Film Love: Andy Ditzler screens black history at 24 frames per second

Film Love curator Andy Ditzler treats old short films, and even film projectors, with the care and attention most people reserve for their children.

Before screening "Movies of Local People: Kannapolis" in the basement studio of his Grant Park home, he uses a cotton swab to clean his 16-mm projector. "You should always do this. There's a lot of motion of the film inside the gate, where the buildup of emulsion takes place. That's how film starts to get scratches. I love film, but it's stressful to work with it."

After threading the film onto the reels, Ditzler dims the lights, switches on the projector and soaks up "Kannapolis'" vision of a segregated North Carolina town in 1941. Throughout the Great Depression, photographer H. Lee Waters traveled the South, filming people on the streets and then showing the images at the towns' movie theaters so they could see themselves on the big screen. (It's a far cry from the online exhibition of snapshots on, say, today's Flickr photo sites.) Selected for the prestigious National Film Registry, "Kannapolis" first shows the blue-collar white neighborhoods, then the more impoverished African-American ones. The film serves as a kind of silent slide show of faces, the vivacious and the dignified, the camera-shy and the camera-hogs, and how one community lived in the Jim Crow South.

"What a beautiful print!" Ditzler says when he first sees "Kannapolis'" crisp, sepia hues. In part he's relieved because he programmed the film, sight unseen, as one of the introductory subjects of this month's installment of his 6-year-old film series, Film Love. For February, Ditzler curates Civil Rights on Film: Four Nights of Rare Films on African-American Life, 1941-1967, which offers richer and more complex glimpses of the Civil Rights era than we get from history books.

"I'm very happy with it," Ditzler says when "Kannapolis" is over. "I'm happy with how it'll fit with the series and how it'll begin the series. I also like how it'll relate to Portrait of Jason, which ends the series, and which presents a subject who has a whole other relationship to the camera. And the print's lovely and I really enjoy it."

Since 2003, Ditzler has used the Film Love series to screen obscure or experimental films that have less in common with Hollywood entertainments and more with other forms of avant-garde expression such as beat poetry. When former Creative Loafing film critic Felicia Feaster named Ditzler's work Best Atlanta Film Series in 2006, she wrote, "Andy Ditzler's frightfully ambitious, dedicated series at Eyedrum, devoted to avant-garde and experimental film often unavailable to consumers by the likes of Stan Brakhage, Chantal Akerman and Joseph Cornell, is an Atlanta film culture treasure."

Ditzler strives to give little-known artwork a public forum and champions films on their original prints. But mostly, he wants to see the films for himself. "I'm sort of selfish in curating Film Love. The goal when I started it was to see films that were not available any other way, ones that I was intensely curious about, or ones that seemed important in other ways. I learned if I was interested enough in something to present it, there's always at least some other people interested in seeing them."

When not working his part-time job at the Emory University Music and Media Library or pursuing his other passion as a percussionist, Ditzler tracks down and screens potential Film Love contenders, which can take some detective work. Google searches help, but just as often he finds out about films through old catalogs he digs up in libraries, and rare books such as Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel. Vogel's tome lists hundreds of films from the peak of experimental filmmaking in the 1950s and '60s, particularly in New York and San Francisco. The book led Ditzler to the film I Am A Man, about a Black Power activist in New Haven in 1970.

"I tracked that down, watched it and developed a program on the media and Black Power, Malcolm X and MLK, and how they were represented. From that intuitive choice – 'I've got to see that film!' – came a program that doesn't include that film."

Ditzler intends the four evenings of Civil Rights on Film to mark a contrast with such exhaustive, impeccable Civil Rights documentaries as Eyes on the Prize. "I think Eyes on the Prize is wonderful. It has fabulous footage and fabulous editing. They've covered the documentary aspect, taking all the stuff and editing it into a narrative later. I'm showing films and watching them as they are, and as they were. I'm trying to look at films in whole, rather than show a documentary. As good as those documentaries are, they have many, many outlets. I'm trying to show actual works."

The series begins Fri., Feb. 20, 8 p.m., at the Atlanta Cyclorama with the theme "Life, Work, and Segregation in the South," which sets the tone and establishes the context for the African-American social justice movement. Ditzler pairs "Kannapolis" with 1953's All My Babies – a film the Georgia Department of Public Health intended as training material for illiterate midwives. The film offers a heartfelt, if occasionally condescending, portrait of midwife Mary Francis Hill Coley from Albany, Ga., and includes graphic childbirth footage. It none-too-subtly reinforces the white power structure, such as a scene in which a white health officer informs Coley and other midwives, "Your records show that you can keep clean." It also offers a glimpse of impoverished living conditions: One tumbledown shack has packing cardboard lining the walls, while even the "nice," well-prepared residence uses newspaper instead of linen during the birth.

Civil Rights on Film combines two of Ditzler's passions. "The impetus for the series was because right as the Civil Rights Movement was peaking, there was an explosion of handheld cameras. I realized that there was a trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement and a trajectory of documentary." The second evening, "Inside the Movement: 'Direct Cinema' and Civil Rights" (Sat., Feb. 21, 8 p.m., at the Cyclorama) shows some of the places where the trajectories met. The 1961 short documentary for television "The Children Were Watching" contains shocking images of racist hatred during the desegregation of a New Orleans school, and shows a white, integrationist family under siege in their home from bigots.

Edward Pincus' Black Natchez shows some of the infighting and frustrations in the NAACP's Civil Rights Movement in Natchez, Miss., in 1965. For Ditzler, films such as Black Natchez are a revelation. "The Civil Rights Movement was a much more difficult and complicated process than what we learned about in school, with images of marching and strength. There were many, many difficulties in the movement. I came through that in my particular lens as a gay man – there are parallels to the Civil Rights Movement and the gay rights movement. Things in Black Natchez I've seen many times in gay rights activism, at ACT-UP meetings – people saying, 'Where is everybody?' 'Get up and do something, people!'" Born and raised in Indiana, Ditzler says that he moved to Atlanta in 1994 partly because he wanted to live in a bigger city, and partly because he believed that Atlanta would be a safe place to come out.

The third evening, "The Fierce Urgency of Now" (Fri., Feb. 27, 8 p.m., at Eyedrum) puts the spotlight on such Civil Rights leaders as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. A 22-minute short screening that night called "Perfect Film" sums up Ditzler's aesthetic with the Film Love program overall. "In the early 1980s, experimental filmmaker and found footage pioneer Ken Jacobs was rummaging through a New York flea market and found an old reel of film. They were selling it for $2-$3, just for the metal reel, and thought the actual film on the spool was junk. Jacobs took it home, threw it on his projector, and saw that it was outtakes from a TV station on the day Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965."

Jacobs exhibited "Perfect Film" exactly as he found it, without editing or shaping it. In no discernible order, it presents detailed eyewitness interviews, police press conferences, silent street scenes and even a one-line, out-of-nowhere clip of Malcolm X commenting that he'd been marked for death. The material's randomness captures the event's immediacy and confusion, and affirms the idea of journalism as a rough draft of history. Ditzler says, "'Perfect Film' began as outtakes – your classic ephemeral film. It was purchased by an artist and became an avant-garde film. And it's about Malcolm X. It reveals maybe not much about him as a person, but a lot of how the media perceives him. It encapsulates a lot of what I do."

Ditzler estimates that five or six prints of "Perfect Film" are currently in circulation, which makes it relatively common and easy to obtain compared to some of his selections. The final evening, "My Name is Jason Holliday..." (Sat., Feb. 28, 8 p.m., at Emory University's White Hall, Room 205) offers a showcase of Portrait of Jason, a recently restored, rereleased cinematic portrait from 1967 of a loquacious gay cabaret performer and raconteur.

The evening begins with a real rarity, Nikolai Ursin's "Behind Every Good Man," an eight-minute student film from 1966 about an African-American drag queen, which Ditzler believes may be the first cinematic portrayal of a gay, uncloseted black man. "As far as I know, this is the only print of 'Behind Every Good Man' you can get to watch. There are two others in archives, unavailable. That to me is just amazing. One day, the print's going to break, and then what?"

When I visited Ditzler's clean, uncluttered basement studio, which is soundproofed to muffle his musical rehearsals, he screened films on the standard 16-mm projector, a special silent film projector, video, and even a short on his laptop. "I believe these should be seen on film if ever possible. I only show it on video if there's no other way. It's called 'Film Love' because there's something magical about film projection."

In an age increasingly converting to DVDs and digital forms of exhibition, Ditzler valiantly performs, promotes and celebrates the art of film in its original form. Striving to make the avant-garde accessible, to cherish cinema history and to open the eyes of his audiences, Ditzler has his eyes on the prize.

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