Interview with Christopher Harris

still/here

Your debut work still/here, is a film which explores St. Louis. The film seems to engage both with the history of city as well as something which feels more personal. What drew you to this particular space?

The area of St. Louis featured in the film is the north side of the city where I lived from birth until about 16 years of age. The north side of the city is a bit like other historically Black sections of major urban centres in the U.S. such as the south side of Chicago. When I was growing up there in the 60’s and 70’s, it was largely working class and working poor with pockets of middle class families living in neighborhoods scattered throughout but it was overwhelmingly Black. My family was working class with middle class aspirations. In 1980, I moved away to attend university in Chicago and ended up living there 1980 until about 1992. For personal reasons, I rarely returned to St. Louis during that time period so when I returned in 1992 to complete my undergraduate studies, I was genuinely shocked by the amount of decay and ruin that I found on the north side. When I left, in 1980 it looked nothing like it does now. Sure, there were vacant lots here and there but in general, the housing stock was more or less sound. What I saw was blocks and blocks of vacant lots with houses here and there. Some areas look like Detroit after the riots or Dresden after the bombings in WWII but there were no riots in St. Louis and certainly not in the 1980’s. There was also no Marshall plan like there was for Germany after WWII. still/here is a kind of existential response to the shock I experienced upon seeing that the north side of St. Louis had become a post-industrial ruin. I wanted the formal elements of the film to convey or at least approximate the sensation of temporal and spatial dislocation that I experienced in my emotional and spiritual experience encounter with these spaces upon my return.

One thing which has remained consistent throughout your subsequent work, is this commitment to working with 16mm film. What is it about 16mm which motivates you to continue to work with this format?

Working in 16mm provides a set of productive limitations. By that I mean, with 16mm, I don’t have the luxury to shoot a virtually unlimited amount of footage. I can’t press delete and reshoot. This forces me to previsualize what I want to see on the screen. Often the results approximate what I expected, sometimes they are better than anticipated and sometimes they are almost exactly what I had anticipated. Whatever the case, because I’m forced to previsualize, I must commit to the image and have a level of conviction that I find utterly lacking with HD video where little seems to be at stake since, again, I can always press delete and start over. I’m also drawn to the imperfections and instability of the medium, the way in which emulsion is usually at least slightly unpredictable in how it responds to light and chemistry. I feel that I can often improvise through the frame-to-frame relationships and disjunctions with a 16mm Bolex camera in a way I can’t imagine otherwise. I am also drawn to what seems like the comparatively low fidelity imagery of 16mm versus the HD digital image which often (though not necessarily always) seems too perfect and boring to me. One of my ambitions is to find a project that calls out to me as needing to be made in HD. I’m planning to play around with some HD cameras this summer and hope that a project will develop out of that. I think it will help my teaching because I will hopefully have a better understanding of how to productively subvert the factory presets in a way that interests me.

In Reckless Eyeballing we see sequences from The Birth of a Nation re-edited alongside images of Angela Davis and Pam Grier. What drew you to approach this film and dissect it in such a manner?

I was trying to find a formal structure that would be generative and I figured out that the film had to be structured around a relay of glances between various characters but primarily the Gus character (the renegade Negro Union soldier played by a white actor in blackface who lusts after a southern white woman) from Birth of a Nation and Foxy Brown as played by Pam Grier. So, there’s the confluence of silent cinema and 70’s Blaxploitation cinema sutured together across 60 years through the exchange of glances. It’s the figure of the Black outlaw that I was interested in thus the third point in the triangle, Angela Davis, whose persona was reflected in Foxy Brown, minus the radical politics. Reckless Eyeballing, as Sophia Satchell-Baeza so eloquently puts it, highlights “how film and media have traditionally conflated visual representations of African-Americans with sexuality and danger.” I used the high contrast black and white footage and reverse tonalities to gesture toward the instability of racialized identity and how precarious the construction of the human image is that, as Richard Dyer argues, is “felt to be uniquely appropriate to those who are white.”

Foxy Brown (1974).

Your new work, Speaking in Tongues, from what I have read is a reinterpretation of Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, as an artist working with the visual image and sound, how difficult is it to incorporate literature into your process?

For me, literature is like any other source material or inspiration. It’s something in the world that I respond to with light, shadow and sound. I look for something in the text that suggests a formal structure that I can translate into the language of film. In a text like Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo”, which is a shapeshifting collage of texts and references, there are so many associations that the possibilities seem endless.

As well as literature and film, your work engages strongly with music, it seems to influence the rhythm and pace of your work. How does your interest in music channel into your process of making film?

At heart, I am a frustrated and failed musician so I respond to and am inspired by musicians more than any other kind of artist. I look for the musicality in images and literature and poetry. When a work is “singing” to me, that’s when it is alive. When it is fluid, a controlled chaos that’s what I feel viscerally in my body. If I can feel the music in my body then that’s when I know it is working. Whether that’s actual music or a passage from a novel or a painting, I listen for the music and try to hear with my eyes when that’s called for. With Speaking in Tongues, I’m after New Orleans brass bands and P-Funk. I want to make a film that dances and a film that you can dance to. Perhaps that’s impossible but if I can make an interesting failure it should be exciting nevertheless. I can give an example of how music worked for the process of making still/here. I was thinking of Miles Davis and Roscoe Mitchell who use silence, duration and attenuation as important aspects of their sounds. I thought that it was important to make their music felt in formal terms in my work by applying those same principles to the images which featured extreme duration with minimal action which became a kind of visual silence. Even more, I used no sound at times and sound that was in the “wrong” place at other times. The screen was left blank at other times, another kind of visual silence. Miles and Mitchell rewrite the ear of the listener, really the self of the listener in making the absences felt and heard and that’s what I was after.

Roscoe Mitchell 

How do you feel about your work being presented under the term of the Essay Film? What does the Essay Film mean to you?

While I do consider my work more or less experimental I recognize that nomenclature is slippery and imprecise so I tend not to spend a lot of time thinking about categories and labels. I do want my films to be about ideas on some level even if it is primarily through the form. While I do believe that there are essayistic qualities to much of my work, I use language both denotatively and as material. I try to find a way to exploit the tension between the denotative meaning of written and verbal language with the sound and appearance of language in order to reflect on meaning anew, to return the viewer back to meaning. I do think my work often functions essayistically but often in a way that complicates the meaning through form.

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