Charles Burnett is a highly acclaimed independent director who made his cinematic debut with the short film "Several Friends" in 1969. His first featured film "Killer of The Sheep" followed in the 1970s and "My Brother's Wedding" in the 1980s. His career in the 1990s was well noted with several short and featured films, most notably "The Glass Shield" starring Ice Cube.
In the past decade, Burnett's work includes "The Annihilation of Fish" and the documentary "The Blues: Warming by the Devil's Fire." In 2007, Burnett directed an epic film on the independence of Namibia, entitled "Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation". Mr. Burnett recently completed the film "Relative Stranger" in 2008, which will premiere at the Pan African Film Festival and will air on the Hallmark Cable Channel March 14, 2009.
The following is an interview with Charles Burnett, conducted by ExperienceLA Blogger Daood.
Daood: Greetings Mr. Charles Burnett and congratulations on your success as a film director. Before we get into "Relative Stranger" and other film projects, can you elaborate on the 17th Pan African Film Festival and its vitality for filmmakers?
Charles Burnett: The Pan African Film Festival is one of the most important cultural events that take place in the States. It is particularly important to the Los Angeles community. The festival exposes the best films of black content to the community. It puts on valuable seminars and gives filmmakers and other artists a forum and a space to have a dialogue with an audience. It is very supportive and that support is quite often the encouragement that keeps you motivated in a world of dog-eat-dog environment.
Daood: A classic film has what essential elements?
Charles Burnett: I think a film that last[s], is always relevant, always appealing and there is always something new that you find even after years and year of viewing. It also says something about the human condition. It is also universal.
Daood: If you had to select one composition from your diary of films that fits your description of a classic film, which one standardizes that criterion?
Charles Burnett: I can't look at my films in an objective way. In fact I'm very critical of my work. I see a lot of thing[s] in them that I would do in another [way], but all filmmakers are not completely happy with the finished production. Initially you are pleased, but as time passes, you see pockmarks. I couldn't tell you about my films.
Daood: Chronologically, take us from 1969's "Several Friends" to 2008 "Relative Stranger", in describing your progress and development as a director?
Charles Burnett: I can't go from film to film because one’s maturity may not be seen in each film. Each film is a war onto itself. The financing and other elements of a film that you don't have control [over] are not in lockstep with your development or vision. You might have a bit more freedom to do what you want and then the next project you are back at square one or [an] event lower than when you first started out. Most independents don't make films that often benefit from going from one film to the next.
When I did "Several Friends" it was in film school and as a student, you had access to equipment, and film was relatively cheap. You had the luxury of being able to tell you[r] story the way you wanted. You were not compromised by the market place. I did the film with my own little money but later as you start making film with money from banks or investors, the rules change and you have to learn to negotiate on every level. The art of compromise is now the way of life. When you are able to do films independent of a concern for distribution, you can grow and develop your world-view. You have to have worked out ideas in an independent [way], without outside influences.
"Relative Stranger" was a completely different way of working for me. The production company had a unique way of making films that [I] was not used to. The method works for the company and they are very successful but for me it was difficult to get familiar with the system. It is like a turn key situation where you walk into a situation already in motion. At the end of the day what you progress in is gaining more insight in working with different people.
Daood: Could you, in detail, explain why Basil Wright and Jean Renoir influenced your early work?
Charles Burnett: Both Basil Wright and Jean Renoir were honest, if you use that word, in telling stories about people. Humanity was central to their work.
Daood: Being among the avant-garde of directors, what approach is taken creatively, to maintain your interest as a director and keeping viewers anticipating your films?
Charles Burnett: I never looked at my self as being avant-garde. My approach shifts from film to film but the story has to be relevant to me. I have to understand it and see it. I like a story that has relationships that reveal something unique about them and that the end raises the viewer's consciousness.
Daood: "Relative Stranger" is the highly anticipated piece in which people will get the opportunity to see at the Pan African Film Festival closing night February 15, 2009. The beautiful Cicely Tyson, Eriq Lasalle and other well known actors make up the cast for this film. Share with us what attracted you to direct "Relative Stranger" and your experience with the aforementioned actors?
Charles Burnett: Like most jobs, your agent tells you that there is a job about a family and you should read the script. I did read the script and I thought I might be able to add something to it. It is always to your benefit to work with such talented actors.
Daood: Presently is there a film in which you're about to embark upon as a director?
Charles Burnett: I have been trying to get several scripts made into films. One film script is based on a Walter Moseley novel. That looks like it may get financing soon. I'm also working a documentary about the building [of] green schools in Liberia.
Daood: Thanks for this opportunity and much success to you in the future.
Charles Burnett: Thank you for your questions and I hope people go out and support the Pan African Film Festival.