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Film Festival Interview: Zeinabu Irene Davis

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The 29th Ann Arbor Film Festival opens Tuesday, March 19, and runs through Sunday, Maren 24 at the Michigan Theater. Screening the latest in independent and experimental cinema f rom around the world, the festival is the oldest such event in North America. The festival begins with an opening reception at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, March 19. The film program starts that evening at 8:30 pm and continúes Wednesday through Friday, with shows at 7 pm and 9:30 pm, and Saturday, with shows at 1 pm, 7 pm, and 9:30 pm. The winning films willbe shown on Sunday, March 24 at5pm, 7 pm, and 9pm. Tickets for individual shows are $5, and nightly series tickets are $8. Festival series tickets, good for the entire festival, are $35. The festival also features f ree matinee programs at 3pm in the Michigan Theater, at which the Awards jury screen and discuss their films. For more Information, please cali 995-5356. aeinabu irene Davis, one of three judges at this year's Ann Arbor Film Festival, is considered one of the country's top American experimental filmmakers. An assistant professor of film at Antioch College, her work explores the theme of Black identity through a variety of film genres and techniques. Davis' film "Cycles" will screen on Friday, March 22 at the Michigan Theater together with "Illusion" by Julie Dash and "Picking Tribes" by Saundra Sharp. Davis was interviewed by phone last month. AGENDA: Can you describe your film, "Cycles"? Davis: "Cycles" is a 17-minute experimental narrative, and it basically focuses in on a day in the life of an AfricanAmerican woman who is waiting. Through the experience of viewing the film you get introduced to her interior world which includes her spiritual state as wel) as her home life. The film uses pixillation [a technique for animating people which exaggerates movement] and some still photography. I also use what people would cali live action, regular characters moving about. So it combines those processes to talk about her interior world. Then at the end of the film you eventually find out what she's waiting for. AGENDA : That seems to be a growing trend - the mixing of very distinct techniques in the same film. Davis: I definitely think so. Especially when you have video entering the picture too. 1 know Ann Arbor is strictly a film festival, but I also do know that in the larger picture there's a lot of cross-fertilization between film and video. And we can't really afford to be totally fimmakers who only do film any more. So I kind of extend my f ilmmaking techniques to video. I like them both, but I use them in very different ways. AGENDA: How do you feel about judging a purely 16mm film festival? Davis: It's pretty exciting. As far as I know, there isn't any other festival in the country that's purely devoted to 16mm like this one is. It' s really important to support 1 6mm film , the format that I primarily work in. AGENDA: How did you get your start making films? Davis: The very earliest infiuence in terms of filmmaking for me was my own father. My father has always been kind of an amateur photographer. He's gone around and done a lot of portraits of weddings and stuff like that, for all the years I was akid. I got my undergraduate training at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I went to school with the intent of being a international lawyer, but my first year while I was at Brown I got an internship at a public TV station. And there I was introduced to a Black woman by the name of Ginny Booth. I worked for Ginny for over a year, and I really got hooked on doing media, and the plans of being an international lawyer kind of went out the window with that. The third infiuence was going to Kenya, East África, in 1981-82, and experiencing being in Kenya, and working with a Kenyan writer by the name of Ngugi wa Thiong-o. In the time I was in Kenya we would see a lot of Germán and Belgian film crews in Nairobi, and the only thing we ever found out they were doing were these wildlife films. And it was kind of disturbing to see so much work done on wildlife when the people of Kenya, I feit, were its greatestasseL There are about 17 ethnic groups in Kenya, and they are really different from each other, and there wasn't anything recording their history or culture. I had this experience working with Ngugi as an assistant on his play. The play had to do with the history of Kenya, in the sense that it was a history of people in the '50s who were kind of considered by the popular culture as Mau-Maus, and they were really people who were just fighting for the independence of Kenya. The play was structured around that struggle. After the play was on for three day s it got shut down by the Kenyan govemment. It was an outdoor theater, and the theater got bulldozed. The play was considered subversive. Ever since then I kind of made a vow with Ngugi that I would some day return to Kenya and make films about the people of Kenya. AGENDA: What an experience - to spend all this effort and time on a play and have it literally demolished by the govemment. Davis: It was a very upsetting experience. I still don't think I'm over it to some degree. And he [Ngugi] had to go into exile after the play was closed down. He has still not been back to Kenya, after almost 10 years. AGENDA: Have you in fact returned to Kenya and made a film? Davis: No. Unfortunately, not yet. I don't even know if I could really. They knew I was working with Ngugi, and the govemment hasn't significantly changed since that time. AGENDA: In any case, that experience was an ímpetus to go to... Davis: To film school, yes. That was the ímpetus. When I left for Kenya I knew I wanted to get involved in media but I thought it would be as a photographer or reporter. But once I was there it got solidified for me, and I decided I would become a filmmaker. AGENDA: How many films have you made? Davis: I've made four films and about five video projects. AGENDA: Are they very different, or are there similarities? Davis: The uniting theme is that all of my work is about women, women of color. But none of them are the same, really, in terms of style. I've done documentary, and I've done straight narrative, and then I've also done experimental narrati ve and then I ' ve also done a little bit of music video too. AGENDA: How do people outside of Ann Arbor view the Ann Arbor Film Festival? Davis: I do think that Ann Arbor is very highly looked upon by the independent film community. It's looked upon as one of the premier festivals in the country. I could teil by the way that people who were still at UCLA responded to me being a judge that it's something that people covet being a part of. And I think that a lot of people support the festival in lots of different ways. Not only is there a good response from people in the Ann Arbor community, but people pay attention to what is being screened there. A lot of times films get programmed at various art theaters or at festvials, sites or circuits, like museums and universities based on how they do at Ann Arbor, or if they're screened at Ann Arbor. It's definitely - I don't want to say prestigious, because that doesn ' t con vey what I want to say - but it definitely helps that you've screened at Ann Arbor. AGENDA: Why were you attracted to experimental film as opposed to conventional narrative? Davis: The thing I'm trying to do, along with other AfricanAmerican fïmmakers, is to search for a visual language that details American experience and culture. The way to do that is to be open to experimentation. Jazz was an idiom for American culture and branched out. We're looking for the same kind of thing - something that could be identifiable as a Black film language.