May 2003
That's My Face : An Interview with Thomas Allen Harris

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

That's My Face: An Interview with Thomas Allen Harris

Starting this Friday, BAMcinematek presents the U.S Theatrical Premiere of That's My Face (E minha cara) at BAM Rose Cinemas, May 23-29, in Conjunction with DanceAfrica 2003. Directed by Thomas Allen Harris, the film has won numerous awards at different festivals. Harris is Bronx-Brooklyn native who traveled to Africa and Brazil searching for spiritual ancestors and in an interview with blackfilm.com, he talks about the journey he has taken to get a wider audience to see his film.

That's My Face will be shown on Friday, May 23 at 2pm and 7pm and from Saturday, May 24 through Thursday, May 29 at 4:30pm and 8pm.

For more info on DanceAfrica 2003, go to http://www.bam.org/performances/danceafricafilm.asp

BAM Rose Cinemas is located at 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY


WM: How is it that a film that was shot a year ago and has been making several runs in festivals is finally making its U.S debut at the Bam Theatre as opposed to regular theaters?

TAH: That's My Face is a documentary and itís an experimental documentary, which is shot by three generations of an African-American family totally separate and totally silent and it has a sound score, which means it has a lot of different voices. Itís score is by Vernon Reid. The film doesnít have a traditional narrative. Any film that is not the standard fare has to find it own audience, and the film did that. I made the film with very little money and I didnít think it would have a wider audience it has now. It went fro the Toronto Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, and to the Berlin Film Festival, where it won an award. It won an award at Toronto as well; and now the Tribeca Film Festival, so it has the quadruple crown. I think my film is the only one I know that in 2001 and 2002 has been to the major film festivals, with the exception of Cannes. And itís getting a chance to be seen by a lot of people both at BAM and at the Sundance Channel.


WM: One of the things that you didnít mention is that this documentary is about your life. At what point did you decide you wanted to make a film about your upbringing?

TAH: I always had a dream of going to Brazil. So I went down to Brazil and I took a couple of Super 8 cameras during the Afro-Brazilian Religious Festivals that climaxed in carnivals. I was down there for about 4 months and shot all this amazing footage and when I came back I realized I didnít have a script while I was there. It was almost like an art project to come back with something. With all this amazing and beautiful footage, I realized that in order to take people to this journey, I had to be a character in this film. In order to do that, I had to tell the story why an African-American would go to Brazil looking for my roots. Then I realized that my mother made a similar journey in the 70s as she uprooted me and my brother and took us to Tanzania, East Africa. We moved and lived there for 2 years because my grandfather dreamed of going to Africa. When my grandmother refused to let him go, he passed his dream to the subsequent generation. I had the idea, but I didnít have any footage for any of this stuff. So I looked for some in my familyís archives, and my grandfather said he didnít have any more footage. He actually gave me whatever he had for the last film I did. Six months after that he died and a year after that I was still struggling with a script. How can I tell a story of three generations without any footage? All of a sudden I had this dream that if I went back to my grandfatherís house I would be able to find some more footage. So I went back there and went to the basement and found hours and hours of Super 8 footage as if his spirit was leading me down there. The footage was home movies of his family in the 60s and 70s, very rare stuff. It was shot really well. A lot of it was shot in New York City around his community. My trip to Brazil ultimately led me to my grandfatherís archives. If I hadnít gone to Brazil I would never had gone on this mission to have something to talk about in regards to my familyís life in the 60s and 70s so thatís how my journey got started.


WM: How many years did it take you make this film?

TAH: Well, I have to tell you that I was also working full time as a Professor of Art at the University of California, San Diego. I wasnít working on the film full time because I was also working on other films as the same time, so I worked on my film off and on for about 5 years. I must say that Iím known in the black independent world as ďThe King of Personal DocumentariesĒ. I have done films on my background since 1991.


WM: You seem to have an audience coming to see most of your films, which is your life on camera. Why the fascination?

TAH: I think itís not so much about my life. Itís about the journeys. I make autobiographical films, but the way I define it is much more inclusive than just me. Itís about the community that Iím a part of, and the people I meet along the journey, so thereíre always a lot of different voices, which is why I included them in the film. Henry Louis Gates once said that the first novels usually written by black people are usually autobiographies because they like to create a shell in a public space. It was really important to me as an artist to talk about who we are and where we come from in a way that talks to us as opposed to about us by some white documentary filmmakers doing a film for a white audience. Itís really about how we as black people communicate and I feel like thereís very little film and media and television work that actually deals with that. Most of it is really stereotyped. And because of the weight of the commercial in naked commercial cinema, you have to be naked for a huge broad audience, so what I have tried to do is make films that come from the heart and also from a labor of love and could still reach huge audiences. Right now my film is being shown all throughout Europe for about 40 million people and it will be shown to about 10 million people on the Sundance channel and about thousands of people at BAM. I could have gone the commercial route about 10 or 15 years ago and go seek financing in Hollywood and let them dictate the kind of films I should make. Then I would be in like everyone else in the booty call group, but right now Iím charting my own perspective of charting an audience who follows this kind of art. Iím making something thatís new; something that wouldnít have existed before. All kinds of people have come up to me and told me that this is their journey, because when I made the film, it wasnít about me. It was about dreamscapes. I made it with enough holes in the narrative that you could add your own narrative to it.


WM: One of the interesting things of the film is the cinematography and the use of art. Could you talk about how you wanted that aspect to be a part of the film as an illustration?

TAH: I shot everything on Super 8 and Super 8 has this feeling of nostalgia. Itís much different than video. Video is somewhat harsh and with Super 8 I was interested in the texture. By shooting Super 8 and shooting it silent, I then had to make sure that my story was being told visually and so with the camera, I was very much into peopleís faces. The framing is very close to the people. People are constantly interacting with the camera, and with the camera always moving, it presents a whole new visual style.


WM: When folks finish seeing your film, what are you looking for them to walk away with?

TAH: Iím looking for them to walk away with the idea that they can have the courage to follow their own dreams and that those dreams will lead them to a good place. Who would have known that when I started making these corky films 10 years ago, that I would have this huge audience and be offered money to do a new film. This new film Iím making is actually another documentary about my stepfather, who was part of the first wave of freedom fighters who left South Africa and came to America to tell people about Nelson Mandela, who supported the ANC and liberation movement in South Africa. Itís about him and the colleagues in South Africa he left with 40 years ago. The name of the film is called ďThe 12 Disciples of Nelson MandelaĒ. My film after that will be a feature narrative film. Iím actually working on a sex comedy and an adventure film, so that where Iím going.


WM: What were some of the challenges on making Thatís My Face?

TAH: This documentary, because it was so innovative, was hard to explain to people. When I was raising money in the form of grants, it wasnít easy to explain what they were going to see because people didnít have a framework for it. When you have a documentary whereís there no talking heads, it becomes difficult to get funding. The beginning funding came from people who knew my past work, and the funding in general, came from people who knew my work. Over the course of five years, it took a long time to get the money. The Ford Foundation came on board and provided a huge chunk of money so that I was able to finish the film. That was the most challenging. And secondly, and probably the most challenging aspect of the film was the writing of the script. When youíre writing a personal documentary, the script has to be tight, and you also have to go really deep. You have to go and tell people something that new and fresh. I found myself writing and writing. It was like peeling onions. That was the challenge; to go deeper and deeper to places I didnít even know existed inside of me.


WM: With most of the films you have done being on your life, is there anything left to be told? Are there aspects in your films that we can see ourselves in?

TAH: Yeah, I think my films talk about black life and Black African diasporic life over the last 40 years, from the 60s to the present. When you look at them together, you get a sense of this black family life and black community life apart from Diaspora. Iím talking about Brazil, South Africa, and the United States. I think that is really important. I also think the idea of black films. Not everybody has to make personal documentaries, but I think itís really important of us as black filmmakers to really look at different types of ways to tell our stories and to challenge ourselves. To make something that makes sense and give back to the community and be commercially viable. Some filmmakers are doing that and ultimately figure out ways to keep your vision because I realize the more I go forward with making films with bigger budgets, thereís more pressure to compromise, and thatís normal. Iíve been successful in sticking with my vision and I hope my experience will allow me to continue doing that as I do films with a bigger budget and attract a wider audience.