From Jean Grémillon’s Daïnah la métisse (1931) (courtesy Locarno Film Festival)

When Lili Hinstin became artistic director of the Locarno International Film Festival last December, making her the second woman to hold the position in its 72-year history, an immediate priority was to oversee the festival’s widely respected Retrospettiva, its annual sidebar devoted to a single filmmaker of historical significance. For 2019, the festival’s 72nd iteration, a retrospective on Blake Edwards, of Breakfast at Tiffany and Pink Panther fame, had been in the works. Then, out of the blue, the Edwards estate requested that the project be tabled for a future date. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In its stead, Hinstin envisioned a new program that would capture the zeitgeist but also be well-served by a sense of historical and critical distance. She hired Greg de Cuir Jr., a Los Angeles-born, Belgrade-based independent curator and writer, to head the initiative. The result was Black Light, an eclectic 47-film survey exploring the notion of Black cinema in the 20th century, which ran during this year’s festival.

The films in the program ranged from Silent Era impresario Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1919), the oldest extant feature by a Black American filmmaker, to experimental artist Christopher Harris’s long-undiscovered 16mm essay film still/here (2000), which combs through the once-proud Victorian enclave of North St. Louis and uncovers, among other things, untold economic and racial injustices. The bulk of the retrospective hailed from the US, but it also included selections from the UK, Brazil, Algeria, Cuba, Senegal, France, and Jamaica. Familiar canonical works like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) and William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) played alongside rarities like Med Hondo’s West Indies (1979) and Jean Rouch’s three-hour improvisational epic Petit à petit (1970). Classic Hollywood films by Joseph Mankiewicz (No Way Out, 1950), Jules Dassin (Uptight, 1968) and Robert Wise (Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959) were contrasted with unsung masterworks by Yolande Zauberman (Classified People, 1987) and Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground, 1982). The retrospective kicked off with an outdoor screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) in the famed 8,000-seat Piazza Grande. A French-language book that delves deeper into the work and research started by Black Light is expected to publish in 2020, and there is talk that the retrospective may end up traveling.

Hyerallergic spoke to de Cuir in the final days of Locarno 2019 about Black Light and the politics surrounding the decision-making at the festival, among other topics.

Greg de Cuir Jr. (courtesy Locarno Film Festival)

Hyperallergic: Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts and high stakes to putting together a retrospective of this size. What were your priorities?

Greg de Cuir Jr.: There were a lot of different boundaries that I wanted to set for this ‘creative intervention.’ Most important for me was to be strongly international, and it’s really important for me to show movements and common struggles across borders. So I think that was the first important thing, to have a broad selection that had a strong international stance, from South to North America, the Caribbean, the European continent … I wanted to deal with what happened to Africa’s children, when they’re moved and forced to survive in different contexts, different cultures, and different countries. Exploring that means exploring where black people have gone in the world.

H: So you were primarily looking at films of the diaspora?

GdC: Yeah … I don’t really like that word. I don’t know why. A little too scientific. Basically, yeah, just sort of trying to explore all the different black cultures all around the world that obviously have a common linkage back to the motherland.

H: In recent interviews, Hinstin seemed to allude that she is against — or rather, not necessarily for — the gender quota. What is your stance? And were there any moments in which you butted heads with Hinstin in conceiving the retrospective?

GdC: I don’t know if she said that she’s against the gender quota. I think she said that — correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I read this quote in a few different contexts — she doesn’t want to put quotas and numbers before quality. So she believes in equal representation, obviously, and she believes and feels that women are important and need to be part of the discussion. You’ll have to ask her yourself, but she probably doesn’t want people to think that she’s putting a woman in a program just because she’s a woman … I don’t think she’s against the gender quota per se, but I also think she probably doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who wants to just fulfill a quota.

H: What about yourself?

GdC: I don’t either. But I believe in equality, and I have a feminist spirit that you need to have this sort of action to continually assert women’s superiority and creativity and right to be at the table with everyone else. It’s always in my mind whenever I organize a program, ‘How many women are in it?’ I can never get around that. I’m always making sure there’s as much gender equality as possible.

With this particular program it was tricky, because the further you go back in history, the fewer examples [of films made by female filmmakers] you have. So that’s always a delicate balance. But organizing any program is a delicate balance. What you choose, and what you don’t choose, whether it has to do with gender or aesthetics. There’s something that you always have to leave out — for technical reasons, for reasons of time, a million reasons. I believe that there needs to be more gender equality in a film festival.

From Amor Maldito (1984), the first film ever directed by an Afro-Brazilian woman, Adélia Sampaio (courtesy Locarno Film Festival)

H: In the festival catalog, you write that the retrospective is an opportunity to ‘liberate film from conservative ideological constraints.’ The language here is assertive, brazen even.

GdC: Well yeah, I think the film world is a little bit more conservative than the art world. Still a little bit patriarchal. I think that there is a lot of work that needs to be done. When you have all these film festivals around the world signing gender pledges, but they’re not even adhering to them or saying that it takes time … I always laugh when festival directors, selection committee members, they always say, ‘Well, what can we do, we’re bound by what’s submitted to us.’ Which is bullshit — print that. Because you don’t just sit back in your chair as a selector and hope that 500 films come to you and you can only pick those 500 and that’s it. You’ve got consultants, you’ve got advisors, you’re going to [other] film festivals and seeing stuff. You’re inviting stuff. So it’s bullshit when these film festivals directors say, ‘I’m bound by what’s submitted to me.’ No you’re not. You’re just saying that because it shields you, obviously. [Laughs] I know because I’m a selector, and I’ve been working at film festivals for more than 10 years. You can’t sit back and just wait. If you sit back and wait, your program is fucked! You have to have some sort of engagement, because if you don’t, then what are you doing? What’s the point of being there?

H: It’s a form of upholding the status quo.

GdC: Yeah. Just put a kid in a chair, put on a blindfold, and let him pick out of a hat whatever was submitted? Of course you’re not doing that. You’re fighting for stuff, you’re talking to artists, you’re seeing stuff that is not submitted.

H: Is what you’re trying to do at odds with working within the milieu of a festival like Locarno, where it’s decidedly corporate and backed by tons of sponsors whose largesse make everything possible?

GdC: When it comes to corporate film festivals, they have to make money. That’s what they are there for, and that’s the reason why they’re big. That’s a reality that you crash against, whether you walk into it or it’s above your head and you sort of hit that ceiling. But there are always demands that you have to work with, and that’s fine. That pressure can often lead to good things. I don’t believe limits are so inherently limiting; they can be evaded and confronted. I think it’s Orson Welles who said that the greatest danger or the greatest potential stumbling block for creativity is total freedom. When I’m tested or forced to get over a hump, good things can come together in ways that you don’t expect.

H: What are some films that surprised you in the planning and research of this retrospective?

GdC: One of the films that surprised me was Med Hondo’s West Indies, which I hadn’t seen. I know a little bit of Med Hondo, but I’m far from an expert. That’s a reason I didn’t want to focus on African cinema, I’m not an expert on it. That requires a different retrospective, a different curator. But Hondo’s film really shocked me, and I’m happy that we have it here, because it’s the only existing print on 35mm. Hopefully the Harvard Film Archive is planning to preserve and restore it.

Also Bablyon (1980), from the UK, and which had been unseen in the US until this year. That was also a revelation for me. A beautiful restoration of a very strong film, especially with the way it deals with music, Reggae culture in Southeast London. It’s a very confrontational film and emblematic for this retrospective in that the director is Italian — Franco Rosso — and was living and working in England. He was dealing with Caribbean communities that were living between the UK and Caribbean. This sort of internationalist method and strategy of engagement produced something very interesting in that film.  I was softly mad that I hadn’t seen it after it first premiered, because it was considered a very destructive and socially critical film. When films get banned for reasons like that, you know you’re doing something right.

H: There are a quite a few popular, studio-backed films, like Bill Duke’s Deep Cover and Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou, that made the cut. Why did you decide to add these to the program?

GdC: These are films that I know and love, even though my profession deals with the non-commercial avant-garde. I’m still in some ways the kids that loves comic books, sports, and mainstream movies, I still watch that stuff. Within the context of this festival, I wanted to embrace those things that don’t normally find their way into a retrospective here, but do it with our particular slant of exposing things. That wasn’t hard, because I was into that stuff anyway. It gave me a chance to juxtapose Marlon Riggs with Joseph Mankiewicz. When will I ever have a chance to do that again?

H: You are credited with helping rediscover Christopher Harris’s magnificent landscape film still/here, which you included in this retrospective.

GdC: It’s a forgotten film and it’s now getting its due. That particular film is a kind of chronological end to the retrospective. The film has only shown in the UK a few times, and in the US it showed wherever it showed, but this is the first time the film really has stepped out into the spotlight. We showed it at the Flaherty Seminar, but that’s the opposite of a spotlight. It’s a closed affair, the screenings aren’t announced in advance. It’s a masterpiece. Maybe it’s the film that he’s remembered for when it’s all said and done. It’s really exciting to be able to share work that normally wouldn’t have a chance with a wider audience to see it or normally know about it. That’s extra special.

H: At a roundtable discussion, one of the participants said, ‘We just want to be seen as normal people.’ How much of this retrospective was conceived with an eye toward the quotidian, the unspectacular?

GdC: This idea, this struggle for normalcy, is in many ways the final frontier, because Black people have always been spectacularized. If we’re not an artist, we’re a musician. If we’re not a musician, we’re an athlete. If we’re not an athlete, we’re a gangster. There’s always gotta be something spectacular or amazing.

There’s a filmmaker who I consider to be the most important Black film artist working today. His name is Kevin Jerome Everson, and his art is all about the unspectacular. All of the working-class people going about their lives struggling, who don’t have the spotlight on them. They’re not criminals, they’re not million-dollar athletes. Maybe they can’t dance or sing, maybe they can’t play basketball, they can’t do any of the things that people think that black people are stereotyped for being able to do. He focuses on these types of people because he feels that this is now something dangerous that can’t be assimilated. It’s easy to talk about Black people as Black Panthers or as revolutionaries — we can deal with that, we can commodify that, we can sell that, we can control that. But it’s not so easy to control two kids playing ping-pong or walking down the street holding hands, in love, who don’t need any wider qualifications as some sort of Black spectacular. I like the unspectacular aesthetic that he is working with.

H: So why wasn’t he included in the retrospective?

GdC: Good question. He was very, very close, but the retrospective focuses on the 20th century, and Kevin really emerged in the 21st century. He’s a little bit too young. I wanted to stay true to the method and not spread the focus too wide, keep it concise.

H: You’re presenting to a predominantly white, European audience that speaks mostly Italian and skews old. Can you talk about the reception so far, and if certain Black American references in introductory remarks perhaps get lost in translation?

GdC: It might be the best audience I ever had. If it’s a 9:30 a.m. screening of Marlon Riggs’s classic video work of gay black brilliance, they are there for it. If it’s a popular Robert Wise film, they’re there for it. They’re coming, they’re interested, and they’re probably in the habit of coming every year. They treat cinema as an art form, and they fill up that cinema. I often don’t have audiences like that. I usually don’t work with fiction and narrative cinema. This is kind of different turn for me, in terms of the size of audience and festival. Even if they don’t catch every joke or every bit of slang, there is a lot that they can feel and see and capture and understand. They don’t have to understand everything. Maybe some of them will go online and try to see things.

I can actually quote Tupac Shakur.  Somebody asked him, ‘Can art change the world, can your art change anything.’ And Tupac said, ‘My music might not change the world, but I guarantee you that I will spark the mind that will change the world.’ And I agree with that. I try to operate with that method when I’m curating. I might not change the world with a film program, but I might spark the mind that may change the world.

From Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Notes for an African Oresteia (1970) (courtesy Locarno Film Festival)

Sean Nam is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. He has written for Cineaste, MUBI, The Brooklyn Rail, Variety, and Rain Taxi, among others.