At the Locarno Film Festival, we sat with the Los Angeles-based independent curator and writer Greg de Cuir Jr. to discuss the 46-film collage he programmed at the festival dedicated to the representation on film of the black peoples and cultures in the African diaspora. It was an invitation to reflect on the notion of black cinema and a journey throughout the 20th century revisited under a different light.
NOTEBOOK: How did the idea of this retrospective came about and why have you decided to bring it to Locarno?
GREG DE CUIR JR.: Well, Locarno decided to bring it. So it was their idea. It was [Artistic Director] Lili Hinstin’s idea to do something on black culture. So it wasn’t necessarily that I created something and brought it here. What I did was to expand and develop a theme and put together a method. Then, I fixed the selection and did the writing. I tried to position this as a retrospective that would be thematic but also geographical in a sense, or at least very international. So, that’s how it happened. Lili has been involved with showing some of the films in the retrospective in her previous festival [Internation Film Festival Entrevues Belfort], so now that she got the job [at Locarno] and the opportunity to open up I think she saw a chance to do this kind of retrospective that was probably in her heart and her mind for a little while already.
NOTEBOOK: When you approached the subject and started the research, what kind of frame of reference did you establish? What were the aims and the boundaries?
DE CUIR JR.: The first framework was the 20th century. I wanted it to be a retrospective that looks back like a true retrospective and I wanted to focus on the 20th century for that reason. Also, because the 21st century is a little bit too young. Things are changing and it is not the right moment—for me at least—to try to analyze that.
The second part of the framework was dealing with the regions. I didn’t want to focus on Africa because for me, that is a different retrospective that requires a different approach, tools, criteria and ethics. I wanted to focus on what happened after Africa, after people were forced to leave and were situated in different nations and contexts to survive and flourish. What are those situations and contexts and what do they look like in film culture across the 20th century? That was the focus.
Also, I wanted it to be very open in terms of genres. We have narrative fiction, we have documentary, we have avant-garde works, we have comedies, musicals, drama, and also action films and policiers and so on and so forth. I would say I wanted to do a wide variety of directors that are coming from different nations, different races, different religions, different genders, different ethnicities, who all have in common this investigation and elaboration, this celebration of black cultures and black peoples on screen. It was also really important to include a number of women in the program, even though we weren’t really able to include enough because the further back you go in history, the less choices you have. The reason for that is also that I wanted to focus on feature length cinema. Knowing what Locarno Film Festival does, I didn’t want to deal with shorts. It’s too much and it is a different thing, different mode of production, different opportunities that have been given to different people through art history to make shorts.
Those were sort of the main boundaries that I worked with when I started researching and putting together. I would say that I wanted to bring a sort of survey of the different decades to try to show a little bit of what’s happening in as many decades as possible. You know, the normal thing when you try to create a balance and try to give people some sort of resonance of what they are seeing and where is coming from. So in other words, North America to South America, Caribbean to the European continent and in a few special cases that passage between Africa and either the Caribbean or the European continent. But definitely focusing on what happens with that passage, what happens with those transnational linkages and how do they look in cinema.
NOTEBOOK: In the program, you can find Charles Burnett in dialogue with Shirley Clark, Julie Dash with Jean Rouch, Melvin van Peebles with Quentin Tarantino or Kathleen Collins with Pier Paolo Pasolini. Tell us about these connections.
DE CUIR JR.: Like I said, I wanted to have an open selection and include different points of view, different regions and different ethnicities, genders—everything. So, it is important for me to show that there has been a lot of people that has contributed to this black cultures being depicted on film and we can’t rewrite or erase those works out of history. That is also an attempt to say that we all sort of love and believe in and celebrate the auteur theory but it has been very old and stale for a long time and also very patriarchal and white. Film is a collaborative art form, certainly at the level of art skill production, narrative fiction, even documentary maybe, arty cinema is a little bit more personal and we do have examples of arty cinema, but we want to celebrate other creators in cinema, important creative people that are just as much auteurs, whether they be writers, whether producers, cinematographers, editors, actors, so on and so forth, so in that sense, the director is not necessarily the primary aim—though we are celebrating certain important directors obviously that made really important works.
NOTEBOOK: With this proposal, you also stretch the boundaries of what the definition of black cinema is. Given the variety and diversity of the films presented here, what would be your own definition of black cinema?
DE CUIR JR.: It is hard to define. I wrote in my essay [for the festival catalog] that is not easier to define black cinema than it is to define black people. So, what is black cinema? Who are black people? That is a hard question and there is not a simple answer. Following professor Michael Gillespie, who is a great writer theoretician and critic, black cinema can not just be limited to a definition of who is behind or in front of the camera. I sort of expand that saying that not necessarily black people are making black films. So, it is complicated and it should be. Life isn’t easy to categorize and it isn’t easy to define. So yes, we have a variety of things, and I think also that black cinema is an open question still sort of defining and redefining as well. It can be an open proposition, so what black cinema means in Brazil can be completely different that what it means in Jamaica, and what it means here in Switzerland. That is the way things are and should be. There is no easy definition. People shouldn’t come to the retrospective looking for answers to specific questions because it is about being open.
NOTEBOOK: We feel that some essential names are missing, such as Haile Gerima, Billy Woodberry, Michael Roemer, or even Pedro Costa.
DE CUIR JR.: Pedro Costa is a bit young, so it needs a little bit more seasoning before getting in the selection. Maybe in a next program that digs more into the 21st century. But yeah, there is a lot of people that are left out, unfortunately. You know, boundaries, budget, time, technicalities, what’s available and what isn’t. So yeah, absolutely, a lot of people are left out. That is one frame of looking at things, to say: okay, who’s left out and why? Sometimes there is a very specific reason, but other times, it could be just a totally random twist of fate. But yes, the answer is that a lot of people are left out. A lot of people didn’t make the cut, unfortunately.
NOTEBOOK: Listening to your introductions, we have the feeling that the selection has been made on a very personal basis.
DE CUIR JR.: I kind of joked with myself, when I was developing the program and I kept remembering Scorsese’s personal journey through Italian cinema. This is like “Greg’s personal journey through black cinema.” A lot of the things are stuff that I love, but there are also just as many things that I discovered and I didn’t know much about so I wanted to include them. I wanted to find this balance with the things I love and I know and I want share and I think they don’t get enough attention, but there are also plenty of things that I’m discovering also and sort of working my way trough.
NOTEBOOK: After putting all these films together and sharing them with the audience, how do you look back to this whole experience? What kind of understanding has this retrospective brought to you?
DE CUIR JR.: It’s amazing for me just to watch some of these films with people that have never seen them or heard about them before. So it’s new for me and I can sort of see it through their eyes, which gives a new awareness of what’s good about the work but also maybe in some cases what could be questionable about the work. It is changing when seeing it with different audiences. You can never pin it down completely, even if you know a film like the back of your hand. So it’s great for me to see some of the stuff with an audience that hasn’t seen it. Again, you know, you are always tortured like: okay, they reacted this way, I wish I could have included this film and this director, or, no, this film didn’t hit them the way I thought it would hit them, I don’t understand it, maybe I could switch this film and this director. So every time you watch them with an audience, it is like a re-testing of your theory over and over again and it is interesting to see. It’s a great surprise to see what people responds to and what they don’t. Every screening brings suspense.
NOTEBOOK: How do you react to the fact that the majority of the audience is white here in Switzerland?
DE CUIR JR.: That is what I wrote about in the essay: the cinema space as being a segregated space. I’m usually aware of that, since I’m working at festivals in Europe quite often. I look around and I won’t see anybody that’s black except me, even in a program like this, dedicated to black people. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never been to Locarno before but I kind of had an idea of what the audience might be or could be like. That’s not ideal, obviously, but also these people here that are watching these films and that are engaged with them don’t necessarily come from the world of cinema, don’t necessarily come from black culture or are part of it. These are important people to get to also, and to expand their minds. You know, I’m always aware of preaching to the choir, as we say where I’m from. I don’t necessarily need or always want to preach to the choir. I wanna preach to the unconverted, so yeah, this is very important people to reach and touch and sort of expand their minds of what the great works are in history of cinema and what these great works have been about, and give them a new perspective on that. But this audience here is amazing, these old folks here that are coming to me [laughs], they don’t care, they are coming to be moved, they are coming to see a work of art, they are not playing around. They discovered Charles Burnett last night with Killer of Sheep. This is a serious audience, it is the best audience I’ve ever had, alongside with last year when I organized the Robert Flaherty seminar, which was a special imported audience. The audience here has a free choice and sort of this free excitement and initiative to discover and explore. So this Locarno audience set themselves in a different category from everyone else, as far as I’m concerned.
NOTEBOOK: Going further on the feedback that you got from the audience, you had a roundtable here with other experts. How was the discussion and how was the audience interaction?
DE CUIR JR.: There wasn’t much audience interaction because it was raining a lot and it was far away from the festival center, so not many people made the journey. We had an okay audience, but it wasn’t the audience that is coming to the cinema to encounter something new. We didn’t have so much feedback from the audience, but there was a good discussion with a lot of important people in the panel, lead by professor Michael Gillespie. It was an interesting talk, not so much a talk with the audience but more a talk between these great thinkers and practitioners. It would have included some more audience interaction but you know, sometimes people don’t wanna talk, people just wanna listen, they do not want to insert themselves in the conversation and you know, that is fine, you don’t have to force people to talk. It was mostly a dialogue and listening to the participants in the panel.
NOTEBOOK: What is next for the black cinema discussion?
DE CUIR JR.: There is a new generation of writers and curators out there that are starting to edit journals, that are starting to run film festivals, or organizing programs in different places. It is not so strange to see programs like this, just that this is obviously a bigger scale, bigger budget, you can include more things, there’s more press, you can have more attention, so the reverberations will be felt a little bit more. But there is a lot of work that has been done before this and after I expect more work will be done. There is more work to be done, but there are great people that are already doing that work and that are engaged in it. It takes open audiences, also, to complete it. It takes open festival directors and it takes open studio chiefs in Hollywood, or in Europe, that start to finance these films, it takes producers and distributors and exhibitors that are open-minded so it doesn’t become an echo chamber. And obviously, it takes critics and writers and journalists that are interested to tell these stories and share them.
It’s a special moment; like I said, I’ve never been here before and this is such a special festival and it is nice to do something where people have such a dedicated level of attention. For the first screening in the cinema we had more than four hundred people, which is amazing for me. Usually I don’t have such a strong audience because I’m dealing with sort of unconventional work. To me, it is just amazing, this audience here at Locarno Film Festival and how excited they are. I’ve been told that a lot of people come to this festival just for the retrospective, which is also new for me. I go to a lot of festivals and also I don’t know any audience at any festival that goes to that festival only for one program, usually people like to have sort of a broad sample—this is a new thing for me and it is pretty cool.