Stranger than Fiction’s Tribute to William Greaves

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Yance FordPOV 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.

IFC marquee with Greaves tribute on it

The marquee at the IFC Center on Tuesday 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.

Panelists on stage at the Stranger Than Fiction William Greaves tribute

Panelists at the William Greaves tribute (l-r): Thom Powers, host of Stranger Than Fiction, film critic Elvis Mitchell, director Thomas Allen Harris, Orlando Bagwell of the Ford Foundation and Director/Editor Sam Pollard.

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.

Yance Ford
Yance Ford
Yance works closely with POV's executive director and programming director to evaluate films submitted to POV She is instrumental in curating the series, a showcase of acclaimed documentary film on PBS. Yance frequently represents POV | American Documentary at conferences, festivals and markets, procuring work from filmmakers both nationally and internationally. Yance also oversees POV's annual call for entries, which yields upwards of one thousand entries, and coordinates POV's annual programming advisory board. Yance is a Programming Consultant and Pre- Screener for film festivals around the country, including the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the Black Maria Film Festival, the Newport International Film Festival, Latino Public Broadcasting, Creative Capital and the Sundance Film Festival. She has served on festival juries at Full Frame and Silverdocs, appeared on panels at Sunny Side of the Doc and DocuClub and served on the IFP Advisory Committee. A graduate of Hamilton College and the production workshop at Third World Newsreel, Yance is a former Production Stage Manager for the Girls Choir of Harlem and has worked as a Production Manager on numerous independent productions for the Discovery Health and History channels. Ford has also worked in various capacities on the documentaries The Favorite Poem Project, Juanita Anderson, Executive Producer, Brian Lanker's They Drew Fire (PBS), and Barry Levinson's Yesterday's Tomorrows (Showtime). Yance's favorite documentaries include: 1. Hands on a Hard Body 2. Tongues Untied 3. Harlan County, USA 4. Cul de Sac 5. When We Were Kings 6. The Thin Blue Line 7. Night and Fog