An Interview: Kathleen Collins
Oliver Franklin: There has been a lot of discussion about definitions, especially the definition of a Black film. You have made a film without any Afro-Americans in it, yet it is a Black film perhaps because you directed it.
Kathleen Collins: That’s your answer. There can’t be a monopoly on form or content. I’m interested in solving certain questions such as: How do you do an interesting narrative film? So, I simply wanted a story that would be sufficiently difficult for me to want to solve some problems in narrative filmmaking.
Let’s talk about some of these problems. The Cruz Brothers is part of a larger book, The Cruz Chronicle: A Novel of Adventure and Close Calls by Henry A. Roth.
Yes, it is. I read the novel a few years ago. It’s the closest thing to a full American version of One Hundred Years of Solitude by the Latin-American writer Marquez. What Roth had done was to translate into American language, style and content the kind of mythical figures that populate One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was impressed with that as an achievement, because I’m interested in doing movies about minority people who are larger than life. They’re not real people but rather people who are mythical and whose solution to life s problems are big, bold solutions, so the novel spoke to me personally.
Since you are a writer, why didn’t you use one of your own works?
I would like to do my own work, but I thought it was dangerous, before understanding the distance one needs from one’s works, to translate literature into film. So, I started with another work I admired with similar themes and problems, and yet by instinct I would have some distance because it wasn’t my work. The project started out as a small half hour film although it turned out to be an hour long so I took the easiest story, which is The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy.
What specific problems came up when you started to translate the story into film?
Three main problems. First, the presence of the father who is a ghost. In the story it’s easy for the writer to make the ghost s presence real. In the film I had to ask myself if you see him or not. You could have the convention where the camera was swinging around and nobody was there, or one could use special effects and make him appear as a disembodied person. We finally decided to handle him through the cameras the ghost is the camera with a slightly traditional disembodied voice-over. The second problem is the personality of Miss Malloy. In the story her personality is less evident. However, I wanted the audience to get a real sense of her. Then the third problem was who tells the story. In some parts the ghost tells the story, and Victor, the oldest brother, and his tape recorder also handle some of the narrative. In fact, if I’d really known it was going to be an hour-long story, I would have increased Victor’s narrative. In the novel the perspective is constantly changing.
What aesthetically are you doing with the narrative style in film?
I’m trying to find a cinematic language with real literary merit. A style that doesn’t ignore what words mean, and may, in fact, end up being very wordy. The filmmaker I love the best is Eric Rohmer, especially My Night at Maude’s and The Marquise of O because it’s so literary, people talk so much, and yet it’s not uncinematic.
Rohmer’s characters are also constantly working through moral dilemmas.
That’s right. I'm certainly interested in moral questions in a certain kindness of life and the possibility that without violating who they are or what the culture demands of them, people can still extend themselves into being kind. That is, of course, part of a unique ability not to take oneself too seriously. That’s what I like about the Cruz boys. They don t take themselves, their plight, or deliverance too seriously. They can allow themselves an experience that is basically very alien to them and not be threatened by it in conventional ways.
That’s interesting. What one finds in minority cultures, our culture, is this desire to take oneself extremely seriously because of being rendered invisible by the larger society.
Yes, this movie is not political in the capital P sense of politics, but rather in the small sense of my own personal politics.
Let’s talk about politics. You have such an individualistic approach to what a film should say. Do you think of yourself as a Black filmmaker?
I think of myself as someone who has an instinctual understanding of what it is to be a minority person. That is someone whose existence is highly marginal in the society and understands it in the gut but will not be dominated by it. Therefore, I refuse all of those labels, such as Black Woman Filmmaker, because I believe in my work as something that can be looked at without labels. For instance, in The Cruz Brothers... politics and ethnic sensibility would all have to be analyzed with small letters, not capitals, because that s my sensibility. Also, insofar as my sensibility is intuitively Black, or intuitively Feminine, or intuitively this, that or the other, then those labels apply with small letters.
How do you see politics functioning within your cinematic creations? Many filmmakers who believe in the dominance of external social reality would disagree with your intensely personal aesthetics.
There has to be a respect for different psychological and political types. As Carl Jung, the eminent psychologist, said so well, there are the extroverted and introverted personalities and the varieties in between. The introverted personalities are more interested in personal rather than external symbols. But that’s only one reality... introverted personalities may receive influence and information from someone who is extroverted and vice versa, but there must be room for dialogue. If Black or Third World filmmakers only accept extroverted art as reality, then they’re denying that there are as many psychological types among Black people as among other races of people. Based on the type of personality one naturally has that s where one’s art has to come from.
You have an articulated intellectual approach to film which is really lacking among filmmakers in general. For instance, if you attend a writers conference there is a common intellectual base of knowledge they will have read the same works, etc. but this is not so in cinema conferences. Most of us haven’t seen the complete works of Oscar Micheaux, Ousmane Sembene, Haile Gerima, or Ben Caldwell.
That’s one question that history and politics answer better than art because film is, in this culture especially for Black people the last solid white bastion of the society. It’s the one area where we have an inferiority complex. The whole myth of Hollywood, the way film functions in this culture, has succeeded, artistically, in brainwashing all of us. The one area artistically in which we have really been brainwashed! It is hard for us to become artists in it because the high degree of technical competence intimidates us. That is probably why we have tended to do documentary films. It is much easier to pick up a camera and shoot than to understand everything about lighting, color, film stock, editing, sound, narrative convention, narrative structure, actors, and so forth. This is intimidating. It is not that difficult to pick up a pen and write, to stay within a tradition and pick up an instrument, or to deal with painting. It is very hard to face the gigantic technological achievement which can be painted white of this society which is film, video, the computerized technologies that come out of the handling of image and sound. We as Black people have a reluctance to come to terms with true technology technophobia. To do good movies you have to solve the technological problems. It is a tough industry. As a race of people we have been intimidated by the technicalism. For instance, to do a documentary can be an easy thing. You excuse all of your technological inefficiencies by making a philosophical statement about the nature of reality, like that s a part of the reality of the situation. Film looms as the nemesis and we have not faced it for what it means. We cannot make bad films better to write a bad short story. However, we must get over this unconscious fear of technology.
Do you mean that we, as a group, have a psychological block against technology and film?
Film is the largest, most powerful, most potent myth. And we have not thought about how that myth applies to us. We don t believe it applies to us. So, we can’t believe ourselves as filmmakers when we talk about John Ford, Huston, Betty Davis, John Wayne, and so forth. Hollywood is the one mythical world that America created! The Gods and Goddesses of America are film stars! They’re the Greek mythology of America, and we don t know who we are in that mythology. How can we talk about picking up a camera when there is a sacred imaginary mythology around film, around Hollywood, around movies, and we would be breaking sacred ground!
This psychological block is probably a legacy of captivity, when we were the technology. However, we must deal with the medium. How do we do that?
It’s a case where politics with a capital P won’t help us. It’s a confrontation with one’s own unconscious assimilation of the myth and a freeing of oneself of the myth so that we can come to some instructive attitude toward film that is not conditioned by this sacred framework. You have to approach it from inside of yourself. For Black people to think documentary can be, in some instances, to think nonfilm, because it may not have a confrontation with the medium. It only poses a confrontation with the medium as content for information it doesn’t have a stylistic or aesthetic, or formal confrontation with what color is, sound is, framing is, light is, or with what the language of film is.
I understand what you’re saying about the unconscious confrontation with the Hollywood myth, and about the extreme technophobia which may be an unconscious reaction to captivity, but still what would be your advice to filmmakers?
Black filmmakers should go back and work in 8mm format for a while. We have to be willing to deal with limited resources, but with a great deal of technical exposure. We need to know how to deal with the technical aspects of the medium. For instance, to do a good narrative film, one needs to know what aesthetic, not economic, questions to ask. The answers to these questions may enable one to make a film at a more reasonable cost. It all depends on what one wants. When I first started, my attitude was give me $500,000 and I’ll make a film. That was the wrong approach. However, after I had asked myself the right questions, I said let me get $5,000, and when we got it, we got started. You need to figure out what you want to understand and the answers to that will often solve the economic problems for you.
This text was originally published in 2nd National Black Films & Filmmakers Series (June 1980) and reprinted in Pearl Bowser and Valerie. Harris, eds., Independent Black American Cinema (New York: Third World Newsreel, 1981).
With thanks to Nina Lorez Collins and Third World Newsreel.
This text was published on the occasion of ‘Milestones: Losing Ground’, a collaboration between Courtisane and Sabzian. On the occasion of the online screening, several texts have been published on Sabzian, selected and edited by Stoffel Debuysere and Gerard-Jan Claes. ‘Milestones: Losing Ground’ takes place on Thursday 3 June 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.