A scene from Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust"

Interview: Julie Dash on the Coming of Age of “Daughters of the Dust”

Back when Julie Dash was a film student in Los Angeles during the early 1980s, she’d eagerly anticipate FilmEx, the film festival that brought world cinema to the city. As much as she’d look forward to the seeing to seeing the new films that might not come back to Los Angeles for months if ever, the director of “Daughters of the Dust” was just as excited to see what was in the restorations section.

“I used to look at the old films like “Oh, they have a new print of “Lawrence of Arabia”! They have a new print of “Giant”!?!,” recalls Dash, a day before a special screening of “Daughters” at FilmEx’s antecedent AFI Fest. “Now, my film is in the restoration section and it’s like, wow, who knew?”

Others might be saying the same thing to themselves, but for different reasons since Dash’s first and (unfortunately) only feature feels so new that if one were to mention that it is 25 years old, you’d think not of the film itself, but of the vigor and verve that a filmmaker at that age would bring to it. While the film’s influence is legion, seen as recently as Beyonce’s video album “Lemonade” where multiple filmmakers drew inspiration from Dash’s subconscious-piercing, immersive visual style, especially as it pertains to the experience of African-American women deeply conscious of the past and yet fervently pushing ahead towards the future, “Daughters of the Dust” remains a wholly original experience in following the Peazant family, proud Gullah descendants of West African slaves who have made their home on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, at the turn of the 20th century, when the clan’s tradition-bound matriarch insists on staying on the gulf while her granddaughters plan to migrate north to join others living there already.

The senses stirred by Dash haven’t dulled over time — you can smell the gumbo served up by the Peazants for the dinner and feel the sand in between your toes as its characters ponder their place in the world, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say watching “Daughters of the Dust” now is like watching it for the first time since Dash never created a proper release print for the film. (Using Agfa-Gevaert film stock from Germany, which the director felt illuminated black skin like no other, the production could only afford two answer prints at a cost of $20,000 each to properly tinker with color correction — a process considerably easier and cheaper when it came time for the Cohen Media Group to do a full restoration earlier this year.) As the director says, “It looks exactly the way it looked in real life and it looks exactly the way that the work print looked like,” the former detail hard to believe since she and cinematographer Arthur Jaffa capture otherworldly sunsets and the beauty of beachside firmament generally untroubled by man.

Yet even as the film knows exactly what it is, the qualities that so ably pull viewers in are exactly the same that pushed the film industry at large away, leaving “Daughters of the Dust” to be rediscovered in film schools where its radical deconstruction of cinematic language, echoing the prose of African-American authors Dash admired, could best be appreciated and the filmmaker to embark on a career where she’d become a professor herself in between gigs on TV movies and industrial films. While the world is surely a lesser place without the narrative features Dash could’ve made in the years since “Daughters” — she wrote a sequel to the film as a novel and is currently working on a documentary, “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” about Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, the definitive authority about Gullah cooking who passed away earlier this year at 79 — it is one of the bright spots of this year to see the world finally catching up to her extraordinary debut, and for the occasion, the vivacious writer/director recently spoke about feeling all the love that’s come her way recently, redefining narratives about African-Americans and the famous author who snuck her way onto the set of “Daughters” and wound up working on the crew.

A scene from Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust"The restoration of the film was particularly exciting to me since it’s been very difficult to see it in recent years — a Kino-produced DVD has long been out of print. Was it a concern of yours that it had gone out of circulation?

What happened was I loved Don Krim, the original owner of Kino International Films. He’s the one who picked it up for distribution first. He’s the one with the foresight. Then he passed away and other owners came in and when it came time to go digital with it, they weren’t interested. It needed to be restored. So I pulled it from Kino International, actually to go with another company and then Cohen Media stepped in and they started talking about the restoration they would like to do and it was not only like saving the film, but we went back to the negative. We didn’t copy the digital files from the DVD to Blu-ray. We actually took the physical film and scanned it. It’s incredible – you can see into the shadow areas, just like the work print.

Let me get off the business stuff…

No, I love that conversation because when I think about it now, [Cohen Media Group] saved the film. Ten more years, the original negative with the splices — they’d start coming apart.

When did you know this film had an afterlife beyond its initial release?

Since it first came out, I’ve been traveling the world with it — Spain, all of Asia, all of Europe — just all over, and it was like, “Hmmmm, everyone here understands it and no one says, ‘Where’s the plot?’ And I think that has to do with the fact that people in other countries speak multiple languages, so they know how to code switch. Of course, that’s something we do as African-Americans because of the whole DuBoisian thing, and everybody that has parents that come from somewhere code switches. But sometimes middle America does not. They’re used to 500 television stations and everyone’s watching the same thing. When the movie starts, you already know what’s going to happen by the end. With “Daughters of the Dust,” you don’t just know. People are speaking differently, they’re looking different – it’s just a whole melange of things that are new and I think it was like future shock for a lot of people.

This most recent time I watched it, I was taken with the score, which feels as if it’s futureproofing the movie since it’s very much of its time in terms of sounding synthy, but anachronistic with the period you see onscreen.

Oh John Barnes! We came up with this idea of what should it sound like? It shouldn’t be that single harmonica or the banjo – usually [the sounds] that define those time periods, especially with visuals of black people. And John said, they had many sounds – there were strains of Congolese sounds, strains of Arabic [since] they did have people of the Islamic faith in those islands. That’s another thing that Hollywood never picked up on – when you go grab a bunch of people and bring them over, some of them were of the Islamic faith, but [filmmakers] just never bothered to go there. There are so many rich story materials that are available that I’m still chomping at the bit to get to because we don’t need to tell the same stories over and over.

What gave you the confidence to tell your story your own way? This doesn’t adhere to a prescribed way of filmmaking.

Because I had gone to so many film schools that each one was different. The first one was the Studio Museum of Harlem and in high school, I was shown Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” and De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief.” The neorealistic films were totally different than anything I had ever seen on television. It was like “What?!?” And you’re seeing Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” and you’re just like weeping, thinking I don’t know what they’re really saying – but I know his face, I know what he means and I’d just never seen anything like that before. I went to undergraduate school at City College in New York [where] we had a lot of freedom and were learning how to make experimental films and then I went to the Conservatory Fellowship at the American Film Institute – it was like goose-stepping, marching to make the film for television! [laughs] You know, it was like oppression! They didn’t want us to speak of David Lynch, even though he went to AFI – do not mention his name. “But we want to see ‘Eraserhead’!” “Do not mention his name.” Then getting out of there, and going to UCLA for four years at graduate school, once again, [there were] no borders, no boundaries and you have all of these filmmakers around you making all these different films and you’re just invigorated by being in the bullpen.

Literally [at UCLA], they had editing tables surrounding [each other in] a room for the project ones and all nine people [had their] sleeping bags next to their editing table because you didn’t get a single editing room until you went up the ladder, so for everybody’s in the room and it’s funky. [laughs] But there’s something about it that’s like basic training [in the army]. You could just scoot with your little chair back and say, “I’m having a problem with this” and they’d scoot over to you and say “Well, then run it for me.” It was wonderful. I don’t think we knew at that time that what we could not do.

That’s the difference. There was no fear and no concern about what someone might think or say because it was about how do we tell a story in such a way that it moves people for the better in some small way, so let’s just keep arranging these items here and see what happens. We weren’t even concerned with the outside world, much less Hollywood. We were concerned about the world because we were already going to film festivals and their films were much more complex. You don’t want a single layer story. You want something that’s layer upon layer upon layer so then you feel it’s a full experience. It’s the gestalt of seeing the film that you come away with like, “Wow.”

I think everyone stays inside the box because they want another job. We were young. We were arrogant. We were curious. We were trying to figure out how to tell a story in a new way. I remember there were conferences with not just black filmmakers, but white filmmakers talking about how do we tell a story in a different way – that whole artistic questioning of where we are and where we’re going. “Daughters” I think was a part of that – do we always have to keep going back to “Gone with the Wind”? Come on.

A scene from Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust"Was recruiting artists who weren’t necessarily from the film world to be on the crew part of that?

Oh Kerry James Marshall, our production designer! He’s up there now, and he was always a fine artist, but we figured he had the aesthetic sensibilities to bring this together – to oversee the art department and there was also in his department Michael Kelly Williams, who’s a great carver. And A.J. [the cinematographer, Arthur Jafa] is up there too – he was a film person, now he’s doing something that’s opening today in New York at an art gallery. They were all artists and they had to learn the process of filling out the forms for films, so that everyone would be on the same page. But I wanted that kind of raw, authentic look for [instance with] Nana’s chair and all those things. Not just grab a chair and put it there and let her sit there – [it was] let’s rethink all of this. What would they do? How would they embellish? And where do you start when you start embellishing things?

I had seen so many films of former enslaved people [where] you always showed the whip scars on the back, so I’m thinking how do you show it in another way? They worked in the indigo fields, and of course, the indigo by that time would’ve washed off, but I bet for many years – just like when you drink those blue Slurpees, you have blue mouth – that indigo in its own way is a scar. It’s a different type of visual metaphor saying the same thing, but in a different way to make you think oh yeah, they worked with these dyes. And the other thing is every time we used to see a film, it was always picking cotton. Well, guess what? [laughs] That was not always the case. It was rice and indigo well before it was cotton. So when you find out these things and you see people making the same visual tropes come alive over and over again, you’re going, “What?!?” There’s so much more.

Over the years, I’ve heard literature was actually a bigger influence than other films.

Of course, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor…Gloria Naylor actually worked on the film. She had just purchased a house on St. Helena Island when we were in preproduction and she came by the production office and asked if she could work on the film. We were like, “That’s Gloria Naylor. Are you sure you want to do that?” And because [an adaptation of her novel] “The Women of Brewster Place” was already on television, she said she wanted to do that. She just said she didn’t want her name exploited and we said “Sure, we’re not going to give you anything heavy to carry.” She worked as a production assistant on the film the entire time. If you watch the credits, her name rolls by. But we never exploited her name and we had Gloria Naylor on the set! She was there!

Have you actually kept up a connection with the island?

Yeah, in fact, my family lives down there, so I’m going for Thanksgiving. I go down there once or twice a year.

So you knew about those amazing sunsets before shooting?

Yeah, and the meadows and the marshlands.

Did you have to wait for hours and hours to get some of those magic hour shots?

What I would do, because the weather would change on us so often, is I always had a scene that I would shoot if the sea rolled back or the squall came in. We were shooting one scene when the sea rolled back, I knew that wasn’t a good sign. [laughs] I said, “Oh my God, it looks like a moonshot. Let’s go shoot the scene with Mr. Snead the photographer.” If you remember that scene where he looks through and he sees the unborn child and he’s out and he’s not really there – that was one of those moments. The sea, for some reason, receded, and we were standing where the waves usually were.

You’ve been working steadily in the years since, but this was your only narrative feature…

Not because I wanted it to be!

Since you teach, what do you tell students who ask for career advice?

I tell them while they’re young and emerging filmmakers that they need to use their authentic voice. They need to strengthen that and be proud of it. Then years later, they can either continue with that or then they can work as a filmmaker for hire. I’ve shot commercials, museum films, music videos, movies of the week – all those kinds of things that were nothing like “Daughters of the Dust” because I was a director for hire. I bring my expertise, my skills and my vision to it – to a point, because most of those pieces have been written by someone else and I have to shape it in my own way, but they chop it back. [laughs]

A scene from Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust"If this is your only feature, are you at peace with it?

Well, hopefully not…but I know. It’s like why weren’t you able to make another film. To be honest, I think in many ways, it frightened a lot of people making those greenlight decisions. It was something different, it was something new and they weren’t quite sure of what it was and is it a good thing or a bad thing? A lot of people said it wasn’t an authentic black film because you have to consider the time it came out when a lot of urban films [came out with] guys shooting drugs, and I was a black woman out there alone. There wasn’t a whole sweep of black filmmakers, so they focused on the male filmmakers who they could at least say this is a cautionary tale – “Don’t do drugs. They’re not good.” [laughs] You know, it’s like no duh. Those films were fine, but I needed more. And [the industry] said, it wasn’t that. And it’s not “Sounder” or “Gone With the Wind,” so what the hell is it? Because these people want quick answers to say it’s like this, it’s like that and they felt good about hearing it’s like a foreign film. [And then it’s] “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but we don’t do foreign films.”

Just as [when] you are a child, you have very provincial tastes and then as you grow up, you’re able to drink wine and eat all these different cheeses and taste all these different flavors and appreciate them, I think the industry is like that in many ways too. You have “Lemonade” — “Lemonade” kind of says it all. you can tell a story that’s nonlinear, extremely visceral, confounding at times, but ya’ like it. [laughs] It’s really good. I really liked that. “What was that? What happened? I don’t know, but ah…let me see it again.” You have to be comfortable with other ethnicities to be able to do that. I watched Russian films and Romanian films [growing up] because of FilmEx and I love to sit in front of a screen and be taken somewhere and [thinking at first], where am I? What’s going on? Okay, got it. Oh wow. And you carry those images with you the rest of your life and it’s a good thing. You shouldn’t be afraid of it. You shouldn’t be fearful of anything different or new. There’s a certain maturity that I think we’ve come to now.

How’d you first find out about “Lemonade”?

I had so many phone calls, and then my web manager said your website shut down because it wasn’t set up for that many hits. Then my daughter called and said, “Oh, now you’re officially part of the Bey Hive.” I said, “What are you talking about?” [laughs] And then Ted Lanza, [who was restoring “Daughters of the Dust” at Cohen Media Group] called and said, “You’ve got to see it. I’m not going to say anything.” And then I saw it and I’m just like, “Wow. This is something. I have to see it again.” I played it again. Then I downloaded it. And the music too! I love [Beyonce], I love Solange, her sister — I just met Solange. A.J. shot her videos for “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Cranes in the Sky” and they had an event [sponsored by] her company, Saint Heron, for him and myself in New Orleans [where] we talked about aesthetics and visceral filmmaking. It was wonderful. For like two hours, everybody in the community was just talking about making films that really get your pulse racing — you feel it here [motioning to her heart], and you don’t know exactly why, but it’s discovery. It’s wonderful stuff.

“Daughters of the Dust” is now open in New York at the Film Forum and will open on November 25th in Los Angeles at the Ahyra Fine Arts and the Pasadena Playhouse 7, Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Art and Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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