Instead of Smashing Icons, Film Restoration F*cks with the Canon

Courtesy of the Walker Art Center
Instead of Smashing Icons, Film Restoration F*cks with the Canon

When I was 12, I discovered the word “iconoclast” and fell in love with the idea of smashing idols and bucking traditions. In college and grad school, I studied working-class history (with a few film courses to lighten the reading load). Fleeing academia, I found jobs distributing documentary, foreign, and independent films.

Nevertheless, in my mind “restoration” was tied to the work of European men: master paintings, stately manors, and cathedrals. Even the first restored film I ever saw was Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

Fortunately, I married a film restorationist who shared my politics and aesthetics. When my husband/partner Dennis Doros and I started Milestone Films in 1990, we were undercapitalized, naïve, and stubbornly committed to restoring films from the historical, geographical, and cultural periphery of cinema. Over the years, we worked with labs and archives to introduce audiences to early cinema from Persia, Tahiti, and Antarctica; Jane Campion’s first feature; silent films directed by women; animation; Czarist dramas; and other gems.

Stan (played by Henry G. Sanders) talks to his friends about not being poor in the film Killer of Sheep (1977). Photo courtesy Milestone Films

Our distribution focus sharpened when we acquired the rights to Charles Burnett’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep. Working with Charles, we saw the power and importance of his low-budget masterpiece. And we realized that much of the work of postwar American independent filmmakers was lost, unavailable, unrestored, and forgotten.

Independent films can be hard to locate, expensive to restore, and challenging to release. But our company’s relative unprofitability proved to be an asset: if we were not going to make money, we might as well do what we believed in. We sought out films that reflected the lives and work of African Americans, women, LGBTQ people, and Native Americans. Rather than smashing icons, we decided to work to radically reshape and enlarge the pantheon. We are still at it. And we are amused to learn that many film programmers have adopted our Milestone motto: “We like to fuck with the canon!”

Eddie Sunshine singing on Hill X in Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961). Charles Burnett and Sherman Alexie present a Milestone Films release. The film was restored from the original 35mm materials by Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

That mandate has evolved through choice and chance. Dennis had the idea of restoring the oeuvre of New York filmmaker Shirley Clarke, which started us on a multi-year odyssey, working with heirs, producers, and archives around the world. For her Portrait of Jason, the Academy Archive and Milestone collaborated on a digital restoration (our first), and digital tools were able to synch non-matching elements, saving us weeks of editing. With the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, Portrait of Jason is being rediscovered as a groundbreaking LGBTQ+ film.

Other times we just lucky. When the Cineteca di Bologna restored the work of radical filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, Milestone was able to premiere his devastating On the Bowery and Come Back, Africa. We acquired Margot Benacerraf’s Araya, a gorgeous film about the fisherman and salt harvesters of Venezuela, after a small nonprofit distribution company closed it doors.

Children playing on a pyramid of salt in the 1959 tone poem Araya, a film directed by Margot Benacerraf and restored and released by Milestone Films.

With the flexibility and lower cost of digital restoration, we are now working to find more filmmakers whose work has been under-appreciated—because we know it is powerful to get those films seen! These films change lives and culture… and history.

Since our release of the films of Kathleen Collins, HarperCollins has published two bestselling volumes of the late filmmaker’s writing. Native American filmmakers Douglas Miles and Pamela Peters have written about how much Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles means to their work. Our release of Winter Soldier helped inspire the creation of Iraq Veterans Against the War. And Ava Duvernay (SelmaWhen They See Us) calls Charles Burnett a giant, a legend, and a true artist.

Later this year Milestone will bring out the DVD of Billy Woodberry’s heartbreaking Bless Their Little Hearts, written and filmed by Burnett. Next year, we start restoring the films of another talented African-American woman, Ayoka Chenzira, along with four great LGBTQ+ films from filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. And this August 7–9, the Walker Art Center will be showing a restored Milestone film that spans my lifelong commitment to expanding both cinema and history. I first saw Say Amen, Somebody in 1983 when it was onscreen for months at New York’s 68th Street Playhouse. I lived on the Lower East Side and had no idea I would ever work in film, but I traveled uptown again and again to see this documentary celebration of African American Gospel music. The movie gave me goosebumps then, and it still does.

Fifty years have passed since I first embraced my iconoclasm… and there are still so many traditions to challenge, canons to expand, and artists to discover and celebrate.