POV series producer Yance Ford checks in from a special event honoring William Greaves in New York City.
There is nothing quite as exciting as watching a master at work. For me, attending the Stranger than Fiction (STF) tribute to filmmaker William Greaves this past Tuesday was, indeed, a thrill. Stranger than Fiction, the documentary film series curated by Thom Powers, presents a dynamic range of films throughout the year at the IFC Center in New York City. The Greaves tribute was sold out and fire codes being what they are in NYC, the “No Standing!” rule meant many people were turned away. Fortunately, I had bought my ticket early, and I’m glad I did. It was an inspiring night.
The evening opened with a stunning letter from Sidney Poitier praising Greaves’ contribution to his and many other careers and calling us all to “reach beyond our grasp.” Read an excerpt and see more pictures from the tribute (including one of yours truly) at the Stranger than Fiction website.
Greaves’ career spans more than 40 years; during that time, he produced both narrative and documentary films. STF’s tribute to Greaves treated the audience to clips from many of the filmmakers seminal works, including Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, The First World Festival of Negro Arts, The Fight, Still a Brother and the first public screening of his work in progress, Once Upon a Time in Harlem. Greaves is often referred to as the dean of African American filmmakers, and the scope of his work is breathtaking; it’s clear that he is dean to us all.
Not only has Greaves produced a prolific body of work, he has also mentored generations of African American filmmakers, the late St. Claire Bourne among them. The panel that joined Thom Powers on stage after the screening discussed the Greaves’ influence. Film critic Elvis Mitchell, director Thomas Allen Harris (Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, POV 2006), Orlando Bagwell of the Ford Foundation, and Editor/Director Sam Pollard dissected Greaves’ work, not solely within the context of black cinema, but within the continuum of cinema as a whole. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, for example, isn’t important because of its name (though it is a pretty amazing title). It’s important because it does so many things at once: it destroys the “fourth wall,” bringing audiences, both onlookers in Central Park during filming, and those in the theater, into the film within a film within a film; it is a hybrid documentary, combining scathing social commentary (the break-up scene) with absurd drama (the conspiring crew). The human interactions in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One make the film, and they arose from the environment that Greaves created. Scene by scene it is a mastery of filmmaking. If you haven’t seen this and other work of William Greaves, get thee to a library RIGHT NOW!
The evening wrapped up with Greaves addressing the audience after a standing ovation. Slowed by age but no less insightful, Greaves’ was wryly surprised at the continuing interest and admiration of his work. He also expressed his concern for the state of our nation. Implicit in that concern is a call to the filmmakers in the room and beyond to keep telling the stories that need to be told.