. At this point I’d like to
open it up to the audience. We’ll go with you in the cap. So the question is just to get you both to reflect on the use of
archetypes in your work and how you can create new imagery by cutting together in different ways. – Yeah, I’m not too
concerned with archetypes as I am with tropes. Archetypes is kinda Jungarian, and you could say it’s the equivalent of the Greco-Roman mythology, with Zeus and Venus and all of that. So I could function and work,
maneuver within the archetypes but it’s the tropes and the stereotypes that are problematic for me. And I’m over that
“Illusions” phase right now, I’m trying, right now I’m working on a biopic about Angela Davis and then another biopic
about Mahalia Jackson, and so something that you had
just said is very important. It’s like once you get in
the room, what happens? And that’s what I’m
struggling with right now. You get the job and you’re in the room, and they see the project quite differently than what you see because
they bring their own experiences and their history. And it’s like whoa sometimes, just very, very different
from what you know. – Yeah, I think, yeah, I would answer that in terms of iconography
because I think I’m, I was really interested
in trying to think about the icons that we see when
we think about America. And I think the Boy Scouts
of America, for instance, being a really good example. I wanted to, I wanted people to be able to pause the film at any point and it could explain everything about those 30 minutes. I wanted everything to be embedded in each one of the images. I wanted it to also be
something that could become a new symbol, like you
could put it on a cereal box. Or you could put it on a
billboard or something. So I wasn’t, and that’s also
why I called it “America”, and that’s something that we internally went back and forth about,
what the title was gonna be. Because sorta like, fuck,
calling something “America” is kind of a big deal,
you know what I mean? You can’t just have a shitty
film and call it “America”. Or you could, actually,
(audience laughing) I guess you totally could do that. But I didn’t wanna make a shitty film. But I was thinking about
it going on the internet, and how when you make something and then there’s press and
it goes out into the world, and I was like, well it’s
a perfect opportunity to attach new images to that word. – Yes. – And new forms of symbolism. And yeah, the white sheet, I think, the film starts in 1915,
which was tied to the KKK and “The Birth of a Nation” which is when that film came out. And thinking about the
different ways in which one object like the white sheet changes its meaning and power depending on who’s holding it
and how it’s being assembled and seeing three iterations of that. So yeah, I think it, I was kinda thinking about it in the big picture and I guess yeah, bit by
bit, and all the little ones. – Thank you, yeah. So the first question is to Julie about
– I feel– – how do you feel about “America”. And then for Garrett, it’s about how you reflect on “America” in today’s climate. – “America”, it was very hypnotic and it just pulled me into almost like a dream state, like a
meditation of mindfulness and reimagining America,
reimagining things that we, that I thought I knew and had seen before. Some things I recognized, some
things I did not recognize. But it was presented in such a
provocative and engaging way, and the camera angles, the
framing, and the lens choices were so beautiful that it was breathtaking in many, many ways. And I was just like, it was just like an emotional rollercoaster up and down. And each iteration of
each moment that passed, it was becoming more and more and more of something that was
reimagining and redefining, redefining America. So it was lovely.
– Thank you. Well seeing actually… I will get to answering your question, but seeing “Four Women”, I
felt the same thing, just how, and it made me actually wonder if you chose the song first and then kind of assembled it to that, or if you put the song in after.
– Yes. The song first. Hearing the song growing up, everybody hears the song “Four Women”, and then it was like, you
know what I’d like to do? I’d like to… Well actually it came, there was a lecture when I was a student at AFI, that’s the American Film Institute, and the lecturer was talking about if you’re ever gonna take on a
song or photograph or artwork you have to transcend what
the singer’s performing, or what the artwork, the paint work is. So I love challenges,
and so it was a challenge to take that on and transcend
it, in a different way. – Yeah. Oh, so I mean, I, watching it, I wanted to sit in tonight
to watch it with everybody, but since it’s been screening I don’t sit and watch it anymore. But I think I just now am like, oh man, the sound design,
there are all these things I still wanna do to it and like, oh, that totally woulda
been cool right there. And I, so I don’t know,
I get a little heady when I rewatch stuff. It’s hard for me to kind of
remove myself from my work. I don’t feel like I, I mean, I hope that outside of myself and my own Type A-ness about
the making of something, I don’t know how you feel
when you watch your own work, if it’s just like excruciating. – I usually try not to watch it. – Yeah. – It’s like intense.
– Because it’s nervewracking. Because you see all the errors. Even the darn titles were out of focus, it’s like, you know, oh God. Then you remember you
were in a little room by yourself pressing out the titles. We had to do everything. It was like, I spelled
Navajo wrong in the telegram and so it’s like, oh my
God, I hope no one notices. (laughter) So yeah, it’s painful, in a way. Your filmwork is like a
relative or an old friend. You know, you don’t wanna
revisit it too often. (audience laughter)
– Yes, exactly. – [Audience Member] I have a
question for Miss Julie Dash. Seeing that this film’s
about a black woman and her experience in the film
industry, even so far back, I’m so curious to know what
that has been like for you in terms of how it was in
your 20s, in your 30s, now. And just what it did to your spirit, and how you took every situation to maneuver different things
and hustle in different ways because of those limitations. – Okay, that’s a great question. (laughter) So right after I made
“Illusions” in the ’80s I was being courted by all of the film companies, the studios. Mainly they wanted to know how I made it on such a low budget, and how I was able to have a
production design like that. And they were curious, but
they passed on everything that I pitched to them. And that went on for many, many years and I said well, I’m just gonna go ahead and do “Daughters of the Dust” and I did. I had pitched that to them too and they said, “Oh,
that’s been done before.” (laughter) So I was like, okay, all right. And in the ’90s, after
“Daughters” came out, once again I made the rounds
and I had a agent at that time. They pretty much wanted to assign me to every film that had a Ku
Klux Klan member in it. They thought that they could take me and just place me, attach me to another script, to another film to tell the story that
they wanted to tell. And I was like, but I don’t
wanna tell that story. So I didn’t work very much, but I did a lot of television work, I did a lot of commercials
and music videos. And that’s the way it’s been. And I recently got reassigned
to some new feature films, but it’s, that’s kind of what
I’m going through once again. It’s, they have grand ideas, but the film that they wanna see is not necessarily the film that needs to be made. And they don’t exactly have their fingers on the pulse of what’s
happening out in the world. Yeah. – Thank you.
(audience applause) How did you communicate
with the performers, tell them what was good, what was bad? I guess how were you
directing with the actors? – Well, I never say that
was good or that was bad. I do say it was good, I never
say like, “That was bad.” (audience laughing) I think it’s, and when
you’re directing actors I think it can be, in a
silent space, without dialogue there wasn’t really a
right and a wrong actually. I mean, there were so many, I was shot listing so heavily and I was thinking so
much about the camerawork and where the camera was
and what the angle was. So it’s more about controlling everything as much as possible so
that then everything can kind of lose control
in front of the camera. As opposed to trying to control the people in front of
the camera, you know? I don’t– – [Audience Member] It just seemed like the performances were so tailored to whatever you wanted.
– Yeah. – [Audience Member] You
know what you wanted, and I was just wondering how– – I think the– – [Audience Member] How do you? – Yeah, I think that
that’s because when you, and that’s communication,
I think directing, it’s mostly just communication, it’s learning how to
speak multiple languages to different people who are all there, making everybody feel
comfortable and clear about what the vision is. And so I think when you, when people are in front of the camera it’s such in a vulnerable space and you have to be
really careful about how, what you’re communicating. And I think you don’t
wanna communicate too much so that they think they
have to think about that. You just want to let them understand. So what I would say specifically is like, this is a 50 millimeter lens, this is the frame right here,
so think about this world, don’t worry about necessarily
what your feet are doing unless you feel like your feet are gonna help you do what’s going on up here. You know? And I think that that then gave them some parameters to work with. – [Audience Member] Thank you. – [Audience Member] This is just sort of a follow up to that then. Was the direction the same
working with the children on set, and what was that experience like? – Yeah, those were students of mine and they made their own films, so they knew what the frame sizes were. (laughing) And yeah, and they were
very, they were learning too. I think that was the
beauty of the whole process of how we made the film was that it was fully local cast and crew, and a lot of people who
were related to each other and knew each other, and it
was a learning experience for everybody just as much. And I think that’s, in the film industry I think being on set with Ava’s crew was– – [Julie] It was wonderful. – It was wonderful and
it was special because it was like the douchebaggy union vibe. – Yeah, just not there. – It wasn’t, yeah, there
just was a certain precedent that’s set when you diversify your space. It’s not really about
being politically correct, it’s how do you actually just
make better work, you know? – Why black and white? – Because it’s sexy, it’s so cool. (laughing) No, I mean, I wanted to, I was trying to think in terms of the constraints of the time period from the turn of the century, from all the films that I had looked at at the Library of Congress
that were under “Black Cinema” and thinking about the
formal constraints of that. And originally we had thought about using and old camera from that
time period, and lenses, and then I was like, no,
it’s cool, let’s just– – Don’t break into that time period. – Yeah, let’s, we can do so
much more with newer technology. – Yes.
– But we, yeah, so but working on film and
in black and white film, it was actually less about the aesthetic, it was more about the
fact that the canister, the film canister lasts 500 years. There’s no other format
in the world right now, no hard drive that you can buy or anything that will last that long. So it was all about how
to create an archive and how to respond to the
things that are missing. – This whole history of
race films is incredible. I recommend, there’s a box set that Kino Lorber put out recently working with the Library of Congress called “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” and it’s dozens and dozens of these really unique, interesting,
unclassifiable films. We’re showing two with
“America” on Tuesday. One’s called “Hellbound Train”. – It’s amazing.
– Which is by a husband and wife filmmaking team called James and Eloyce Gist, who used to tour their
films around churches. And this one is a film
about a train going to hell, hence “Hellbound Train”. – So crazy, it’s crazy. – And on every carriage
is a different vice, so if you’ve ever wanted to see somebody get murdered by jazz, literally (audience laughing) this is the film for you. We’ve got time for one more question before we wrap up tonight. I’m gonna go right to the back, because you had your hand up before. So this is maybe about
the choice of the shot with the white filmmaker looking
straight down the camera, and maybe just elaborate a little on the “Lime Kiln Club Field Day”. – Yeah, so that film was made in 1913, which was several years
after Plessy versus Ferguson, which was the beginning of Jim Crow tightening its grip on the country. It was also the same year
as the modern day projector, so people for the first time could watch films together in the same space. So there was this very strange togetherness and separation
happening simultaneously. So the fact that this, they found, the MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, found this film as a series
of unassembled outtakes. They put a lot of incredible resources into reassembling it and figuring out what the narrative was and they included every take, you know. That’s why you see… Or you, actually this is not, we’re not, we didn’t watch the whole
film tonight, I forgot. But you see multiple takes of it. And so it was really significant. So this is what they think to be the very first film with an integrated production
and all black cast, starring Bert Williams who
had made three films, I think, but was making more money than the President during his time, and yes, was wearing blackface but very much so that he
was taking on that burden so that those around him
didn’t have to do that. And I think you can see, it’s sort of a very rare and extraordinary example of joy and leisure and
people looking amazing. I mean, the band kind of
coming around the corner, and all those dresses that
the women are wearing, it just is beautiful. And so the reason why I
found that particularly, that image particularly
interesting to end with was these moments of
intimacy that you see, these interracial forms of intimacy in a professional space. So what really struck
me was one of the actors grabbing the other guy’s arm, and the playfulness and laughter that you can see in between
the takes of the film. Then there’s another guy
who’s staring straight at us, which is very much, I don’t know, to me is sort of like
looking into the future, looking at us, thinking, it’s
a challenge on some level. So I held on the image
for a variety of reasons, but I think those being mainly why. – That’s a great answer
to a great question. Thank you all for being here. Please give it up for
(audience applause) Julie and Garrett. (audience cheering and applauding)

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