“40 Years and 19,979,520 Feet from Stardom or, the Perils of Being (Re)Discovered…” — by Fronza Woods
In late January of 2017, I got a call from a friend in London, breathless with excitement, asking me if I’d seen that day’s New York Times, because there was a big piece on black women filmmakers.
So I consulted my online ‘copy’, and saw that the BAM Cinématek was doing a series called “One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema 1970–1991.” I looked at it half-heartedly, expecting that it would be a festival made up of the usual suspects — Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins, maybe Zeinabu Irene Davis, Ayoka Chenzira, or Monona Wali — but I doubted very much that my films would have been included. I’d opted out of the scene years before, and no one seemed to notice I was missing.
That’s not altogether true.
Serendipitous circumstances had it that my nephew, Devon Whitmore, had done the stills for Davis’s film Compensation”and one day Zeinabu had a meeting with Devon at my sister’s home. In the course of chitchatting, my sister happened to mention that she had a sister who was a filmmaker, too. Zeinabu asked who that might be. My sister mentioned my name and was very surprised to find out that Zeinabu not only knew who I was, but told my sister that there were people who wondered what had become of me, that I should get in touch with Women Make Movies because they’d be interested in distributing my films.
So it is thanks to Zeinabu, and, indirectly, my sister, that my films had a home. And, by the way, this is a good example of the ethos of camaraderie and mutual support that made the LA Rebellion movement the powerful movement that it was. In my experience, there was none of that in the black film scene on the East coast. It was much more competitive, and much more each man/woman for him/herself.
Getting back to the NYT article by Manohla Dargis, it wasn’t until the last paragraph that I realized why my friend was so excited. My films had, indeed, been selected for the series, and not only that, but the last paragraph was given over to my films. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
In the following days, more and more laudatory reviews came out about the festival, in general, and about my two films — Killing Time and Fannie’s Film in particular. The most beautiful, thoughtful, understanding and generous analysis being Richard Brody’s review of the series in his The Front Row column for the New Yorker. I was touched and stunned that he was able to empathize so deeply with the plight of black women filmmakers of that era.
Still from Killing Time
It was very strange, not to say a bit destabilizing. Suddenly from my little lair in “remote” Ribaute, France [pace B. Ellmann], I was catapulted forward, backward and sideways in time. I was an artist, and I use that word loosely, who had never really been discovered — I’m speaking solely of critics and the media, the people who have the power to make or break one’s career — yet was now being re-discovered.
I wanted to run around telling everyone about it, but in my immediate surroundings, there was no one to tell for whom it would have any meaning. So I jumped and danced around joyously in my office, and tooted my horn to my friends “back home.”
There wasn’t a soul who wasn’t happy for me, and glad to tell me as much, but I think we all had that feeling, why now, why so late? And what are you supposed to do with this???
Friends asked if this sudden recognition had inspired me to get back to filmmaking. It hadn’t. I would tell them, if I had something to say, I would make a film, but I don’t have anything to say. However I did feel incredibly blessed that I was alive to witness this moment. Poor Kathleen Collins had long been dead. Wouldn’t she have loved to know that her films were finally being given the attention and praise they deserve?
Still from Fannie’s Film
I thought the re-discovery would end with the BAM series, but in November of that same year, the Cahiers du Cinema featured an interview with Jordan Peele, whose film Get Out had, of course, been a global success. (Why, it was even shown at the local cinema in Lézignan, our little market town.) The Peele article was accompanied by an article titled “Looking for the Pioneers”. The list of “pioneers” was long and grand, and I couldn’t believe that I was a part of that illustrious list, sandwiched, chronologically speaking, between Kathleen Collins and Camille Billops & James Hatch.
I was pretty thrilled. Never in my life would I/could I have imagined that I’d get a mention in the venerable Cahiers.
I thought it would end with that, but some months later, I had a call, out of the blue, from one Hugues Perrot. He had written the “pioneers” piece in the November Cahiers, and while doing his research, he found out that I was living in France. Could he come to interview me for the Cahiers?
My film career was so long ago, and now suddenly people are interested??!! We’re talking about 40 years and 19,979,520 feet from stardom here. I truly didn’t see why he wanted to bother, but I said yes.
I was ill at ease. Being written about at a distance is one thing, having someone in your house interviewing you is quite another. You feel so much more exposed, I guess the word would be, so much more under pressure to perform, too.
Hugues showed up, unexpectedly, a week after we’d just had to have our adorable, beloved, young cat, Pipa, put down. I’d never had to make that decision before. I was a total wreck and didn’t really feel up to talking about my “illustrious” film career. But he’d taken the trip down from Paris, and I couldn’t very well turn him away.
Luckily, he was a bit awkward, not at all imposing, so it was sort of like talking to a friend. However, the more I talked, the more bored I got with the trajectory of my own life. I thought I came off as completely incoherent at times, but his article, which was published in the March 2018 issue of Cahiers, proved me wrong. In fact, a bit like what happened for some of the women in 20 Feet from Stardom, that glorious documentary whose title I’m paraphrasing here, whose careers were resurrected by that film, Hugues’ article seemed to have sparked interest in my films here in France and beyond.
In April of 2019, I was invited to take part in the Institut Jean Vigo’s annual film festival. This one was devoted to what they called “rebel women.” I was thrilled to finally have my films shown in my adopted land, and so excited to be invited to talk about them.
The thrill was soon replaced by horror and misgivings. This was a real reckoning with and rude awakening to what I had become in those years when I was as invisible as my dear Fannie, an old woman!
The first pictures that were taken by the press for the festival were so hideous that I wanted to bury myself. The last thing I wanted to do was to appear in public, but appear in public I had to. My sense of myself had been completely shattered. I suppose in an attempt to ameliorate the situation, my husband said to me, “but you look in the mirror every day.” “Yes, I said, but that’s not what I see!” He tried to reassure me that “in real life,” I didn’t look as hideous as the photo made me look. Some help that was. Then I remembered, you’re old, no one’s paying any attention to how you look. Relax!
The films were very well received, but during the Q & A session, those niggling questions began again… why did you stop making films? ...what was it like to be a woman/a black filmmaker in those days… why did you leave America?
I didn’t have pat answers. I found it difficult trying to recapture the spirit, zeitgeist, really, of that time without sounding either bitter or pathetic, or both. And also I realized just how much I hate being the center of attention. Hate it!
That same week, I’d been invited to the Courtisane Film Festival in Ghent.
The welcome couldn’t have been warmer and the films were so well presented and so well received. It began to feel like someone had remade my films. What else could explain why they now seemed to resonate with so many people??
Then came that damn Q & A part… why did you stop making films??… etc. etc. How do you explain to a primarily white, European audience, mostly made up of people who could be your grandchildren, what it was like to work in a profession that was known for its sexism and racism and, furthermore, to make films at a time when you could almost guarantee there wouldn’t be distribution, let alone a sizable audience for those films? From the perspective of today, it could sound a bit like madness to persist in making films in those conditions, not to say masochism. But then again, how touching that these young people were genuinely interested in what I had to say.
By the time I was invited to take part in a third festival, the Festival des 3 Continents in Nantes, I had promised myself that this time round, I would not grow attached to anyone involved in the festival. I would maintain a professional distance — respectful and courteous, but no overtures of friendship.
As it was, I was already weaving a friendship with at least three or four people from the Institut Jean Vigo festival, especially Hellali, the delightfully bright young student who did the French subtitles for both films. I was totally charmed by Stoffel Debuysere, one of the co-curators of the Courtisane Festival, as well as several of the filmmakers whose works were also being shown. In the immediate afterglow of the festivals, the contact was somewhat intense. Come to think of it, it’s a bit like doing summer stock. A new production comes in. Everyone becomes like family. The show ends. The family goes away, and you’re left feeling bereft, until the next show comes along and the same intense bonding happens again.
It was the bereft part I was experiencing a bit too much after each festival, which is why I needed a “correction.” Needed to take hold of myself before I got to Nantes.
So much for that exercise. As soon as I met Jérôme Baron and his wonderful 3 Continents team, I threw caution to the wind. How can you take hold of yourself in the presence of so many charming, interesting and interested people? I just gave in, and continued collecting new friends as if they were abandoned puppies in need of my attention and affection. I tried to collect up Charles Burnett, Larry Clark and Ben Caldwell, who were there, too, but they wouldn’t be collected.
When I was a confused, ambitious, younger woman embarking on my filmmaking career, I went to a psychic who I was hoping would tell me “one day you’re going to be a famous filmmaker.” Alas, there was no mention of filmmaking, let alone fame, I had to content myself with “yours will not be just any old name in the phone book.” At the time I was disappointed, not to say terribly disappointed with his lackluster prediction. As it turns out, he was right, and now I’m thinking this late recognition is good enough for me. 19,979,520 feet from stardom is not such a bad place to be.
Photo by Katherine Carey
With thanks to Amy for allowing me to share my musings about being “re-discovered.”