One of the many highlights of the 2015 BlackStar Film Festival was TNEG: AN EXPLORATION, in which Director/cinematographer/producer Arthur Jafa ("Daughters of the Dust," "Dreams Are Colder Than Death") and producer/curator Elissa Blount-Moorhead shared work from TNEG, the studio they head in partnership with Director/cinematographer Malik Sayeed. Afterward, they were joined onstage for an provacative discussion moderated by Shatrelle P. Lewis in which Jafa shared insights gained from four decades of creating images. Blount-Moorhead spoke of the vision for the company whose principal aim is the creation of a black cinema “capable of matching the power, beauty and alienation of black music.”
This was a great opportunity to experience some rarely screened work and to be exposed two a pair of true visionaries of our culture.
Two of the six shorts that were shown actually predate the formation of TNEG. The earliest is "Considerations" (1982), an experimental piece, shot on super 8 and edited entirely in the camera. The film follows filmmaker Julie Dash in a number of New York settings (riding a train, walking through the city, entering the subway) mixed with impressionistic cutaways of NYC and brief glimpses of Jafa (shooting into a mirror while laying in bed) and friends like musician/writer Greg Tate (working on a film set). Bill Dixon’s "Considerations 1," 1972-76 is used for the soundtrack. It’s a very personal film, one that would provide the aesthetic for all his future work.
From the Q&A:
Arthur Jafa (A.J.): “I told somebody recently that my career went forward and my practice went backward. CONSIDERATIONS is 1982. When I did that I was like I accomplished something there. Friends were like, ‘this is great,’ and everybody else was like, ‘what the hell is this?’”
Elissa Blount-Moorhead (E.B.M.): “A lot of the work TNEG has done predates me (she became a partner in 2013). Considerations reflects a consideration of a lot of the aesthetic and a lot of the conversations around re-presenting Blackness and even though it was created in 1982, that work is completely now in terms of the register it is making a sound in but it also represents the future in terms of what we need to talk about.”
"Smile" (1996, shot on Digibeta/ edited on ¾”) has stunning night exteriors and intimate interiors as a couple try to navigate their relationship. Intended as a sketch for something he had written, it had only screened once before. While it was difficult to hear some of the dialog at first, the climax, in which the man confesses to his lover the sexual abuse he encountered while in prison, was a tour-de-force.
A.J.: “At the time I didn’t want to be stigmatized as a Black experimental filmmaker, so I just put it in a closet and I developed a habit of just putting things in the closet. I could do another 2-3 hours of this kind of thing, easily.”
"Deschotten 1.0" was the first collaboration between Jafa and Sayeed and is the first TNEG project. Laying in a hospital bed, a young man replays the moments leading up to a nighttime shootout in the streets of New York. (Note: This movie is available online for viewing at http://vimeo.com/61059188 )
E.B.M.: “AJ and Malik are scientists.”
A.J: “Between me and Malik (who met on the set of Malcolm X) and the conversations we were having, which were informed by the conversations I was having at Howard, which were an extension of conversations that began at UCLA…”
"APEX_scenario" is a rapid-fire collage of hundreds of images that play with the synapses in your brain. Jumping from images of 60s revolutionaries to aliens to female body parts as the pulse of Robert Hood’s “Minus” builds to a climax, it came off to me as a manifesto for the TNEG aesthetic. The visual equivalent of a Funkadelic album it is audacious and uncompromising.
A.J: “From very early on at Howard (Jafa studied Architecture, but also took film classes), I’d have conversations with Haile (Gerima), Alonzo Crawford and Abiyi Ford. I’d say, ‘What is Black Cinema?’ and they’d say ‘It’s not Hollywood.” And I’d be like, ‘But wait…hold it.’ If Hollywood does narrative, does that mean black cinema can’t have narrative? If if its in color, does Back Cinema have to be in black and white? It was a binary opposition that wasn’t useful beyond a certain point…Over a period of time, I began thinking about what it would look like and I had this epiphanythat you could manipulate motion in a way that would be in accordance with Black music.”
"New Soul Rebel: Adrian Younge" (2014) is a 20 minute documentary co-directed by Jafa and Sayeed. Centered on the creative process of musician/producer Younge ("Black Dynamite," Ghostface Killah) it also includes comments from RZA, DJ Premier and Raphael Saadiq about their process. Shot in black and white, like TNEG’s recent doc "Dreams Are Colder Than Death" (which screened at 2014 BlackStar), there is no sync sound in the piece. The interviews were recorded separately and then verite images of the artists at work were layered over them. This portrait of black genius had the strongest narrative thread. (https://vimeo.com/123188497)
A.J.: “We just have to create cinema in our own image the way we have done in music.”
"Sharifa" (2015) was the most recent work. Consisting of outtakes from an “unsuccessful music video,” it is made up of shots of a young couple holding hands while walking up a quiet Los Angeles street in slow motion. The Isley Brothers’ Sensuality Pts 1 & 2 plays underneath as the camera isolates the girl for a moment to catch her reaction. Perhaps she is unhappy? When we cut to another take of them together, suddenly there is new meaning. They hold hands again until she suddenly lets go.
E.B.M.: “Hopefully some of these images conjured emotion and feel. For me and all of us it is important that we expand this idea of a Black Aesthetic.”
A.J.: “I always tell people we are knee deep in oil, looking for gold. We got more stories than anyone to tell…we just need to make more work and we need to make it faster, cheaper.”
Find Mike Dennis on Twitter at @ReelBlack.