The Archeology of Black Thought: Ephraim Asili Discusses "The Inheritance"

A bold voice in American experimental cinema, Ephraim Asil has made his feature debut.
Ela Bittencourt

The Inheritance

Above: The Inheritance.

For the past fifteen years, the African-American experimental filmmaker Ephraim Asili has been excavating the intellectual and cultural history of Black lives in the United States, Africa, and Brazil. In Asili’s riveting films, there’s a passionate expansiveness, across forms and diasporic locations, which also often circle back home, be it to Harlem, Detroit, or Philadelphia.

Asili’s latest film, his debut feature, The Inheritance, shot in a performance studio at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute over the span of four days, is a result of his extended scriptwriting and workshopping process. For the core story, Asili drew on his experience of living in a collective, in Philadelphia. From this raw material, through a series of vignettes and archival footage, the film reconstructs the process of political and activist education that Asili underwent for about six years, starting when he was 20, when he became close to the activist Black-thought organization MOVE. Weaving together scripted scenes, improvisation, and performance, by both professional and amateur actors, The Inheritance throbs with a unique energy that results from Asili’s fluid, syncretic collaging method.

I spoke with Asili on the phone the day before he was to drive to New York, to present his film at a drive-in screening, at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, as part of the New York Film Festival’s Currents program. 

NOTEBOOK: I wonder what it was like to write a screenplay based on your own life. Was it freeing or rather nerve-racking?

EPHRAIM ASILI: [laughs] It was totally nerve-racking. Coming from an experimental background, especially one in which I leaned on improvisation, the idea of sitting down and thinking through a film from beginning to end seemed impossible, at first. It took me years to convince myself that I could do it. I read Syd Field’s screenplay book [Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting], but the only way I was able to get any work done was to isolate and to force myself to write for a certain amount of time. One huge help I had in the process was that I was offered a residency at EMPAC. They originally gave me a grant to go to Philadelphia to write. I came back to EMPAC about six months later, with my notes and scraps of dialogue. They hired actors of my choosing, and for almost two weeks we workshopped my ideas. I was rewriting, based on my understanding of [my collaborators] as people, but also of what they could and couldn’t do as actors. Then I didn’t link up with them for about a year, and then, a year after that, I had the final script. I finished it only to get on set and start re-writing everything.

NOTEBOOK: What was your guiding light in finding form?

ASILI: A story must have beats, just like music. It’s often an issue in something like a biopic. How do you force everything into a three-act structure? I decided from the beginning not to go down that rabbit-hole, where you plug in moments of your life into certain parts. [Instead], it would be more collage-like. At the same time, it was very liberating to know that I was dealing with plot points and conflict, and couldn’t just wait for things to happen. The idea of calling it a “speculative reenactment” is to recreate the circumstances of my life, but then to make an interesting movie.

NOTEBOOK: Godard’s La chinoise inspired your staging, but also partly your method, which is about immersion. Could you talk about that?

ASILI: All Godard films are immersive, but especially those in the late ‘60s. How he deals with the narrative shifts to an almost essay form. It’s nearly useless to try to get anything out of them in terms of plot. However, you can treat them as fragments of experience, dealing with what’s unfolding, as opposed to having a safe distance by following a love story, and such, tuning in when it’s emotionally interesting, tuning out when it’s politics. Instead, you’re either all in or all out. I gravitated to Godard’s ideas. He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s from an extremely wealthy, privileged background. He can have that background and, at the same time, be totally engaged in global geopolitics. For me, it’s almost the opposite. I grew up very working class, and in the United States, there is a tendency, especially in places that seem more academic, to hide the fact that you are not of a certain class background, or that you are of a certain class background. I try to keep this authenticity in my work. It’s also the idea that [the young people] are trying to educate each other, which is something I’m trying to riff on.

NOTEBOOK: In your film, that education is often thanks to interacting with archival material. When did you decide to include it?

ASILI: It was an afterthought, serendipitous, in a lot of ways. The early archival footage of Shirley Chisholm, for example: I had shot a scene in the narrative where there is a picture of Shirley Chisholm on a shirt. In the residency at the Visual Studies Workshop, right after I finished shooting, I had that same picture on the wall in my studio. An archivist went by and said that someone had just dropped off a box of videotapes from the 70s by a radical news group from Rochester, and would I like to see the footage of Shirley Chisholm? It literally fell into my lap.

Similar with the MOVE footage: I must have shot two hours to be a self-contained thing, but there were gaps in continuity, and things that could easily be clarified with an image. That’s why I went to the archive at Temple University to poke around. It was just an explosion of materials. I found a way to make it rhyme with everything. There are so many photographs and content that ten people could make ten different films about MOVE with different archival materials. But I’m not coming from a point of view of a journalist. My alignment is unapologetically with MOVE, so I don’t have to present whatever argument there might be, what the other side thinks. As an artist, it allows me to go in the way that is unique to me.

NOTEBOOK: What about your decision to work with both professional actors and amateurs?

ASILI: There’s something very spontaneous about the energy of an amateur actor that opens things up. If they’re not used to improvisation, they may respond in a way that totally startles the professional actor. I found that having both kept each group on its toes. The professionals had to be more comfortable improvising, doing things they wouldn’t normally do. And for my young actors, they were not just students but people with aspirations of acting or being in entertainment. I was thinking how I could help younger people get experience. It was the same for my crew. The idea of a film called The Inheritance is having an eclectic group of people, in a real sense, and then having them act things out, in another way. In my film, everyone where I could hire into positions where they haven’t normally been hiring non-binary or POC workers, I tried to hire someone. I don’t necessarily need people to know how to do everything, I just need people who are really into the process, so I can hire young people who are often very eager.

NOTEBOOK: How did these young actors view MOVE’s ideal of communal living?

ASILI: The younger students, in college or fresh out of college, totally fell into the communal vibe. They had a lot more learning to do on history, but in terms of energy, the professionals actually needed more to get out of [the mindset of] what it’s like to be an isolated person, in New York.

NOTEBOOK: Are the few fragments in black-and-white, to the camera, then documentary clips where they talk about themselves?

ASILI: I scheduled an interview with everyone who’s in the film. I actually have interviews of all the crew as well. When I would get to the end of a reel, we’d do an interview before we finished it. I would either tell them to do it in character, or not, or I would say, “Surprise me.” And sometimes, I wasn’t sure if they were in character or not. And while I’m asking these questions, I’m also playing a role as director—I’m a director playing a director, so I would also ask myself if I’m asking the question in or out of character. If I’m in character, I’m asking about the [the collective's] House of Buntu. If I’m out of character, I’m essentially asking what it’s like to work with me.

NOTEBOOK: What were the actual conditions of the shoot like?

ASILI: I’m a little bit nervous to say it [laughs], but I shot the entire narrative in about four days, working about nine hours a day, so they weren’t film days, they were work days in a more conventional sense. Whereas on a normal shoot, you might have 12-hour days, and you might shoot for 10-20 days. I had to work at breakneck speed, because the studio [we were in] is not a real studio, it’s a sort of video house for performing. It was a commissioned residency, which meant I was using their in-house crew that showed up at nine left at five, like regular work people. It was a baptism by fire. I’ve never set foot on a film set before. It was all new to me, but after two days of shooting, I was guess-estimating how much useable footage I’d have. I figured, on a good day, I was walking away with about 10 minutes of usable content. By the fourth day, I was very nervous, because it had to be damn-near perfect, but at the same time, I had more experience than I’d ever had. It took a while to get that rhythm down. [Luckily], there was rapport with everyone, because we had rehearsed the piece almost two years prior. The issue with the four days was that some actors had other commitments. For me, that’s very Hollywood. In my fantasy of making a film, we’re all together, sitting by campfire at night, bonding. In actuality, there’s pressure on you as director not to have that come across on the screen, or to work it into the structure of the piece. And so you bring the audience in on the stakes of what’s happening, what you can do with four days on the set, a bunch of cameras and film stock.

My pride in writing the script is that I do feel it’s somewhat convincing that these people had been dealing with each other for a while. The whole idea of directing is that you want people to be comfortable. If they are, they’re going to give you something you can use. I couldn’t do multiple takes, so essentially everything is one take, occasionally two. Only for a few scenes I did three or four takes, if I really needed to. But eighty percent of it is one take only. And I think one way that we were able to pull that off is me taking the time to know each actor’s individual talents, outside of just performing, and bringing that in. For example, once I realized I had actors who could do humor, I was also able to shift my writing, to bring in my brand of humor, and to amplify it a bit. The people in the world who have most latitude and can challenge us on things are comedians. Funny people who are often very serious in their private lives. They know and I know and anyone who reads the Bible knows—you can’t come out at people too seriously with big ideas, because they’ll kill you. [laughs] You have to be funny with some of this stuff.

NOTEBOOK: Humor also highlighted, in a playful way, the gap between big ideas and the tricky mess of daily life.

ASILI: When you watch many revolutionary films, including La chinoise, they almost always want to get into revolutionary violence, or aggression. There are two things about that: one, it fulfills some romantic notions that are convenient for selling a movie in a Hollywood, and two, chances are that the film was written by a man. One thing that I learned from MOVE, as a constant struggle, is to come to terms with what it’s like to go back and adapt to a more matriarchal and more feminist look on the world. So many ideas around theory and political practice that we know today come from men, but how many of these men had women—their wives and secretaries—do the labor for them? Even a filmmaker such as Alfred Hitchcock, how much of his work was done by his wife? We don’t talk about this often, but in the context of the film, that was the whole point. The man, separated from his partner, wouldn’t know what to do with this space. You don’t get this dialogue on camera, but he asks the woman to move in, and then things happen. The whole arc of the film is initiated by the fact that he turns to her to better himself, and this sets off a chain of events.

NOTEBOOK: Your work is also strongly inflected by other art forms—music, visual arts, poetry. How does it all come together?

ASILI: It’s this idea of synesthesia, to tap into how your senses can translate from one to the other. I can listen to a piece of music and derive ideas about editing and composition, or I can look at an abstract painting and get ideas about mise-en-scène. One inspiration bleeds into the other. Where these things may not work is when they become too predetermined, too academic or linear. In this sense, two filmmakers who inspire me, both being intellectually very dense, are Chris Marker and Hollis Frampton. When you start to study them, they are very passionate about particular ideas, and those ideas manifest themselves in a variety of spaces, so they’re just kicking around ideas through different lenses. That, for me, is the real interest. In this sense, essay film is very liberating. It’s all about the process. As long as the journey is one that people can enjoy or grapple with, in real time, it’s okay that it’s not tied together in a perfect bow. 

NOTEBOOK: I wonder if you could talk about books, as repositories of ideas, but also as physical objects, whose presence is so important in your cinema.

ASILI: Books, objects. That’s always been there for me. Tactility in general. I was in my teens when I started collecting records. It was frustrating to be 19 or 20, coming up in Philadelphia, where the Sun Ra Arkestra was based—you’d have white men who’d have all these Sun Ra records, and at the time, you couldn’t access this stuff beyond having the actual records. It wasn’t on Spotify, there was no internet. The people who had access to this great Black culture when it came out seemed to not be Black people. It’s fine that they had it, but it actually means that other people, whose heritage and culture it is, don’t’ have access to it. That’s always been something that I’ve thought about. It’s easy to rationalize buying records and books, but I am holding them as an archive of Black thought. Now I have a choice of how I use and share them. To me, there’s a politics there. I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale, someplace where I could access my own culture. It’s the stuff that I have and share. Ultimately, I’m making films about things that I find beautiful, and things that are hopefully helping to move society in the right direction. One of the ways of doing that is sharing things that I’m passionate about. Books, music, etc. Not only ideas but actual objects. For example, with my previous film, Fluid Frontiers, I was collecting all the Broadside Press Books. At the time, I was buying them pretty cheap. Now, some four years later, I can’t find these books, or they cost hundreds of dollars. There’s an archive a few hours down the road where I could access them, but luckily, I don’t need to. I collect all this stuff, and from the beginning, the idea is to get them back into film and to share the experience. In documentary, there’s this term B-roll, for when you’re not shooting the subject, which I hate. I hate the idea of a cutaway, as if it’s a break. Why do we place this hierarchy on things? For me, the objects that would be normally considered cutaways are as important as actors, or as anything else. As far back as I can remember the one thing I wanted to be was an archeologist. It’s this idea of digging things up, holding them up close, so you can glean all sorts of things from them. In my experience, I can’t just go online and read an article about the Black Arts movement, and get the same energetic feeling that I get from actually having something that was published at that time, and shows its history by being damaged, or by how it smells. I get so much inspiration from that, it’s always something I’m trying to incorporate.

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