Jul 5, 2008

Afro Punk Festival invades BAM

By Evan Louison

There's something that happens in the heat of every summer, on the border of the neighbourhoods of Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene, that truly draws into question as much about race relations in modern America as it does about independent cinema or the craft of filmmaking itself. It is a festival that grew out of a film, and representative of what creators James Spooner and Matthew Morgan call simply, "a movement." It's name is Afro-Punk, and it is as much about New York, and the art and skateboarding communities in the city as it is about the worlds it spawned from --- those of punk music, resistant Black culture and independent film. This year's slate of films is no different.

The film Afro-Punk has blossomed now into something more than what it was, as it remains synonymous with the festival itself and the movement at large, it has grown from a gripping and controversial film document of the roots of the Black influence in punk music into one of Brooklyn’s and the New York filmmaking community’s most exciting cultural events over the five years since its release. When I first came into contact with the film, it was on tour with a crew of young boys in punk bands in the summer of 2004, in Louisville, KY. Spooner, who directed the film, was in the mode of travelling the lower forty eight with his documentary, showing it anywhere and to everyone he could. He was as inspiring then to a lot of us as he appears mysterious now, as it seemed that in his process there lay someone who understood that the punk work ethic of moving in any circle no matter how small or low-key could be applied to filmmaking and film exhibition just as easily as it could to music performance and distribution. His new film White Lies, Black Sheep, which plays the festival this year, promises to take the dichotomies he explored in Afro-Punk, those of African-Americans in mostly white punk communities, and deal with them in a narrative form.

Of the films playing the festival this year, the sense of the outsider identity is prominent in most if not all of them. The festival kicked off yesterday with Aaron Matthew's 2004 documentary A Panther in Africa, which covers the experience of the exiled Pete O'Neal, a Kansas City Black Panther living for 32 years in Tanzania to escape prosecution on the trumped up charge of transporting a firearm across statelines. The film starts with a voiceover of O'Neal describing the irony he found first living in Tanzania, where owning a gun is not a question of choice in the midst of wildlife and with the question of survival always looming. O'Neal describes his experience as a non-citizen having to go to the American Embassy in Tanzania and apply for a permit to buy a 12-guage shotgun, the same model weapon he was arrested for "illegally transporting," two years earlier.

The film mixes old footage with more current documentation of O'Neal and his wife Charlotte's work as founders of the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC) in Imbaseni, Tanzania. What is most compelling about the subject is the truthful evolution of someone with the steadfast desire for social justice and a drive to achieve it, both as a youth and as an elder. After being persecuted by a certain Missouri congressman, O'Neal went on television and said he'd like to march right into the House of Representatives and "take [his] head." When the interviewer responded, "You don't mean that literally?," O'Neal calmly replied, "I mean that literally." In looking back though, the most interesting piece of insight the elder O'Neal offers in the course of the film is that something a person says at a certain time, in a certain situation, because they truly felt a certain way, cannot be taken to be indicative of any way that they might feel later in life. In other words, who you are is not who you remain.

The late, brilliant, and still to this day largely overlooked Hal Ashby, who is receiving something of a renaissance these days (and who is currently the subject of a forthcoming book by Filmmaker Magazine colleague Nick Dawson) makes an appearance in this year's lineup as his first film, The Landlord, plays Wednesday. Starring a young and handsome Beau Bridges, produced by Norman Jewison (Ashby had by this time already made somewhat of a name for himself by editing In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair for Jewison), and written by Bill Gunn (of Ganja & Hess semi fame, see Brandon Harris' piece in Hammer to Nail), The Landlord contains much of the same snide humor and racially charged progressive politics as that of Brian DePalma's contemporaneous films, Greetings and Hi Mom: Confessions of a Peeping Tom. What Ashby's film shares with DePalma's is a sense of revery in the blunt, at times almost sickening display of the racial divide in the US at that time, and moreover the undeniably disappointing parrallels to our current situations here and abroad (just as we remain stuck sending young men to die in foreign lands now as we did in the time of DePalma's first films, still we remain trapped in real estate situations in New York that I can't describe but to say, well, just ain't right).

Bridges plays Elgar Enders, a wealthy young man from a rich Westchester family who is a self-described Cancerian, to whom as he puts it, "Home really matters." Though of course you couldn't tell this to his self-absorbed aristrocrat dilletante mother, played to a fucking-T by Lee Grant, who argues with Elgar what his astrological sign really is and ends the argument by asking him when he was born. Elgar buys a tenement in what he describes to be "a little ghetto area," which we later find out to be none other than stroller-infested (yes I said infested) Park Slope. He has every intention of evicting the entire building of black families and gutting the inside, to put up a really "radical, psychedelic, chandelier-thing." His plan changes when he finds there is a lot more going on in the building than he realizes, and that shouldn't imply to any reader that this is in any way a morally-sappy story. Elgar eventually moves into the building himself, much to his family's dismay, at one point even impregnating one of the tenants accidentally. The most intense and radical part of Ashby's film remains the editing, the flashes of non-descript, seemingly unrelated abstractions, fractions of other worlds that we literally only see for a few seconds at a time, but weave in and out of the narrative to create an unavoidable hysterical streak painted down its blackfaced side. Nothing is more moving than when Elgar's mother hears his tenant approach him about her pregnancy, and Ashby without any introduction shows Lee Grant surrounded on her Westchester estate lawn surrounded by a litter of upwards of a dozen young black children, dressed like Bo Peep and singing in a strangely Qawwali inspired melody, "Lay your kinky, woolen heads, on your Mammy's breast..." Her nightmare is enough to knock over your grape soda.

Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough's The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee "Scratch" Perry, which plays Saturday night, is a film built upon an intense and simple recrafting of ancient video footage mixed with that of the current day. Scratch is a man of many names (Upsetter, Dr. Perry, Superape, Pipecock Jackson) who has always managed the existence of enigma quite well in the eyes of age. In a way, he has always appeared ancient, just as he has always possessed an undeniably youthful energy. To watch him shovel the walkway to his Swiss home or playfully make snow angels in the hills feels the same as to watch a degenerated video recorded nearly 40 years ago showimg him ranting and playing with fire, drawing frantically upon a chalkboard while he holds court on JAH and the Word Sound Power system of Rastafari culture, all while wearing heart-shaped glasses and a maniacal grin, waving his arms in the air. Even when the narration lets the audience know that Scratch spent the decade following his self-induced exile in depression and an alcoholic's haze, the man we see before us dressed in white with mirrored glass hanging from his body, playing with a plastic sword, seems strangely blissful, or at very least as blissful as he might appear to be sad to some. When we see him dressed all in red, hair and beard dyed to match, videotaped next to a television showing a different angle of him, ultimately two Scratches, side by side, the image is a powerful one. A man in many worlds, his words at one point echo the essence of what James Spooner must have had in mind when he began this yearly tradition with his own film: "I am a punk...because I am out of control, and I cannot be controlled...Punk is magic."