Friday, October 27, 2006

Filmmakers Present Works at S.D. Public Library

Independent Movies Explore Historical, Contemporary Race Issues


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

One of the best places to see movies in San Diego is the third-floor auditorium of the San Diego Public Library at 801 “E” Street downtown. In addition to a long-running series of films every Monday night at 6:30, mostly independent narrative films that got little or no theatrical distribution in the U.S., the library has been co-sponsoring a number of compelling documentaries and historical films made in association with the PBS network but not always shown by the local PBS affiliate. Often the films’ directors appear in person at these screenings and answer questions about their works.

On Wednesday, October 11 the library presented Recalling Orange County by filmmaker Myléne Moreno. The title was a pun since the film featured two “recalls” of Orange County: Moreno’s own recollections of her childhood there and how being the daughter of immigrants, a Mexican father and a French Canadian mother, affected her growing up in a county famous throughout the nation as a seat of white backlash; and the successful recall drive to remove immigrant-rights activist Nativo Lopez from the Santa Ana School District board in 2003.

Lopez lost his seat in a special election about a month before voters statewide tossed governor Gray Davis out of office and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The main issue in the Lopez recall was his strong support of bilingual education as an option for Latino parents who wanted their children to keep the Spanish language as a tie to their home culture. A statewide initiative sponsored by North County Congressmember Darrell Issa had called for an end to bilingual education, but the initiative’s wording allowed parents the option to enroll their children in bilingual classes — and Lopez campaigned throughout the district to make sure Latino parents were aware they had this choice.

The recall campaign against Lopez was actually started by Latino mothers who opposed bilingual education and wanted their children taught only in English in hopes that would improve their chances for success as adults in an English-speaking country. But it was quickly joined by anti-immigrant and radical-Right activists, as well as affluent property owners anxious to keep a proposed new school out of their neighborhood. One recall leader profiled in the film was Tim Whitacre, a balding ex-Marine who toured the district in a converted military vehicle with a sound system blasting pro-recall messages. In the film, he tells Moreno that the question of who’s on the local school board is entirely academic to him, saying, “I wouldn’t let any of my own kids set foot in a public school” — he home-schools them — but that he’s participating in the recall campaign to help less affluent parents for whom private school and home-schooling are not options.

Complicating the recall campaign was an accusation from a state agency just before the election that Lopez’s social-service organization, Hermandad Nacional, had misallocated over $2 million in state funding aimed at reaching out to Latinos to encourage them to vote. Though the allegation was dropped four months after the election, it fatally damaged Lopez’s chances of remaining in office. “He lost in every district by a good percentage, at least 10 percent,” Moreno said. Even the primarily Latino parts of Santa Ana voted against him.

Moreno appeared after the showing of her hour-long film, made for Latino Public Television but not currently scheduled for broadcast on San Diego’s KPBS, and led a wide-ranging discussion about topics ranging from whether bilingual education is really effective to how future generations of Orange County Latinos will vote. Though her closing commentary in the film suggested that the children and grandchildren of modern-day immigrants will make Orange County more open to immigrants and Latino culture generally, Moreno acknowledged that the opposite might happen: that they might become more assimilated and therefore more conservative.

Indeed, she said, that’s already happened with the descendants of German and Austrian immigrants who came to Orange County in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Moreno’s film shows the Austrian community’s cemetery, featuring many elaborate headstones with inscriptions in German. She said that it’s likely Latinos in Orange County will follow the usual pattern of assimilation: “the first generation speaks the native language, the second speaks both the native language and English, and the third speaks only English.”

Four days after the showing of Recalling Orange County, the library once again invited a filmmaker to introduce her work and lead a discussion about it. This time, the film was Mother of the River, a gemlike half-hour fiction film made in 1995 and released on public television a year later, which took a folk legend from Haiti and transplanted it to North Carolina in the 1850’s, just before the Civil War and the abolition of American slavery. The central characters were Dofimae (Adrienne Monique Coleman, now a regular on Dancing with the Stars), the 11-year-old daughter of a slave couple, and “Mother of the River” (Anita Maria Taylor), a quasi-mythical figure who helped runaway slaves.

The film’s director, Zeinabu irene Davis (her credit on the film spelled her middle name in all lower-case letters), spoke afterwards and acknowledged that the character of “Mother of the River” was based on Sister Nanny, a real-life slave activist in Jamaica who became a legendary figure after her death. Among the legends were that she wore a necklace made from dead slaveowners’ teeth and she could bounce cannonballs off her back and aim them back in the direction of the whites who’d fired them at her. She shot the film in black-and-white, partly because in 1995. before high-definition video, she was working with 16mm film and black-and-white was still cheaper than color, but also because black-and-white gave the film a “timeless” quality and helped her conceal any problems with the authenticity of the costumes. “The top of the dress might have been pink and the bottom green, but in black-and-white they looked the same,” Davis said.

Davis said she was inspired to make the film in 1995, when she was teaching a media literacy class to nine-year-olds in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb 20 miles north of Chicago. “We were looking at images of slavery from Alex Haley’s Queen, starring Halle Berry,” Davis recalled, “and this nine-year-old girl said, ‘I wish I could have lived in those times. The clothes were so glamorous then.’ I nearly lost it. The whole idea that Halle Berry was playing a slave just went over her head.”

Enlisting her husband, Marc Anton Chéry (who attended the library screening but sat in the back as inconspicuously as possible), as her screenwriter, Davis shot Mother of the River on location at an actual slave plantation in North Carolina. Though this gave her film an extraordinary level of authenticity — the slave cabins her characters lived in had been the actual residences of slaves in the time in which her story took place — it also put her through “a difficult emotional experience” that showed her the racial attitudes that had made slavery possible weren’t quite dead in the Old South.

The problem, Davis explained, was the plantation’s owner, a white man who utterly refused to take an African-American woman seriously as a filmmaker. In the negotiations for the use of the property, Davis said, “He dealt with my line producer, a white male; and my script supervisor, a white female. The man wouldn’t deal with me or talk to me. He acted as if my line producer was the director and my script supervisor was the star.”

Despite the tribulations of filming it, including raising the money (“there are loans that still have to be repaid,” Davis ruefully admitted), dealing with the white landlord and getting Coleman and the white girl who played the plantation owner’s daughter to look properly antagonistic on screen when “they were buddies in real life,” Davis was pleased with the reaction to her film. “I was very fortunate to get great feedback from the kids,” she said. “It won awards at children’s film festivals in Chicago and Boston, and I’m especially proud of those because the juries were children.” The film played on PBS from 1996 to 2000 and is still in distribution through a small company called Women Make Movies (, which rents it mostly to schools.

Today Davis is a bit rueful about the experience of making Mother of the River, especially since she hasn’t had the chance to direct a narrative film since — even though she clearly has the talent to make a theatrical feature. “I’m still the only African-American woman director to make a film about slavery,” she said. “I wish that weren’t true, but it is. The reason is it’s not a topic that’s going to make a lot of money. Most films in the U.S. are driven by the profit motive. Public support for the arts has dwindled in this country in the last 10 years. This film cost $100,000, which is a lot of money for an individual but not for the film industry. There’s not a lot of money available in this country for films like this.”