IOWA CITY — Music was Chris Harris’ first love, growing up in St. Louis. He wanted to be Jimi Hendrix.
“I gave that up after one afternoon with an electric guitar,” he said, cringing at the memory of how much the strings hurt his fingers.
Next, he turned his attention to art.
“I really started liking painting,” he said, “but I couldn’t draw.”
In college, however, he found an expressive niche that would link him to the world.
He signed up for a cinema class, thinking, “How hard could it be?” It sounded easy and fun, he said, figuring the students would just watch movies.
Then the teacher started interpreting the film he and his classmates had seen.
“I said, ‘Wow, you mean that little five-minute clip meant all of this?’”
With that lecture, he discovered films could be more than just “empty entertainment.” And his life changed forever.
Now 57 and an associate professor and head of film and video production at the University of Iowa, he’s creating buzz at international film festivals with his 60-minute experimental documentary, “still/here.”
It’s his longest work, created 20 years ago as his MFA thesis project, and he’s amazed at the new life it’s finding. He traveled with the film to Switzerland in August and to Brazil in September, as well as to earlier screenings in London, Toronto and Rio de Janeiro.
To be accepted into a retrospective of black cinema at the Locarno Film Festival in Locarno, Switzerland, is a crowning achievement. His film, featuring a series of images from his hometown, was among 47 works spanning the 20th century, created by black filmmakers in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and North and South America. Harris also participated in a roundtable discussion there.
“This is one of the greatest times I’ve ever had — to be in that company,” he said. “What I tell people is, imagine if you were a painter and there is a big exhibit at the Louvre, and they’re showing Picasso, showing Warhol, showing Jackson Pollock — and they’re also showing you.”
The retrospective is designed to travel in whole or in parts, and he would love to bring it to Iowa City someday. The collection shows the diversity of the black filmmaking experience across time, styles and geographical borders and boundaries, he said, “and how those differences are in dialogue with one another.”
For his own UI students, he said the collection “would just reinforce another way of approaching that perspective of getting at the diversity of different filmmaking approaches — taking a bit from this place and time, taking a bit from that place and time, and when you put them together, what new connections emerge, what new ideas emerge out of that. And that’s what I’m always pushing my students to do anyway — to make new connections and new ideas, to push them beyond their comfort zone in their own filmmaking practice.”
His film pushes boundaries for viewers, too, requiring them to watch and listen differently than they’re used to.
“It’s about absence of presence, because it’s a documentation of these sort of abandoned, decaying spaces — these architectural spaces and homes — mostly single family homes, but other architectural spaces like a cinema in north St. Louis, that are in the abandoned decaying state. The simultaneous absence and presence of human life in these crises.”
“While you see no people, the soundtrack provides the presence.” he said, with “sonic indicators of human presence,” through the everyday sounds of footsteps, telephone rings, door bells and people doing dishes.
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He said it makes viewers think about “the absence of human life in these places, but also the implication that their presence is ongoing.”
He sees it as a sort of premonition of future presence, even though now, the working-class African-American population he grew up with is moving out, and the area is being gentrified.
So his documentary is becoming a snapshot in time, and he’s thrilled by the new interest it’s generating.
“It’s being recognized as a neglected masterpiece, so that’s really rewarding,” he said. “The film hasn’t changed — I just think the international film community is beginning to catch up with the film.”
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