Amos Levin, as told to Ben Flanagan
When lockdown started in the UK and the US I came across this link on Twitter, I can’t remember where it came from but it was a link for a Google Drive folder called ‘This Light’. I saw there were a bunch of experimental films and Hollywood films and Japanese films – a huge range. I was surprised and amazed. I got in touch with the email of the guy who runs it – he’s based in LA and his name is Andrew Norman Wilson. He’s a filmmaker in his own right, a moving image artist. We got talking and he was asking users of the Google drive to curate a spotlight, a sub-folder to the folder. There was one about heist movies, one about Bruce Goff the architect. I looked at what I had and noticed I have a bunch of films from Africa. Obviously I didn’t want to make a folder that’s just an umbrella, ‘ooh African films’. That’s just curatorial standards, know what I mean? So I saw that there were a few in my folder that had to do specifically with anti-colonialism and uprising. I had a think of what other films I’d seen that could go well together with those films and did some Piratebay research, and got the nine films together.
Out of the 9 films, I’d seen 8. I hadn’t seen The Land (1969) yet, but I knew of it. I’d missed a couple of screenings of the restoration, which obviously I couldn’t get in the folder so we have this DVD transfer. I caught up with that, made sure it fit the vibe of the others not just on the surface level. Was fun to find out it’s both.
There’s a bunch of reasons why it is so hard for some of these films to get proper releases. After they manage to get made, it’s historically difficult for African films to get distribution outside of Africa. When they get a bad distribution in the first place, it slips out of the public mind. After that, there’s no real demand for more screenings or home video release. They have bad distribution because of straight-up racism. It’s a lack of interest from people in general, or distributors who assume there is no audience for these films in America or the UK. If they do get picked up, it’s very small. In a few cases in the folder those films have literally been banned. The Ousmane Sembene film Camp de Thiaroye (1988) was banned by the French for ten years because it depicts war crimes perpetrated by the French government. Similarly, Sarraounia (1986) by Med Hondo wasn’t outright banned but the release was essentially sabotaged by its own distributor, and it’s very likely this was due to external political pressures. Even today the French government does not want to admit to that much wrongdoing with regard to colonialism. They don’t hide that it happened but they do hide the disgusting facts, the rape and the murder. There’s a lot of effort made to suppress that. So sometimes it is completely explicit like in the case of the Sembene, other times it’s a little more subtle. It doesn’t necessarily come from the government, it might be nationalist groups who pressure the distributor.
I don’t know how Battle of Algiers got so big – it’s in the canon! But if i recall it was also banned in France. I think the fact that it’s mostly an Italian production, by a white director… there wasn’t much of a precedent for that kind of film at the time. It’s the earliest film in Glory and Dignity. Sarah Maldoror served as assistant director and then went on to begin her own career. Obviously Sambizanga had to be done in secret, she made it out of Angola while under Portugal’s colonial rule.
I tried finding out a little more about Black Sun, but it’s so unknown that it’s hard to find out anything. The reason I came to know about the film is I was doing technical support at MUBI and a guy emailed saying he was doing his PhD and looking for that film, so did we have it? We didn’t, but I thought it sounded cool so I found how the title is written in Russian cyrillic script, had a google, clicked on the first few results and then found it on some Russian torrent site. There it was. I paid a friend to make subtitles for it. It’s that kind of endeavour. When I finally watched it, not that long ago it had 2 views on letterboxd. I don’t think there’s much written about the film anywhere. But it’s so good!
It played at Film Lincoln a few years ago, so I’m guessing there’s a screenable print out there in a Moscow archive or something. In an ideal world, anyone who wants to watch that film can teleport to the time and place of that Lincoln Center screening because that’s apparently the only way you can watch it legally. This folder was a matter of giving access to films that are literally inaccessible. With the exception of Battle of Algiers, nothing was available on DVD or streaming. I’m a square, I will redirect people to the legal means even if it means giving £5 to Amazon. But in cases like these, it’s too frustrating to wait around for somebody to magically decide ‘Ooh, let’s restore this film and make it available at an affordable price.’ If I want to in retrospect state a mission for this folder, then it’s to make people aware of these films in the first place. Because without people knowing about them, what incentive is there to restore films? If they literally do not exist in the public knowledge? Unfortunately this is impossible legally. So this is what we’re doing.
One case I know of, and I don’t want to make a big generalisation but it looks like it’s the case for most labs, is the Nigerian film Black Goddess (1978). I watched it in Bologna in 2018. It’s great and Ola Balogun, the director, was there and he talked about the restoration efforts. What was screened was the only available 35 print, from the Japan foundation for whatever reason. So you had this 35mm print of a Nigerian film mostly set in Brazil that had Japanese subtitles on the side, vertical. It was kind of wild. When they talked about the restoration process they discussed the fact that they found the negative, which is the first step. But it’s in a lab in London who are asking for £20,000 just to take it out of the archive to scan. An insane fee. Apparently that’s the case for a lot of these films. It’s a huge financial hurdle in terms of doing any sort of work to revive or get these films back in the hands of the public. I don’t know what they expect. The options are we let this film that does not exist in any viewable copy rot in their refrigerated archive, or we wait until kingdom come for someone with 20K to say ‘Yeah, I’ll take this out.’ The sad reality is film business is still business. I’m sure they have to calculate what return on an investment they can get with a 70s Nigerian film, so when labs ask for that kind of insane money, it just de-incentivises anybody who’s interested in doing that work.
I wonder if they use a completely inflexible flat fee system. If the Swedish film institute is looking for a good print of some lesser known Bergman film and they found it in a London archive, they probably have the kind of money to drop 20K and make it part of the restoration process. It’s a properly state funded organisation and a Bergman film – they can exploit that in a bunch of ways from screening at restoration festivals around the world, to Criterion box set, to streaming rights etc. When it comes to African films it’s more difficult because of all the difficulties that came before. All of the people who should be excited about these films don’t know about them. African films are not a priority for big art institutions in general. For labs to take these kind of projects with the same prices seems stupid and stubborn, and detrimental to culture.
I had Sambizanga in my folder before she passed away and would have included it either way, but the death of Sarah Maldoror made it especially important to have it in there. After sharing that folder with my friends, they had all been switched onto her by Another Gaze’s symposium. It’s thanks to Yasmina Price and Maldoror’s daughter Annouchka de Andrade, and all the scholars on that call that there’s a renewed interest. It was important for me to include it there. In terms of criteria for the folder, I wanted it to be really focussed. On top of films being about political uprising, I told myself I would stick to films made on the continent. Not diasporic cinema. Up until the end I considered adding Soleil O and just having three Hondo films in there. But it felt out of place. You could easily make an amazing selection of French/African cinema as a separate thing that would be just as rich. There were a lot of questions in my mind. Is it okay for me, some white dude, to put this folder together?
In the case of this, in the end… why not? I’m not getting paid, I invested money in the subtitles. If I was doing this in an actual institutional role, I would have a lot of doubts and would not take it upon myself to curate a series like this. All the people that have done the hard work in getting these names better known in Western cinephile culture like Lydia Ogwang, who put together ‘The Indocile Image: The Cinema of Med Hondo’ in Canada, which brought him into renewed interest and taught me a lot, even just by flicking through pages on the website. It felt weird to swoop in and say ‘look at these cool films that I know of and am so amazing for curating for you guys.’ I know about these films because of Black scholars who have been doing work in the US, Canada, France.
I stressed out toward the end because I am not well read on these political movements. Most of what I know comes from those films. I am no expert, but these are films that I have had the privilege to see because I can afford to go to Il Cinema Ritrovato and the BFI. I have access to them. So it felt right to give back to people in that way. These are just films I like, I hope are important to you, and that I learned a lot from
My utopian vision for lets call them ‘old films’, and there’s a whole debate about what counts as heritage, but in my perfect world there’s no real copyright. It’s just a way of companies getting the money, whereas the filmmakers don’t get that much. It’s frustrating how many films are just locked behind bars, locked in vaults. Back when Disney bought Fox and said they would restrict screening rights, I was so angry. For a second I considered studying Media Law and dedicating years of my life to fight this kind of copyright abuse, especially Disney’s copyright abuse that extends copyright for decades just so they can make billions and billions more. It feels like the copyright system is broken. The rights to a film expire and suddenly no one is in charge, and then the film dies. That’s fucking stupid. You can get in touch with the studio that had the rights before, and they’ll tell you the rights expired and it’s not their problem. Films need to be protected a little more. Especially in countries like America. Russia had this whole Soviet system that’s still there where all of the films were state funded, protected by cinemateches. But I heard the Dovzhenko institute is under threat of closure from lack of funding, and that’s depressing because they hold so much, including Kira Muratova. Would they be redistributed to other archives? It’s not unheard of that prints are thrown in the actual garbage. I heard when digital cinema became the norm, the UK Sony offices threw away all their prints. Throwing Pulp Fiction in the garbage might seem fine when there’s a hundred fucking prints, but will there be 100 years from now?
Amos’ Glory and Dignity collection can be watched at This Light.