Editor’s note: Throughout the year, I’ve been reposting some of our older highlights – pieces originally published 2 or more years ago which didn’t get as much attention as I hoped they would, even if only because, when they were first published, this site didn’t have anywhere near the amount of traffic it has today; like this wonderful, timeless interview with Kevin Jerome Everson, in conversation with Terri Francis, first published in February 2013. A nice long read on a slow news day.
A Kevin Everson film combines archival, scripted, reenacted, and documentary elements for a look and feel that is sophisticated and no-nonsense like the artist himself. He’s made over 100 films and still cookin. Last year the Alpert Foundation and the California Institute of the Arts recognized his unique artistic vision with a 2012 Cal Arts/Alpert Award, an honor that has been held by such luminaries as Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall and Suzan-Lori Parks.
Born and raised in Mansfield, Ohio, Kevin watched Godzilla movies and he loved Blaxploitation as a young man. He made some films in college and did printmaking and photography. After getting his BFA from the University of Akron, he got his MFA from Ohio University. His current body of work includes six feature length films (Spicebush, 2005; Cinnamon, 2006; The Golden Age of Fish, 2008; Erie, 2010; Quality Control, 2011; The Island of St. Matthews, 2013) and dozens upon dozens of carefully wrought short form works.
Kevin is an art professor at the University of Virginia.
Kevin’s award-winning films screen around the world while his installations, paintings, sculpture and photographs are exhibited in renowned art institutions like the Centre Pompidou, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Modern Art.
Kevin cusses like a trucker. He’s got an Ohio/Mississippi voice. He’s a character – gregarious and frank – with a reel of thoughts a lot like his films: spare and nonlinear yet full of humor, history, and place. A brilliant artist and an incisive observer of film culture.
I’ve known Kevin for eight years and this interview was an occasion to catch up but also to talk in depth about his working methods and experiences as a black experimental filmmaker.
Terri: When I saw that Century was playing at Sundance (2013), somehow that meant something to me. Like, oh! You had arrived and that other people outside of our friends would know who you were.
Kevin: Oh yeah? (laughing)
Terri: You know what I mean? And if I would talk about you Sundance would be the bridge connecting your abstract, experimental filmmaking to the worlds of African American and independent filmmaking.
Kevin: Yeah, people always say, oh well, he screens at Sundance so…
Terri: It’s comforting.
Kevin: I think here at UVA they had a list of the 10 most popular or famous professors and I was number 7 and it said he shows at Sundance and Berlin and all that. Julian Bond was number 1, Rita Dove was 3 and I was above a couple of astronauts so… I kinda like that. Hey, going up in space don’t mean shit [inaudible]! …I’d rather go to space. I’m dying to go up in space.
Terri: You’re a black experimental filmmaker. Maybe that’s already like being in outer space.
Terri: She is.
Kevin: She’s in Berlin this year. I’m so excited for her.
Terri: And she’s always citing you as her teacher.
Kevin: Ah, she can move on, man. She’s a rock star. I ain’t got nothing to do with that. I stood in the way. I held her back probably for years.
Terri: From knowing the two of you I see what you have in common is the work ethic. You do your work in a matter-of-fact way. This is who you are and you just get up and do it. Like it’s work. It’s not this artistic drama.
Kevin: I teach that. At the end of the day you gotta make some shyiit.
Kevin: I remember one time I was at Cal Arts years ago. It’s my 5th or 6th time there doing a workshop coming up this March. One time I was there I was surrounded by all these black artists – – some photo, painting, film, and stuff, and these cats were telling me you know the art world is racist and we can’t make no mark. I said, shyiit. You better get yo ass up and make some fucking art. This school is $18,000 a minute. You better be making some art. I don’t give a—That shit ain’t got nothing to do with you. You better make some art. You can’t trust nobody.
Terri: Where does your own work ethic come from?
Kevin: I’m from the Midwest! I have to work for a living! Every day I gotta put in 8 hours regardless of whether I teach or not. I gotta put in 8. If I don’t put in 8 doing something I feel guiltier than a muthafucker boy. That’s that Puritanical midwestern black American working class bullshit. I feel guilty for taking naps still. When I was in Rome I would always feel guilty for taking naps … took me five months to get over that. You gotta make something. I always think I’m lazy and that I don’t work hard enough.
Terri: Wait, you’re the most—one of the most prolific filmmakers ever! What were you doing in Rome?
Kevin: I got a Rome Prize about 12 or 11 years ago.
Terri: And what kind of work came out of that?
Kevin: That was my last body of photo work—I was still doing photo at the time. I made about 5 or 6 films. About immigrants. Nigerians… I was hanging out with all these Nigerians and cats from the Congo…yeah it was cool.
Terri: Tell me about that – the transition from still photography to motion pictures.
Kevin: It’s the same. It’s still art making. Things last longer. Duration. I don’t use a tripod. People ask me why I don’t use a tripod. Because I’m a photographer man. I’m a street photographer. I feel like it’s going to hunker me down so… the camera’s shaky cuz I’m looking cuz I’m ready to move and groove so that’s it. I guess that’s my excuse for not using the tripod. From all around the world that’s the first thing they ask me. Don’t care where I’m at Switzerland or Germany. Well I got ‘em but I’m a street photographer so I think that has a lot to do that. I’m trying to find the action.
Terri: Interesting to hear you say that because when I was getting ready to talk to you this morning one of the thoughts I had about your films –
Kevin: Which one?
Terri: Actually a general impression is the sense that it’s a photograph– like continual stillness.
Kevin: Yeah but that could be a crutch. I remember when I was young doing photo. I remember looking at these Robert Frank films and nothing moves and I just thought man you gotta move that camera. It’s weird cuz they were taking photographs with film but I think you’ve gotta have stuff moving. That’s why I like to stay athletic, following people. Moving the camera around. I love walking behind people.
Terri: A lot of your films sort of trace work processes.
Kevin: Because it’s all about movement.
Terri; Yeah, now that you said that about not using the tripod I get it.
Kevin: It’s always the backstory that I think is interesting. If you see like a 35-year-old black female working, then I think you’ve gotta add some narrative to it—maybe a heterosexual narrative with her husband, home. At least I do. I look through the viewfinder and I’m adding this narrative to it.
Terri: Narrative isn’t something I would associate with your films.
Kevin: No, they’re all narratives.
Kevin: Yeah, they’re three act plays.
Terri: Are you the only one that thinks that?
Kevin: Yeah, of course. Well, I don’t know what people think. Like I’m always asked this question about audience. Man, I’m a sculptor. You show up, you walk around it and walk away. Although I do know when the audience is going to be extremely bored and when they’re excited so I put these sort of formal elements in it. For longer films I’m looking at the timeline and how long they’re going sit there and watch this shit. Not really… but they’re totally narrative art. You’ve got a beginning, middle and end.
Terri: I noticed on the Sundance list you’re in this category called New Frontier Films.
Kevin: Yeah I’m always in that.
Terri: Yeah that’s a great title. It’s a way of not saying avant-garde, which might be off-putting.
Kevin: I don’t mind the title new frontier. I think that’s the only program I’ve ever been in. One year I was in a documentary program and actually two of the documentaries that were in my program were nominated for Academy awards.
Terri: Is there an Academy award category for experimental film?
Kevin: No just short live action. I’ve never seen nothing like that.
Terri: Your films are in this fold of nonfiction—
Kevin: Yeah but I make everything up. Quality Control is the only film if I hadn’t shown up they would’ve been doing the same thing.
Terri: Quality Control. That’s the one at the laundry?
Kevin: I did activate a couple of things but mostly they would have been doing the same things if I’d been there or not.
Terri: I saw Quality Control at the Whitney Museum of American Art last spring and it’s mesmerizing. You’re watching something you don’t normally see—like the ironing and sewing—and some of it is familiar like yeah, I know these people. But then the revelation of gesture, the space, and the sense of duration kind of hypnotize you. Like you’re on the cusp of something but then it becomes this mood. It’s a cool experience. I always feel like there’s a part of me that forgets I’m watching a film. Like the film is this window. But that doesn’t feel right – like I’m just peeping in on people.
Kevin: That’s fine. It’s ok. I always try to get them to look at the camera at least once or twice so they don’t feel like they’re in a zoo. I don’t like that zoo mentality. You see these reality shows and certain filmmakers who I like—I like Harmony Korine but he films the trashiest white folk and it’s a fuckin zoo–zoo mentality cuz “they’re not us.” I don’t like that. That’s all due to the cadence and the framing. Where they distance the subject… Figure to ground relationships, that kind of thing.
Terri: How does it feel showing Quality Control at the Whitney Museum of Art versus the community where you filmed it?
Kevin: The community? I don’t know that they would want to sit through it. They would see themselves and that’d be it. They may get down with it though but 71 minutes is a long time to watch ironing. So it’s a specific audience. People ask me who do I make it for? I make it for myself. And then of course I’m an artist so I can’t —I’m not a documentarian or a journalist trying to change shit or inform. I’m looking for form. That’s the game.
I remember when I used to make these weird sculptures with furniture but they couldn’t sit in community centers. They needed the white walls. I put them in there and people would appreciate them but I didn’t like them in there. They didn’t look good because they’d blend in and look like everyday objects. Once you start making these kinds of things well then the venues are narrow and I know that.
And Quality Control…Depends on where I’m screening … [Sometimes I know] I can’t show that film. It’s too long!
Not that I dumb down my package because people are sharp as a tack; they’re sharp everywhere. And I don’t want to dumb it down and I never do cuz it’s my stuff.
But I just want to show things that get the point across without them sitting around all day. People don’t sit around in Rotterdam; people get up and fucking leave! But now I think I beat everybody down to the fact that if they’re gonna come in and see a Kevin Everson film they know what the deal is jack; better pack a lunch!
Terri: I love that you understand the viewing experience around your films and you’re not neurotic about it.
Kevin: Well, I know the genre. I remember when I was up at Princeton recently and P. Adam Sitney–I thought he was sharper than that! You know who that guy is? [Professor Sitney is the author of Visionary Film, the first major history of post WWII avant-garde film.] He asked me—and again I hate the Charles Burnett question. And I love Charles Burnett but I hate when people compare me to him. I mean this don’t have nothing to do with Killer of Sheep. Man, you’re only looking at that it’s in black and white and they’re black folks. Charles Burnett’s music is nondiegetic. He’s telling a story. It’s night and fucking day.
Terri: What filmmakers do you feel like you have some affinities with or that you’re in conversation with?
Kevin: Filipino experimental digital filmmakers Khavn de la Cruz, Lav Dias and John Torres. Lav Dias makes these 9-hour narrative films; they’re so cool. Like if it takes 20 minutes for the oxen cart to come down the road, it takes 20 minutes for the oxen cart to come down the road. But there’s something that’s super fucking humane about that. It’s so visceral.
Terri: Do you feel different when you’re working in color versus black and white?
Kevin: Depends on subject matter.
Terri: Is it the same with film versus video?
Kevin: Yes. It depends on subject matter. Formal issues. Respect for the subject and what they’re doing. Lighting. I might have to rip and run because they’re working so I can’t just stick around.
Terri: I’m glad you said that because one thing I want to get across to people who see your films is that it is a made thing. You don’t just show up and hit record.
Kevin: No I start planning back in November and film in the summer.
Terri: Can you take me a little bit through the process? Maybe Century?
Kevin: Century is based on another film. I crushed another car in this film called Chevelle. I was up in Toronto and I wanted to make something where it didn’t have any people in it but was all about people. And all about black folk. My cousins made those cars. They worked at the Fisher Body General Motors Plant in Mansfield, Ohio, which was a stamping plant, making doors, side panels, hoods. They were forming it. Not putting it together. They’re made by automation but there’s some kind of hand and touch in it, so to speak. I was thinking sculptural. I wanted to do something where I could transform the object too.
Terri: Do you feel a link or empathy with the people in your films? You’re kind of doing the same things.
Kevin: Yes because I tell them. I’ll walk up to a cat and say hey look y’all making some muthafucking art up in here. Oh excuse me.
Terri: Do you want me to take the “muthafuckas” out? I feel like it adds some color.
Kevin: Depends. (laughing) Even my mom is like good lord that boy was raised in a barn.
Terri: (laughs) Ok I’ll take some out but not all!
Kevin: I’m gonna try to quit cussing.
Terri: I don’t think you should quit cussing at all. I think it cuts through the usual coonery and buffoonery that passes for analysis and don’t even get me started on the artsy veneer of the experimental art scene. It’s liberating. Speaking for myself.
Kevin: Right-on. I like cussing for those reasons.
Terri: Cool. So let’s go back to how you approach participants for your films.
Kevin: I’ll ask a cat. Look, I tell them I’m an artist. Do you mind if I film you because I think what you do is very colorful and very inventive. I can see the intellectualism. You’re an artist. I’m an artist too and I want to share the process. I tell them I’m making these experimental films. This image may go with this image. I just talk about it like that. When I was making this film about old cats. I was in this boat. And they had never seen black and white film or that kind of thing. But the first thing they said to me was do you want the boat to go in and out of these shadows? I said yeah. Yes. Yeah brah that’s cool as hell. C’mon. So if they’re down with it we do the work. I’m not trying to do anthropology … those doc makers who talk about how they try to be friends. No. I don’t have time for that. I tell them I’m making some art. That’s it. I’m not lying or stringing a muthafucka. It is what it is. When I used to do street photography, I would talk to them the same way. This picture is going on a wall.
Terri: What you’re doing is sculptural films or film sculpture of ongoing life?
Kevin: Or making it up. When I was in Congo-Brazzaville – we did that water skiing film [BZV, 2010]. I made that up. Best way to mark a river is to water ski on it.
Terri: Are we supposed to know that it’s made up?
Kevin: Nah, I don’t care. That’s just for me.
Terri: So then do you care about these representational issues that plague discussions of black film—well, I guess I’m saying what I think when I say “plague?”
Kevin: No, I don’t care. No. I don’t want to make minstrel films or Sambo films. I’ve got too much respect for people.
Terri: I saw your film Rita Larson’s Boy at the NY film festival this year and it seemed to play with black male performance. I really enjoyed that.
Kevin: Those guys were great. It only took us an hour and a half to do that. It was funny that I was getting all these emails about how experimental films are all the same way but this was a breath of fresh air. Which is odd because I saw it as the same as my other films.
Terri: How did this film come about?
Kevin: For years I was trying to find the audition tape of Nathaniel Taylor –he’s from Columbus, Mississippi. I had been trying to find him and his audition tapes for ten, eight, nine years, so I just said forget it and I’ll just film an audition tape or an audition film. So I just picked an episode of Sanford and Son and it happened to be one where they end up walking into a gay bar. The Rollo Larson character was pretty liberal. He was like c’mon man it’s a new experience.
Terri: I watched it with my friend who is also an experimental filmmaker – Ina Archer?
Kevin: – Oh, she’s awesome!
Terri: She’s going to be artist in residence at Headlands.
Kevin: She’s no joke! We were on a panel together in Portland and she rocked that shit.
Terri: We had so much fun and at a certain point we both started recognizing the lines—wait a minute, that’s Sanford and Son! We could not stop laughing.
Kevin: Yeah I think it’s funny too. I like that guy at the end. He showed up a little late and was kind of drunk but…
Terri: Were those guys actors?
Kevin: Yeah, they’re all actors.
Terri: And you gave them a script?
Kevin: Yeah I gave them the script and I told some to remember it. And I told some of them to read it. They were sweet. It was cool.
Terri: Now that I’m thinking about it, and I hope you’ll think of this in a positive way, it reminds me of that scene in She’s Gotta Have It where these guys are talking to the screen.
Kevin: Oh, “I’ll drink a tub of your bathwater?”
Terri: Yeah, the men-are-dogs sequence. I guess what I’m excited about is I never see anything funny at the NYFF Views from the Avant-Garde.
Kevin: It’s like a funeral up in that muthafucka!
Terri: And we’re always talking about the death of film.
Kevin: Yeah, the audience is mourning every time they walk in there.
Terri: Mourning as acting like serious intellectuals.
Kevin: I’ve never been but I know New Yorkers don’t mess around.
Kevin: I think people get freaked out when they see black people on screen. Sometimes they get freaked out.
Terri: What do you think that’s about? What’s going on?
Kevin: Well, I remember one time I showed Erie in New York and this guy was like well, I feel alienated. I said brah, I can’t help you. What do you want to me to do? (Terri and Kevin laugh.) I don’t know where you live at – Brooklyn, Queens, and you come here and you feel all alienated. It’s Anthology Archives. You see foreign films all the time. I’m sure you know every Ingmar Bergman film known to man, right? What’s that gotta do with this but you know, whatever. Move on, jack.
I get that a lot. I either get that or like this cat in California that said I know black folks now. Man, I’m damn near 50 years old now and I don’t know black people. If you can sit here for 80 minutes and know black people you must be one smart muthafucka. (more laughter) I’m just astonished!
What are you going to do with that? James Benning doesn’t get that kind of shit.
I’m fully strapped for that anyway though. I’ve got the full clip. I know what’s happening. Every now and then there’s good Q&As but I get bored with the same shit.
Terri: You get the same kinds of questions.
Kevin: The one thing that really influenced me—I went to CAA [College Art Association]– this is when I was in grad school. The last day I ended up, accidentally, bumped into a couple of black people on this panel. On this panel was Arthur Jafa, Armond White, Isaac Julien, Cameron Bailey, and some white woman.
Terri: Your people!
Kevin: I did not know these people at all. I was young. Might have been 25 – I had heard of Isaac Julien though with the Langston Hughes thing [Looking for Langston, 1989]. Those guys — I remember no matter how dumb that question was they gave it a better answer than it deserved. That’s my strategy.
Terri: You mention Julien–
Kevin: He’s got a joint at Sundance – the Stuart Hall film?
Terri: That’s John Akomfrah. Julien might be in it? What I was thinking was you guys all use historical footage.
Kevin: Yeah they use found footage. But they use it in essays.
Terri: How do you use it differently?
Kevin: I am looking for form, I’m looking for performance, and how it was made. I’m looking at not necessarily what it says. I see it as an audition tape. The performance. But those guys are serious essayists. Which is cool. I like that we’re all doing different things.
Pictures from Dorothy is available on the Fandor site, as part of the Cinemad Almanac – http://www.fandor.com/films/pictures_from_dorothy
For institutional and educational purpose, Video Data Bank has Broad Daylight and Other Times: Selected Works by Kevin Jerome Everson, a 3 DVD boxed set of Cinnamon and 23 shorts. It features a catalog with essays by Emmanuel Burdeau (France) Michael Gillespie (U.S.), Katrin Mundt (Germany), Monica McTighe (U.S.) – http://www.vdb.org/titles/broad-daylight-and-other-times-selected-works-kevin-jerome-everson
For information regarding exhibition or acquisition of the films: Picture Palace Pictures – email@example.com
Terri Francis is a professor at Yale University.