Göran Hugo Olsson’s documentary "The Black Power Mixtape" brings fresh insight to the world of Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael through an unlikely source. In the 1960s and '70s, Swedish filmmakers and journalists traveled to America to investigate the Black Power movement; they returned with vivid 16mm footage (much of it looks as if it was shot last week) that provides clear sense of their genuine interest. The result is a film that gives a fresh presentation of a familiar yet often caricatured period of history.
Olsson eschews more traditional forms of documentary filmmaking, dispensing with talking heads and other forms of narrative connect-the-dots. “People aren’t stupid anymore and so you make up your own story," he says. "I don’t need a narration that carries you or a person or even a key element that carries you through the film. I think that we are now in a position where we don’t have to be so strict about those things in documentaries.”
indieWIRE spoke with Olsson about his vision for the film, the value of a Swedish perspective on American civil rights, the four categories of film audiences — and why the “New Yorker” category is the best. Sundance Selects opens "The Black Power Mixtape" in New York Sept. 9 and and LA Sept. 23.
When you were developing the idea for the documentary, did you consider what the impact of telling the story from a Swedish perspective and the influence it would have on audience reception?
That was one of the key elements in doing the film. I think the film and footage are interesting as it is, but… I think it’s kind of a relief for people in America to see something that has a clear point of view, so everybody understands it gives you the freedom to interpret.
When these Swedish filmmakers came to America, knocked on the Black Panther Party's door and said “Hello, we are from Sweden,” it’s like an Eskimo or something. And when the Panthers opened the door, they were very forthcoming and generous and tried to explain things in a different way. But actually we benefited from the same attitude when we approached people today for making the audio commentary. They showed us the same generosity and were as forthcoming as they were then. They realize that we don’t know the whole history. We don’t have the whole experience and we don’t have the language, but we’re not stupid. So I think both the footage and the audio benefited from all these people who tried to explain things for us in a way that they wouldn’t with an American or even British filmmaker, because we are from this tiny country up in the North Pole, basically.
Every person in the film understands — it could be a junkie in a parking lot in Florida or a Erykah Badu, [but] everybody understands the concept of coming from a different country, coming from Sweden. They understand the difference from reporting journalists from Sweden and America no matter what, so I don’t think you have to be educated in a way. All the people tried to do their best to explain the situation.
As a Swedish citizen, how did you become interested in the Black Power movement and what were some of your early interactions with it?
I grew up during the '70s and '80s and I think the relation between this movement, or these people, and Sweden was very strong, for different reasons. At least three reasons. First, when Dr. King received the Nobel Prize that connected Sweden and Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. After that, the leftist movement around ‘68 and the demonstrations and opinions against the war in Vietnam were very strong when I was a kid. And Angela Davis was a person who was often on Swedish television. For me, I’m connected to the stories and every generation has to tell their own version of it. I think the experience for African American people in America is one of those stories and I think the Holocaust is one of those stories, that you have to tell it over and over again in different ways and in different perspectives and different types. Also, I think the story of the South African apartheid system during those years is a story like that, and I was 11 when I came back from school and there was the Soweto uprising, not students but kids protesting against a fascist regime and that struck me very hard.
How did you go about selecting the contemporary voices who did the audio commentary for the film?
Good question, because I wanted to have some of the voices from back in the time like Angela Davis and then we wanted some contemporary voices. Me and my producers basically had an organic process. We added one piece and we discussed who could comment on this; maybe we needed someone younger to get a balance in the commenting. Regarding the entertainers like Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli and Questlove, I knew them from their music and I knew that they would be interested if I showed them this stuff. They would have something to say.
It really opens up a lot of new possibilities for filmmakers in terms of its use of archival footage, voiceovers and music. Were you thinking about carving out new ways of documentary filmmaking when you were conceiving it or was it something that happened?
Yes, I was very conscious about it, but I didn’t try to be revolutionary in aesthetics. I didn’t want a narrative structure. I didn’t want to have it character driven or subject driven. I wanted it more contemporary, and more of an open look to it. People aren’t stupid anymore and so you make up your own story. I don’t need a narration that carries you or a person or even a key element that carries you through the film. I think that we are now in a position where we don’t have to be so strict about those things in documentaries. We can leave some more to the audience. Also, I was very strict about having audio commentary because people were saying, "Why don’t you bring a video camera?" and it doesn’t cost you anything to record it, but I wanted audio because I wanted to have the option to add video in the final film, and I think it paid off.
What was your experience coming across this archival footage? I mean, it’s amazing —
I was blown away because I found the material in the basement of the Swedish broadcast corporation. I was amazed about the material for two reasons, both about the personalities on the film and the quality. It might sound like a technical thing, but actually the quality and crispness of the film allowed you to juice it longer and so on, and it gives you different things. I realized that it was our duty to put this out to a broader audience because it was broadcast on Swedish primetime but never again, so I took it upon my duty to put it out.
And how did audiences receive the documentary in Sweden, versus America?
You know, the reaction I had from this is you can divide the world in four different categories. First, you have the professional festival goers, and then you have Americans and then you have the rest of the world. And then you have the fourth category, to me, the New Yorkers. The screenings we have so far in New York are super great. People are so fast. The professional festival goers, I don’t care about much. We showed the film at the Berlin Film Festival and people in Germany are not used to subtitles. They are not used to English, so they liked the film but they had problems because everything is very fast-paced in terms of talking. And the rappers, of course, they are very fast. But in New York, we had a screening at MOMA and people were applauding all the time and shouting and yelling “Yea!” before they finished the sentence, so I think that in that sense people in America get more from the film, for obvious reasons. I had nice reactions from everywhere, but people in America are getting more — from how people sounded, the jokes, people talking in special ways, making references and so on, that people in America are more familiar with.
Stokely Carmichael is one of the central figures in the documentary. Sometimes he doesn’t get a lot of attention for his contributions. Did you find it particularly important to highlight him?
I adore him. I think filmmaking [is] a trade because you have one opinion but also you have the material. The material we had on Stokely was totally unseen and you can never get any stuff on him. So that was a rarity, but also very good. I think he’s brilliant, he’s human, he’s a beautiful man. He looks good and was charismatic and a lot of his thoughts are very important.
Can you offer any insight to documentary filmmakers who are trying to mix music or archival footage or just blaze new paths with documentaries?
I think there is a relation between moving images and music that is very, very strong. When music works in rhythm with the moving image, that’s the best you can get. And if you could add some social or human level into that mix — could you add some politics or social issues or consciousness into that dance between music and film, you should be very happy. But it’s easy. It’s very easy to do because editing is so great. And you do it, show it your friends, if it doesn’t work, you go back and do it again. It’s not like shooting. If you’re shooting, you make choices and then you’re stuck with them. But editing — you can change the face of work and it's so easy.
Also, you have to remember that all musicians and music people are great people. All of the record companies or whatever they call them now, they want to make money. You can always get very good music if you have time to treat the musicians. We had Questlove of the Roots to make music for this film and it was great, and wasn’t expensive. And we got the best music ever made from Michael Jackson and we have The Roots, we have Soul Makossa, Afro Funk, so it wasn’t too expensive.
What do you have planned next for the documentary and yourself?
The goal for us was to make a film that could be in libraries and in schools and universities around the world, but especially in America. So if you’re interested in Angela Davis and read her book, you could see 10 minutes of her and that could be in the libraries forever like a book. That was my goal, but in order to make that package on the shelf, you have to package with some branding. You have to go to film festivals, you have to design the film, so everything I want is for the film firstly to be accessible to people, maybe stir up some attention so there is kind of a debate or a discussion. So all the attention we can get is good. I have no ambition in the cinematic world whatsoever.
Are you going to do college screenings?
I hope so. That’s my dream. But I hope the film sprouts some legs because I can't go around promoting it forever.
Any other projects you’re working on that people can look out for?
I work with music and I work with social issues and I go back and forth, so I would like to do a film with just music. But I’m happy for the attention. I think the attention the film is getting is thanks to the filmmakers who did this work in the beginning and all these people — Angela, Stokely — are great, great people. I think they deserve a lot of respect — not for fighting for their cause only, but also fighting for democracy. Because what these people did, to me, was that they put energy into the process of democracy and that’s very important. Not only for Afro-Americans, or for any ethnic groups, but to all individuals, that you have to stand up for your rights at some point. You can’t expect someone to come around and give you handouts. That’s not enough. You have to fight for the rights. I think that most people in America and Europe knows this, thanks to the Black Power movement. It’s not about skin color; it’s about standing up for your rights.