Dialogue with Charles Burnett


Who’s Charles Burnett?

I am a black American filmmaker that is interested in making film that do more than entertain.  I believe in films that bring us together as people to get rid of hate and prejudice. I lived enough under a racist system.

What kind of apprenticeship as a filmmaker you did in America of the sixties?

I went to UCLA Film School.  There were a lot of great inspiring teachers there.  What was really important was the system there.  One learned a lot form working with other students.  There was a notion that you made personal and thought that film was an art form first.  Hollywood kinds of films were not are focus.

Which movies are most marked on your imagery?

I liked a lot of old Hollywood films of the early fifties back to the early days of filmmaking. It seemed that then cinema was more international.  I was informed by a lot of foreign films as well.

Do you really feel that the opportunities that are there today for African filmmakers are satisfactory?

No, we have a long ways to go. Every time people of color make progress in any area, we have to fight to keep those gains from being reversed.  There is always an attack on progress. It is hard to change the system when it is founded on racism. The system needs diversity in every part of its make up. This needs to be practiced for years and generations to make a change.  Racism has been a part of this country since it came into being.

Tell me something about the genesis of a masterpiece like Killer of Sheep. Did you take inspiration from Italian neorealist films? For me there seems to be so much of a personal idea on how to transport the real life on the big screen.

The genesis behind Killer Sheep  was a response to how Hollywood was distorting our history and creating negative stereotypes. Also the style was a counter reaction to how progressives were trying to be helpful but were also distorting the real situations by using romantic and simple solutions to a complex situation.  Life was more complicated and the solutions should not be portrayed as a simple matter of joining a labor union and everything after was okay. Before I understood what Neorealism was, I had already come to the neorealist way of approaching reality. I was suspicious of the narrative form that Hollywood presented. Later, I became attached to the ideals of Neorealism after seeing  a lot of films by Italian neorealist directors.

You’ve got more satisfaction working for cinema or television?

I have not worked a lot in TV. However, generally I get more satisfaction in working in film than TV.  There is less control in Film. However,  you can get in a film production that can be just as controlling and limited in terms of be creative.

How were you able to create the right balance and the necessary atmosphere on the set of another magnificent films as To Sleep with Anger? The thing is evident in particular from how you managed to direct the actors, all in a state of grace.

I thought I had a very good script that was personal. I was very passionate about the subject and really wanted to tell this story. A lot of it was psychological and memory which I was trying to create. I was concern about images.  Also I used a lot of great actors that identified with the story. We had the right crew and actors and  the production team were very helpful in helping me to get what I wanted.

Lately, among the movies you saw at the cinema, there is someone in particular you found stunning and innovative?

There are many people that I find stunning and innovative. I need more time to come up with names.

Plans for the immediate future?

I have several screenplays that I would like to get made. But that is a long  and difficult struggle. I ‘m working on three documentaries now.  One documentary is shot but needs editing and money.  The other two are being developed.

The sense of cinema for you in only one sentence.

Cinema is revelation and poetry combined.


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