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“Black Power Mixtape” Director Goran Olsson Talks Foreign Perspective and Storytelling Right

"Black Power Mixtape" Director Goran Olsson Talks Foreign Perspective and Storytelling Right

While some viewers may be disappointed that “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” is neither a comprehensive nor conventionally authoritative documentary about the Black Power movement in America, this is precisely what I found fascinating about it. So when I sat down this week to chat with director Göran Olsson, I broke out a little diagram I’d drawn of the levels of perspective that provide his film with its very fresh and interesting structure.

To summarize, the doc begins with the Black Power leaders and associates, including Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, and their primary perspective through their beliefs and how they discuss these ideas. Next there’s the filter of Swedish filmmakers and media of that time, an objective, outsider point of view, documenting press conferences and interviews with the subjects of the Black Power group. Next level is Olsson’s perspective, as a modern filmmaker who has dug up these 40-year-old archives and compiled them into a feature film for a new audience. Then there are modern interviews with black figures, including Davis as well as younger persons such as Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu, commenting on that old footage. And finally you have the audience, which hopefully brings its own perspectives. Actually, Olsson tells me that his perspective can also be found after the new interviews and from the position of the audience.

So to begin the interview, which starts here at Spout and then continues over at the Documentary Channel Blog, I asked Olsson to elaborate:

Can you explain your role as director on a film based so much in archive material and with such a foreign perspective?

Göran Olsson:Traditionally we are all storytellers. And of course we interpret the realities. I think that documentary storytelling is exactly the same as verbal communication with your lover, your kids or your parents, whatever. If my wife asks me, when I get home, “How was your day? What did you do?” She wants me to give her information that is relevant to me or to her, not the entire story. She wants me to tell what’s important for me. And she’s confident that if something has happened to me during the day that is especially of interest to her, I would tell that as well. The same goes for filmmaking.

Every human being works in this function. On the other hand, I wanted to make the audience get the feeling that they were actually looking in archives themselves. And keep it rough, not have a narrative structure that is too strong and is taking over the story or material. That is old fashioned, outdated. I think people today are more open to make their own conclusions. They don’t need a strong character. We had a strong tradition for ten or twenty years of very hard storytelling in documentary filmmaking. Whereas in fiction film, with guys like Todd Solondz, it’s been more open.

So is it primarily a presentation of the archives? Or is it filtered through your perspective?

Of course you then have to design and edit the film, so it’s a ride. That’s basic. You have to do that. It’s like Jean-Luc Godard said, you have to have a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. You have to design the film in the voice of the designer.

And then as another filter, you have these people that you interviewed today. Did they see the whole film before they commented on it?

No. They saw some scenes that I wanted them to talk around.

So they saw specifically what they are talking over.

Yeah. Basically that was the case.

Also I had the mix tape form, because I didn’t want to do a remix. I didn’t want to spice up this material. I wanted to keep the feel and look of the material how it was back in the day. And it’s funny because [originally] it’s so slow. The storytelling at the time was sooo slow. And pretentious and they had poems in there. We couldn’t have that. The funny thing is when I showed this to the filmmakers who did it, they think it was exactly how it was. It’s not. It was much longer, more boring. But they think, “Oh you didn’t do any editing.”

You edited within each bit of footage?

Yes. Every edit. But they don’t see it. Because it was a long time ago.

Did you have any trouble being both white and not American in approaching this material and convincing people, particularly those you interview, that it’s okay for you to make a film about this subject matter?

No, it was an asset. Coming from Sweden, this North Pole country, people were so generous and forthcoming and kind. They understand that I don’t know, I don’t have the American experience, I wasn’t born and raised here, I don’t have the language, I don’t understand some very important things. But they try to explain to you. Also you’re kind of neutral in a sense. So they don’t ask. If you’re in America they ask, “Who is funding this? Who is financing it? What’s the purpose? Why are you doing this?” I had the material. I found it and took it to them. And they were grateful for me doing this, for showing them this stuff. Being an outsider — and I know this was the same for the filmmaker at the time — we knock on the door and say, “Hello, we are from Sweden, what are you doing here?” And they are polite.

That is very different than the case with narrative works, it seems. For instance, people have been very critical against the movie “The Help” because it’s made by a white filmmaker and tells a civil rights story as filtered through a white protagonist. And also with the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in DC, which many complained should have been designed by an African American artist.

I agree [with the criticisms]. But I’m not telling the story of the Black Power movement. I’m telling the story of the Swedish perspective on the Black Power movement at the time. And in the film Erykah Badu says, “We have to tell our own story, because if we don’t tell our own story we get twisted.” I agree with that, but this is not their story. This is a story that takes place in Sweden, so to speak. So there is no contradiction in that sense. Also, I think that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, technologies and economics were different. They had to have a tremendous amount of resources to tell this story and make films. That’s not the case anymore. If you are to do a film about a radical group in America, or wherever, you should ask the people who are close to that group to make the film.

So it wouldn’t be okay for you to remake this as a narrative film?

Oh, they asked me to, but it’s not that. This might be contradictory, but I also think men should do films about women and women should do films about men. That’s important.

We all have points of views on things we don’t understand…

Well, I think I understand women, but…

I think it’s important now that you can have more films that are closer to grassroots storytelling. I’m producing a television show in South Africa with young Township filmmakers. We’ve been doing that for ten years. For them to tell their own story in the short documentary format. Because we had a lot of people going over from Europe and making films about Africa. That should be stopped. Africans should make their own films, for themselves, and maybe we can see them as well.

To read the rest of my conversation with Göran Olsson, head over to part 2 at the Documentary Channel Blog.

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