Bush Mama (1976)
Haile Gerima

The wig is off my head.

Bush MamaEthiopian-born Haile Gerima, who was a part of the UCLA rebellion alongside the likes of Charles Burnett and Julie Dash, made Bush Mama (1976) as a part of his coursework at the university. The film follows a thirty-ish African-American woman named Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones) living with her daughter Luann (Susan Williams) and her new partner and Vietnam veteran T.C. (Johnny Weathers). Dorothy is unemployed, pregnant with T.C.’s child and lives on funds from a national welfare scheme intended for unemployed parents. T.C. is arrested one day on his way to a job interview and is imprisoned for a crime he apparently did not commit. Devastated, Dorothy vainly haunts the reception hall of the employment office. Meanwhile, the officials from the welfare department exhort Dorothy to abort her unborn in order to avoid giving her more funds. Decidedly, this is not what Hollywood, or any of the mainstream media, is willing to show us. For one, the protagonist is an African-American, a woman and a pauper, arguably the last combination the mainstream looks at. Then there is the plethora of volatile topics that the film alludes to or even confronts including Nixon, the Vietnam War, AFDC, Malcom X, the Watts riots and the legalization of abortion. Bush Mama’s function is to show that we sure might have seen all that in our mass media, but through the wrong words, wrong sounds and wrong images.

There is that very rare feeling of witnessing history being recorded as it is being made while watching Bush Mama. All the things it says and shows – all so detailed and so lived-in – seem so strongly hinged to the reality within which the film was made. You can sense how the welfare scheme was perceived by some sections as one of the causes of increase in crime rate, whereas Gerima’s film shows that the scheme was merely namesake and inconsequential (The echoes are felt even now when certain parties distort “from the rich to the poor” to “from those who earn to those who don’t”).  Bush Mama clinically analyzes how the choices presented to this community of African-Americans (and also to other minorities, as Dorothy’s visit to the clinic indicates) are not really choices at all, exposing why the legalization of abortion and sterilization plans go hand-in-hand with the welfare scheme. Gerima adorns with film with all types of black people. People who believe that white folks have nothing to do with their problems and all the trouble is due to the blacks not behaving properly. There are those who think that it’s better to go on as it is. There are those who pretend that nothing’s wrong at all (There’s a sidesplitting vignette with a man whose experience limits his imagination). Then there are those, like T.C., who want to bring in a whole new order.

Bush Mama marries two distinct styles of filmmaking through its two narrative threads. The first section, which mostly follows Dorothy and her travail, is shot in text book cinema vérité format and is especially redolent of the early social films of Béla Tarr, which too deal with clear-cut issues like the national housing policy, unemployment and growing urban population. Like the Hungarian wunderkind, Gerima relies heavily on improvisation, draining the film of all theatricality and infusing each moment with utter spontaneity. He embraces ambient noise of the city and its streets, uses copious amount of handheld shots and effectively blurs the line between documentary and fiction (the ‘fiction’ here is only a thin veil over the truth anyway). If this first narrative thread hinges itself to melodramatic tradition, the second one flips it over, operating in a purely agitprop mode (a la early Makavejev and post-New Wave Godard) that attempts to drag back the film from the defeatism of the other segment towards activism. Characters talk to the camera, as if addressing the audience and provoking them to reassess and expand their sociopolitical view of the world. In a way, this dialectic between the two threads of the film – between passive acceptance and active resistance, between fatalism and existentialism – is the whole point of the film. Likewise, Dorothy herself stands somewhere between Joan of Arc and the militant African-American woman in the poster on her bedroom wall (During the final minutes, Gerima rhythmically cuts between the pregnant Dorothy, a masked Jesus Christ and the black man shot by the LAPD).

Bush MamaGerima maintains a very dynamic aesthetic throughout in which the camera is rarely static, tracking, zooming and panning all the way (Burnett is credited as one of the DoPs). The director employs a range of camera angles and frame rates, cutting between them in a staccato fashion (also resembling Makavejev) that both reflects the protagonist’s kafkaesque view of events and provides a sense of immediacy to the proceedings. Gerima periodically cuts from reality to alternate reality, from objectivity to subjectivity, from the real to the surreal and from plot point to dead time. Shots of Dorothy wandering the bustling streets of the city (of which there are quite a few) are first shown in negative and only then are developed back to normal monochrome as if playfully flipping racial constructs and then drastically bringing the protagonist back to brutal reality. The production design accentuates the black and white colours of the mise en scène and the grainy 16mm stock provides a newsreel authenticity to the fiction that unfolds. But what is really striking about the visual design of the film is the director’s minimalist use of off-screen space in all the scenes. Be it scenes of comic relief, slice-of-life sequences in the African-American neighbourhood, dramatic episodes or sequences full of pathos, Gerima almost always fixates his camera on Dorothy’s face, capturing every gesture, contour and emotion on it. And through it, Gerima provides a comprehensive sketch of the African-American way of life.

The film’s real forte lies in its sound design. Gerima uses a potpourri of sounds, noise and music for his soundtrack that goes well with the collage-like nature of the film’s visuals. Right from the first minute of the film, certain sounds and lines dominate the soundtrack. One of them is the voice of a woman reading out the terms and conditions of the welfare scheme and the seemingly endless number of questions to be answered to be eligible for it. “Do you understand? Do you agree?” they voices keep asking, as if the answer is going to make any difference at all. As the film proceeds, we share Dorothy’s frustration at these irritating sounds that seem to be floating everywhere in the air. In fact, these are indeed TV and radio waves. Bush Mama also touches upon the representation of African-American culture in popular media (the older women in the film seem to believe in the authority of television). The music, mostly jazz, that supplements this clutter of voices is rendered commendably by Onaje Kareem Kenyatta and the lyrics, too, serve either to supplement the narrative or to comment on the sociopolitical situation. Speaking of music, Bush Mama could be considered as the cinematic equivalent of a certain genre of hip-hop music as far as its basic aesthetic and cultural conventions are concerned. Actions and gestures that are improvised, the rhythmic editing, the recycled shots and the depiction of racial and economic discrimination could be mapped to their direct counterparts in rap and hip-hop.

The prime motif of the film is, quite clearly, that of the prison. One of Gerima’s targets in the film is the police’s seemingly baseless and systematic imprisonment of African-American men. In fact, the film’s most impressive sequence is shot in the jail T.C. is put in. The extended monologue begins with T.C. talking to the camera about the injustice towards black men by the city’s police. Shortly afterwards, the camera tracks over the adjacent prison cells where, too, black prisoners are held. One of the cells contains what looks like just the shadow of a man.  It is only after a while that we see that it is in fact a person in flesh and blood standing deep inside the cell. It’s a bravura sequence, with a power and honesty seldom seen in propagandist cinema. Dorothy, on the other hand, is put in a whole different form of social prison. She has to act as the welfare officers say or she’ll go nowhere. They decide if she can have her baby or not. The police can put her in jail on whim and rape her daughter in her house. In parallel, Gerima imprisons Dorothy in visual (through his use of décor, the frustratingly chopped framing, restrictive mise en scène and suffocating close-ups) and aural (the white noise of the soundtrack that she can’t seem to get rid of) prisons. In all the cases, the characters seem to be in jail for a deed they did not commit or for a reason they do not understand.

Bush MamaBush Mama fits well as a companion film to the most acclaimed work of the movement, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977). While poetry oozed out from the edges of Burnett’s film, it is anger that emanates from the rough seams of Bush Mama. If that film was about conscious perseverance and the need to stick to one’s morality in the most troublesome times, this one is about doing away with such difficulties altogether. In other words, if Killer of Sheep was a romantic mini-spectacle about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, Bush Mama is the harsh behind-the-scenes making of that spectacle. Not that one is more inspiring or effective than the other. Dorothy speaking to T.C. at the end of Gerima’s film is as moving and affirmative as Stan waltzing with his wife in silence. Both are films that profess, albeit through radically different channels, that one can go on despite the adversities. However, unlike Killer of Sheep, Gerima’s film seriously questions if it could be done without a militant revolution and hence its agitprop mode of discourse. Consequently, the film ends with a call for revolution, explaining the need for “calculation” (perhaps a term which has found new meaning after 1968) and the necessity for the revolution to reach the grass roots. As Dorothy says: “I know you’re in jail, T.C., and angry. But most of the time I don’t understand your letters. Talk to me easy, T.C., coz I wanna understand.

Landscape Suicide  (1986)
James Benning

“When I visited Plainfield, I couldn’t get a sense of the murder. But the feeling of a collective guilt still lingers.”

Landscape SuicideJames Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1986) begins with a three minute sequence of a tennis player (Eve Ellis) practicing serves. Benning shows us just the player, standing at the edge of the court, doing her routine in a near-mechanical fashion. We do not see where the serves land or if the balls are being collected by someone off screen. After these three minutes, Benning cuts to the view of the other side of the court. The turf is full of tennis balls lying in a random pattern. Though only expected, it is an enigmatic moment in the film, for it is the first change of setup in the movie. This banal sequence does two things. One, it habituates us to the rhythm and the mode of discourse of Benning’s film. It announces to us that the major events the film deals with and their consequences will largely be kept off-screen. Two, it acts as an abstract to one of the major questions of the film – Does the sum of human actions, however insignificant individually, have an effect on the environment they live in? We are products of our environments, naturally, but is our environment a product of our actions too? Following this prologue, Landscape Suicide presents itself in two parts, each one investigating a homicide, connected by an unseen narrator who, having heard of the incidents through newspapers and magazines, presents the movie from the perspective of an outsider.

The first half of the film revolves around the murder of a teenager by her classmate Bernadette Protti in 1984 and unfolds primarily through an extended interrogation sequence, as would the second half of the film, of the accused teenager. This long sequence is shot using a static camera, with no shot-reverse shot structure, that fixates itself on Protti’s face for the whole sequence. She is visibly shell-shocked and trying hard to muster up words to answer the questions. Apparently, Benning constructed the sequence based actual courtroom transcripts and had Rhonda Bell, who plays Protti, bring them to life. David Bordwell describes here how sometimes telling, and not showing, can be much more rewarding in film. That is exactly the case here. What Protti tells here isn’t as important as how she tells it. The whole sequence is more significant as a collection of gestures than as a document of confession. This is great delivery we are taking about here. It is a part which requires you to shed your vocabulary, be completely inarticulate (even more than The Dude!) and, yet, describe everything in fine detail and Bell does a remarkable job. Even with this barely coherent piece of monologue, it becomes clear how Protti’s image, perhaps characteristic of her age group during that period of time, amidst her peers is more important to her than any morality and how petty peer pressure and the rat race for celebrity status can cause even the most sane to lose balance.

The second interrogation sequence is that of the infamous Ed Gein, who, as we all know, has been the inspiration for characters like Norman Bates and his successors. This conversation, in complete contrast to the Protti interrogation, is completely formal and well worded. Gein, played to perfection by Elion Sacker, looks like a very reasonable man. He sticks to the question and answers then with utmost poise and a clear, flat, fearless voice. The painstakingly detailed and often hilarious session tries to pin down Gein based on his self-confessed aversion for blood, but, with machine like passivity and utter soberness, he parries tricky questions and stays impermeable. One might even end up labeling him innocent were one to assess him based on this interrogation alone. Both the interrogations come attached to two “set pieces” that seem tangential to them. Each interrogation is either followed or preceded by a montage of landscapes from the hometown of the central protagonist – Orinda, California for Protti and Plainfield, Wisconsin for Gein – and a vignette from the private life of a resident, possibly the victim, from that town at that period time.

Landscape SuicideAt first sight, the landscapes of these towns seem anything but indicative of the horrors that have taken place in them. The places we see, both Orinda and Plainfield, are as serene, unpolluted and quiet as towns and suburbs can ever be. But after a few minutes, the unanimous absence of people becomes a bit unnerving. It seems as if people are deliberately hiding from each other, trying to mind their own business and to distance themselves from anything that can potentially pop them out of their mundane routine. The narrator notes, strikingly, at one point: “When I visited Plainfield, I couldn’t get a sense of the murder. But the feeling of a collective guilt still lingers”. And there seems to lie the major weakness of most of our justice systems. These institutions have gotten used to “weed out” people such as Ed Gein and Bernadette Protti as anomalies in a flawless society, much like the way the narrator’s daughter tears out the pages describing the Protti murder from the Rolling Stones magazine in order to avoid reading depressing news, instead of tracing out and correcting the reasons behind the birth of all such Ed Geins and Bernadette Prottis. That is not to say that the reason behind the Gein murders and his penchant for “taxidermy” was only the animal violence he was exposed to everyday since childhood. But subjecting Bernadette Protti, who is clearly more a function of social status than of mental imbalance, to the same treatment as Ed Gein denotes nothing less than a complacent, if not irresponsible, justice system.

Landscape Suicide is a symmetric film. Between the five minute long prologue and epilogue, the last three “set pieces” of the film mirror the first three. While the Protti section is followed by the landscape montage and the household sequence, the Ed Gein section is preceded by them. In a way, Landscape Suicide also acts as an examination of the narrative property of cinema. We are first given Protti’s version of what happened verbally and then the images of the locations they took place in. One is thus able to situate the now-coherent account into its proper geographical location and conjure up, more concretely, the visual equivalent of Protti’s account. On the other hand, the locations of the incident are given before the oral account in the case of the Gein murder. In this case, one tries to reconstruct the incident by simulating the events being described within the locations already familiar. Benning resolves the “how” of the incident into “what” and “where” and asks us to put them back together to find out “why”. In essence, Benning divorces genre cinema from its exploitative nature by splitting up its action into words and locations. With some effort, one should be able to stitch up all the elements of Benning’s film to obtain a teen-slasher and a psychological thriller.

Additionally, Landscape Suicide is also about the act of remembering and reconstructing the past. It is an investigation about the possibility of retrieving the truth using every tool available. In both the interrogations, it becomes clear that the barrier to recovering one’s past is one’s own memory and, then, the language used to verbalize that sensory commodity. Throughout the Protti interrogation, there is a war between the sounds of her speech and the sounds of the typewriter that records her speech, with the latter seemingly trying to grab each one of her words and derive the literal meaning from it (this, somehow, reminds one of last year’s wonderful film Police, Adjective). Benning’s point may just be that our spoken and written media are incapable of translating actual experiences to words. It is evident that what Protti’s words mean are far from what she means. Throughout the two interrogations, Benning blacks out the screen regularly and adulterates the soundtrack with stray sounds, as if underscoring the incapability of the cinematic medium to capture or reproduce experiences and feelings in their entirety.

Landscape SuicideHowever, Benning does offer an alternative here. His use of a static camera throughout the courtroom scenes is noteworthy in this regard. Benning accustoms us to the space the camera stares at by eschewing conventional cinematic grammar for conversations and avoiding shuffling between setups anywhere in the film. At one point during the interrogation, Protti leaves for the bathroom. Instead of cutting to a new view point or providing an ellipsis, Benning lets the camera be as it was when Protti was there. It’s a moment that is reminiscent of the cut during the opening tennis sequence. The absence of a human figure before the camera is so unsettling that one can actually sense the change that the milieu before us has undergone. If history is indeed a study of changes through the ages, the only way to document it is to document the changes. In Benning’s film, this change is recorded in terms of changes in natural and man-made landscapes, which are also, perhaps, the closest in resembling the human memory in the sense that they, too, morph gradually over time owing to the cumulus of all human actions – both beneficial and detrimental. And it only follows logically that cinema should pay keen attention to landscapes and topographies if it ever wants to revive the past and reconstruct history as it was, free from corruption by conscious human intervention and oversimplification by the rigidity of our languages.