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Billy Woodberry: "The black experience, in some ways, is particular, but in that is also universal"

Billy Woodberry: "The black experience, in some ways, is particular, but in that is also universal"

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Published by Luís Mendonça

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Published by: Luís Mendonça on Mar 06, 2014
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Billy Woodberry: "The black experience, in some ways, is particular, but in that is also universal" Interview by Luís Mendonça | March 2014 | At the portuguese movie website
À pala de Walsh
: www.apaladewalsh.com
If you are talking about abandonment, loneliness and social uprooting in a child's life in
The Pocketbook 
, in
Bless Their Little Hearts
 you give us a very honest and tender look on the everyday life of a working class family. From a life of delinquency and orphan hood in the streets to a life unfolded from the core of the family's nest. Was this transition thought out? Were you planning this thematic evolution?
Well, it sort of makes sense in a way, because even in
The Pocketbook 
 I emphasized the fact that the woman is a worker. So I was sort of committed to trying to put these  people in movies. When we came up with this story, it made sense. It was a kind of continuation because of the subject and because of whatever I learnt in the process of doing the earlier short film. But it's the problems of this class of people, this kind of  people that interested me. Even my professor warned me
that you can’t make this
kind of movie now.
Because it is a kind of old fashioned movie?
Yes, and movies are in colour now, have this and that. It was not done to be strikingly retrograde. It was more common then you could have good black and white stock and the labs were still good. As a matter of fact, the black and white stock was cheaper than colour at that time; colour was more expensive and more difficult to deal with. Black and white was kind of simple. You keep the customs simple and you don't have a lot of problems. That was the appeal. Also, that film was easy because my friend knew the stock. He had shot a lot of it. So he was very familiar and he thought it was very rich and you could get a lot out of it. So it was easy to choose the black and white negative stock to do it.
 
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I'm saying this because I'm thinking if you restore
The Quiet One
 [by Sidney Meyers and Helen Levitt, to whom Billy Woodberry dedicated his movie] and do a double bill with
The Pocketbook 
 they will feel almost as two contemporary movies.
One problem with
The Pocketbook 
 
is that it was shot on reversal stock, so it has a high contrast ratio. And maybe the stock then was panchromatic stock, but it was recent and they shot that movie on 16mm and then they blew it up to 35mm. And it was one of the first done like that. It won a big prize in Venice. It was recognized in its time. It was special and it gave courage to Cassavetes and to the others. They knew that world. But there used to be a film industry in New York that made quite different films from what they made when they moved to Hollywood. The independent people, the people who insisted on making in New York, they have their own aesthetic, their own approach to the city. It makes sense. I always liked those films. The more radical  people and the more experimental people of the thirties and forties remained in New York. Leo Hurwitz, all those people, Frontier Film people... Speaking of  photographers, Paul Strand. All those people, who started in the twenties, as cameramen, were an appeal.
I also find in Sidney Meyers' movie the same prudence in approaching racial and social issues. In a movie like
Bless Their Little Hearts
 the main focus seems to be on an individual conflict. The black child or the black man struggles mainly with himself than with the vicious prejudices of "white society". Do you agree with the idea that simply denouncing racial discrimination in American society would be just inverting an inscribed formula? In other words, that would end up being another form of racism?
 Not completely. In my own case, they make jokes about skin coloured, but the main character never attributes his situation, his condition to racism or to whites. He never declares himself or bemoans his existence as a black man, because it is obvious that he is. On a macro level, the larger level, his condition is determined by forces beyond his ability to explain, it's the larger economy that makes people redundant. That is a generalized class condition that is nearly universal in all advanced capitalist societies. All societies where you have capitalist relations of production are bond to have a
 
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certain amount of people that are in reserve. These people have a complex kind of reality: how long will they remain in that state? What will happen if they remain too long? So is that over arching understanding of it. And it just so happens that he is a worker from a group with a certain history, but he is a worker, a universal man in that sense. That was important to assert, as opposed to simply attributing all that happens to a man to racial prejudice. That is an aspect, but people can raise these questions themselves.
I was thinking of a director you talked a lot yesterday, Ousmane Sembene, mainly his movie
Black Girl
, and I'm thinking of another movie, Lionel Rogosin's
Come Back, Africa
. These are two very strong and engaged movies against racism. What's your relation with these two approaches?
Those are movies that I know. The Sembene movie is also a movie against what colonialism imposed in Africa and what African man of colonialism imposes on the  people and how the people have to fight through the estrangement and alienation that that imposes. And then what happens between them. The way that he asserts the cultural validity of Africa in that situation is important also. All of the French characters, imprisoned by the relations, the prejudice, but also their position in the hierarchy of things - they can't see the other person, really... So I certainly know that is valid and important. The Lionel Rogosin movie, again, is a really complicated thing, because apartheid was a specific system. He was able to make a movie clandestinely that talked about what that imposed on the people, in terms of the restrictions of the movement, of just simply to exist and to move freely in their own society. And also, what enters the life of the people among themselves, the violence,  but also the beauty, the ingenuity, the humour. But it is a precious film. I include that with those New York people,
Shadows
 
and all the rest. But maybe it belongs partly to Africa, because of the collaboration of the South African people in that film.
Previously, he made
On the Bowery
.
Yes,
On the Bowery
. He certainly was one of the inventors of New American Cinema. He was a theatre owner also; he projected films, foreign films.

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