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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
All in the Family
by Donald Levit

Donnell Media Center of the New York Public Library is offering a series celebrating Women's History Month, in co-sponsorship with CineWomen NY, a volunteer group for the encouragement and promotion of women in film and entertainment. The second of three such evenings featured multi-field Camille Billops, known internationally as a sculptress in ceramic, but also a printmaker, patroness of fellow artists and, with author-professor husband James Hatch, a filmmaker whose work is partly archived at the Indiana University Black Film Center.

Her graying hair braided, in black and wearing Native American turquoise-and-silver rings, earrings and necklaces, Billops introduced her husband and a friend in the audience and gave a summary of her career and unusual films, one of which was shown entire along with clips from four others, each followed by Q&A.

Assertively open about her personal and film lives, she is self-taught in the latter, learning by "doing it in the street and making mistakes," the first such lesson being that "film and money go together more than in any other art form." Buying others' artwork and then selling it along with her own has helped finance a cycle of six family documentaries, which "I'm done with now" and which were made for a modest total of a quarter-million dollars (actually about a third of a million as she totes up expenses for each).

There are a preliminary few words about the individual films, not all of which are to be shown, e.g., Older Women and Love (1987), about her eighty-year-old aunt and a lover half that age, a reversal of the "Marlboro man/God the Father with a young girl." Shown in its entirety, Suzanne Suzanne (1982) is the first and most interesting of tonight's offerings. Professedly a "form of celebration, the idea of a warm feeling I had for Suzanne," her sister Billie's daughter who had entered Tuum Est. Inc. and emerged drug-free (although some temporary backsliding later comes out).

Adroitly interweaving footage from thirty cans of 16 mm positives from her own mother and stepfather, Billops' first film turns out a probing reflection on the immediate family's relationship with, and reaction to, Brownie, Billie's hard-drinking husband and Suzanne's father, an alternatively abusive and loving man who died suddenly at forty-two. Opening minutes show him in his coffin and pose his daughter's questions as to whether he really loved her and, if so, why he released physical hostility on her rather than brother Michael. The speakers -- Suzanne, Billie, Michael, Grandmother Alma and step-Grandfather Walter Dotson, aunts and various children -- are often caught in mundane tasks like ironing, tweaking garden flowers or combing hair (or Michael's magnificent moustache), and even when they simply reflect aloud there is not the usual sense of a mere talking head.

What emerges is a picture of the dependence of members of a family -- in this case, African-American -- around the hub of the overbearing male, and of the complex psychological ties of each to each, but most especially the women. (Two decades later, prompted by a nephew's complaint, String of Pearls would center on the males rather than the women and on the early deaths of the men and the need to base a future on education and a strong support system.)

Against unadorned black backdrop, the moving coda has the Afro'd daughter in the foreground, with behind her the beautiful, slim, perm'd mother (a former Ms. America contestant), both gazing into the camera though asking questions of each other, searching hearts' depths, and only then turning to embrace as Billie breaks down. "I loved your daddy very much. When he died, I felt so absolutely free. Liberated." Billops revealed that, for that shooting at an L.A. puppet theater, she and Hatch furnished questions for her niece but that the young woman had changed them. The scene was in effect staged, the results accidental, as Suzanne confronts her mother (and the ghost of her father). "No, not Bergman-esque" -- in answer to an inquiry from the audience -- but "James Hatch-esque."

For it, the filmmaker's son ran the camera until film ran out. In docudrama, "you become predators, sit around waiting for action, for moments. Sometimes you try to set it up, but they're not actors, they can't repeat the moment." Later comes the cutting and editing, as when, to spare the family, she chose to make Brownie less villainous.

Time restrictions forced the showing of only short selections from other films and the limiting of questions. Despite some interesting starting points, and the more frequent appearance of Billops herself in them, and sometimes of husband Hatch, the others appear less raw and authentic. Though we do not see the grown daughter, Sundance Grand Jury Award-winner Finding Christa (1991) deals with Billops' reunion with the child that, as a young unwed mother, she had given up for adoption twenty years earlier--"I'm sorry about the hurt but not about the act."

With the usual family and friends acting, The KKK Boutique Ain't Just Rednecks (1994) is too self-consciously cute, an obvious meditation on a store that sells racial stereotypes, each descending floor of which is actually a Dantesque circle of hell. More interesting is the framing device of Billops' cutting Hatch's hair in a field of sunflowers while they make observations about their own long interracial marriage and others' reactions. People hated the film, she gleefully notes afterwards, but in spite of an initial "flattening out," it eventually found its audience on college campuses.

Done on video, Take Your Bags (2000) is constructed from the metaphor of captured Africans' packing handgrips for the Middle Passage but then receiving different baggage on arriving on these shores as slaves. Really no more than pointed, innocent-voiced telling at the expense of showing, it focuses on the filmmaker and a sweet four-year-old in a red sweater holding a toy car. She recites to him, relating what she sees off-camera, and, naturally, he rather uncomprehendingly nods agreement.

The films are at their most effective when objectively documenting the essence of what may be a not altogether unrepresentative middle-class African-American family in Southern California. Personally, socially, historically, such records are essential, "for if you're not on some document, it's like you might disappear." Even non-fiction, of course, cannot pretend to be all-inclusive and is therefore necessarily selective though no less important. Billops chose, for example, to include only the second of Christa's adoptive mother's three husbands, and made him appear to have been the only one. Provocatively, ironically, she notes that "we're making a movie; you don't think it's about the truth, do you? You cut."

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