Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London
ratio
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Skip Norman: Here and There

American filmmaker, cinematographer, photographer, visual anthropologist, and educator Skip Norman (aka Wilbert Reuben Norman Jr.) was born in Baltimore. In 1966—following five years in Germany and Denmark, where he developed an interest in acting and directing alongside his studies dedicated to the German language and literature—he was accepted into the inaugural cohort of students at Berlin’s DFFB Film School. While there he befriended and worked alongside a group of artists and activists interested in the revolutionary potential of film, including Harun Farocki, Holger Meins, Helke Sander, and Gerd Conradt.

In addition to collaborating as cinematographer and assistant director on several of his classmates’ works, Norman authored a remarkable but little-seen body of documentary, experimental, and essay films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Building upon and contributing to the incendiary work of his peers decrying the US war in Vietnam, he produced a number of equally urgent films about his experience as a Black man in both West Germany and in his home country. Upon his subsequent return to the United States he continued to collaborate with notable filmmakers like Haile Gerima while further pursuing his interest in photography, both as an artistic practice and as the subject of his doctoral studies, before eventually teaching the craft in Cyprus.

While there have been selected presentations of Norman’s films in Germany in recent years, his work remains almost completely unknown abroad. Featuring premieres of new restorations and newly produced subtitles, Skip Norman: Here and There will be the first retrospective that explores Norman’s multifaceted, international career, bringing his practice as a filmmaker in dialogue with his work as a cinematographer and bridging his time on both sides of the Atlantic. A study day will further expand the scope, situating Norman’s work within its historic contexts, inviting reflections on his academic output and his significant, career-spanning output as a photographer, while tracing echoes of his work in a younger generation of artists and filmmakers.

Jesse Cumming

 

Skip Norman: Here and There is curated by Jesse Cumming, and organised in partnership by Open City Documentary Festival, Goethe-Institut London and the ICA.

With special thanks to: Hanife Aliefendioglu, Ismail Gökçe, Karina Griffith, Masha Matzke, Alexis Norman, Volker Pantenburg and the Harun Farocki Institut, Joanna Raczynska, Alexandra Symons-Sutcliffe.


Programmes

Programme 1: The DFFB Years

Thu 18 May 18:45, ICA

Produced between 1966 and 1969, these early student films range from deconstructed narratives and deceptive agit-prop to experimental essays, revealing not only the protean, multifaceted style of the young Norman, but an incendiary conceptual throughline that would inform later self-authored projects and collaborations, including a commitment to social justice and critiques of hypocritical liberalism.

Both Cultural Nationalism and Strange Fruit take explicit inspiration from the Black Panther Party, the former borrowing a Bobby Seale text that mounts an adroit challenge to counter-revolutionary “Black Capitalism”, the latter expanding upon documentation of a Seale speech in Copenhagen to illustrate and amplify the activist’s message. Wedding non-fiction with noir-tinged narrative, featuring Norman in a small role, the mostly wordless debut Riffi is an ambitious, cryptic reflection on the act of pursuit whether in the context of romance or violence. Directly inspired by Amiri Baraka’s 1963 analysis of “Negro Music in White America” the experimental Blues People boldly confronts and challenges the dynamics of fetishization, holding up a mirror not only to anti-Black racism in the United States but Germany in a pointed deconstruction of desire and dominance.

This screening of Norman’s DFFB films marks the World Premiere of new 2K restorations undertaken by the Deutsche Kinemathek. As a prelude the programme features a fleeting glimpse of Norman captured on the streets of Berlin by friend Ingrid Opperman.

Skip Norman, West-Berlin, ca. 1969-70

Ingrid Opperman, Circa 1969-70, West Germany, Silent, 1 min

Cultural Nationalism

Skip Norman, 1969, West Germany, English, 11 min

Strange Fruit

Skip Norman, 1969, West Germany, English, 29 min

Riffi    

Skip Norman, 1966, West Germany, English and German, 16 min

Blues People

Skip Norman, 1969, West Germany, English, 18 min

World Premiere of 2K Restorations

TOTAL RUNTIME: 108 min

CONTENT WARNING: Nudity, anti-Black language, documentation of anti-Black violence

Skip Norman, West-Berlin, ca. 1969-70 courtesy Ingrid Opperman. All other films courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek.


Programme 2: Berlin-Harlem

Fri 19 May 19:00, Goethe-Institut London

One of the final projects Norman contributed to in Germany before his return to the United States was also among the most notable, working as Director of Photography alongside Reza Dabui for the underground feature 1 Berlin-Harlem. Written and directed by German filmmakers Lothar Lambert and Wolfram Zobus this subversive, prickly satire features cameos and small roles by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and members of his regular coterie – including Ingrid Caven and Brigitte Mira.

The plot begins as Black American GI John (played by actual army man Conrad Jennings) completes his service, whereupon attempts to settle into a professional life in Berlin with his white German partner are shortly frustrated by racist aggressions both subtle and overt. What follows is a drift through the fringes of the city’s outsider and subcultures – including queer cruising spots and Berlin’s “Black Panther Solidarity Committee – in which fleeting moments of tenderness and sincerity prove less common than crass fetishization and brazen bigotry. Echoing the pointed critique of race relations of Norman’s earlier Blues People, 1 Berlin-Harlem offers a complex portrayal of social alienation and abuse, as well as the internalisation and eventual response to such violence.

1 Berlin-Harlem                    

Lothar Lambert & Wolfram Zobus, 1974, West Germany, English and German, 100 min

Directors of Photography: Skip Norman & Reza Dabui

CONTENT WARNING: Nudity, anti-Black language, domestic violence, sexual assault

Courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek


Skip Norman: Here and There Study Day

Sat 20 May 12:00 – 17:30, Goethe Institut London

To supplement the screenings as part of Skip Norman: Here and There, this study day will both situate and Norman’s practice, locating the work in its specific context, inviting reflections on his academic output and his significant, career-spanning work as a photographer, while tracing echoes of his work in a younger generation of artists and filmmakers.

12:00 – 13:30
PROGRAM 3: COLLABORATIONS
Guest introduction by Alexandra Symons-Sutcliffe

13:30 – 14:00
BREAK

14:00 – 16:00
PRESENTATIONS

14:45 – 15:15
Alias Skip Norman (Jesse Cumming)
In this illustrated curator’s talk Jesse Cumming will share some of the research and background behind the works in Skip Norman: Here and There.

14:45 – 15:15
Is My Living in Vain (Ufuoma Essi)
In response to Norman’s film practice and his doctoral dissertation, artist Ufuoma Essi will present an excerpt from her recent project Is My Living in Vain.

15:15 – 15:25
MINI-BREAK

15:25 – 16:00
Keeping the Fire Burning (İsmail Gökçe, via Zoom)
A close friend and former mentee, photographer İsmail Gökçe will share a personal, guided tour through Norman’s career-spanning work in the still image.

16:00 – 16:30
BREAK

16:30 – 17:30
PROGRAM 4: THE AMERICAN YEARS I
Followed by discussion with Mirra Bank

More information on programmes 3 & 4 below

 

Mirra Bank is a member of the Academy. Her feature doc Last Dance followed the stormy collaboration between Pilobolus and legendary author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. Short-listed for an Academy Award, it aired in the US and Europe, was featured at Aspen, AFI, Chicago Art Institute, many dance film festivals.

Jesse Cumming is a curator, writer, and researcher. He is as a Programmer with Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and an Associate Curator with the Wavelengths section of the Toronto International Film Festival, in addition to a consultant with the Berlinale Forum and Open City Documentary Festival.

 Ufuoma Essi Is a video artist and filmmaker from Lewisham, South East London. She works predominantly with film and moving image as well as photography and sound. Drawing from a range of influences Essi’s work seeks to examine the historical and contemporary links between the Black Atlantic and explore intersectional themes of race, gender, class and sexuality.

İsmail Gökçe was born in İskele, Northern Cyprus in 1977. He graduated from Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Cinema, before completing his PhD in Arts in 2018 at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University (İstanbul). He co-founded Galata Photography Academy in İstanbul. Currently based in Nicosia and İstanbul, he teaches at Eastern Mediterranean University and International Cyprus University.

Alexandra Symons-Sutcliffe is an art historian who writes and curates. She is currently a PhD candidate at Birkbeck University, London where she is completing a dissertation on British documentary photography from the 1970s and 1980s. She writes regularly for the international art press and has organised and contributed to exhibition and event programmes at several international venues.


Programme 3: Collaborations

Sat 20 May 12:00, Goethe-Institut London

The students accepted alongside Skip Norman as part of the inaugural DFFB cohort in 1966 include some of West Germany’s most notable post-war political filmmakers, including Harun Farocki, Helke Sander, Hartmut Bitomsky, and later Red Army Faction radical Holger Meins. Deeply collaborative in nature, with a political alignment that extended from the classroom to the streets, the work the cohort produced rallied against the injustices they saw around them, as well as a German citizenry seemingly unconcerned with their status quo. Just as his peers and classmates supported Norman on his own productions – including Meins as Cinematographer and Gerd Conradt as Assistant Cinematographer on Riffi – in these films Norman contributed his own talent and vision as a cameraman to the work of his colleagues.

The films in this programme evidence a shared commitment to both political radicalism and formal experimentation coursing through the work of the cohort. The selections range from the feminist cri de coeur of Helke Sander’s Subjectitude to the anti-Vietnam war censure of Harun Farocki’s White Christmas, to the urgent but little-seen Berlin – 2. Juni 67 by Thomas Giefer and Hans-Rüdiger Minow, capturing that day’s mass protests against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Shahansha’s visit to West Berlin, which culminated in a epoch-defining shooting of student Benno Ohnesorg.

Subjectitude [Subjektitüde]

Helke Sander, 1966, West Germany, German, 4 min

Assistant Director of Photography: Skip Norman

Silvo              

Helke Sander, 1967, West Germany, German, 11 min

Assistant Director of Photography: Skip Norman

White Christmas      

Harun Farocki, 1968, West Germany, German, 3 min

Director of Photography: Skip Norman

Their Newspapers [Ihre Zeitungen]           

Harun Farocki, 1968, West Germany, German, 17 min

Director of Photography: Skip Norman

Berlin – 2. Juni 67                 

Thomas Giefer & Hans-Rüdiger Minow, 1967, West Germany, German, 45 min

Director of Photography: Skip Norman

TOTAL RUNTIME: 80 min

CONTENT WARNING: Graphic war footage, police violence, discussions of domestic abuse

Introduced by Alexandra Symons-Sutcliffe

All films courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek


Programme 4: The American Years I

Sat 20 May 16:30, Goethe-Institut London

In the mid 1980s New York filmmaker Mirra Bank collaborated with the legendary American poet and musician Nikki Giovanni on the experimental (auto)-portrait Spirit to Spirit. Structured around footage of the performer alone in a soundstage, Giovanni commands the Skip Norman-helmed camera while detailing moments from her childhood, her experience of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and more, including her thoughts on the art of poetry. Interwoven throughout – alongside expertly deployed archival material – she recites some of her most acclaimed compositions, including “Nikki-Rosa” and “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day”, each revealing the artist’s superlative command of language and protean approach the form, one that moves effortlessly from the coy, to the incensed, to the sorrowful – at times within the same work. The skill she displays in her craft is here mirrored in Norman’s subtle approach to light and colour, which elevates Giovanni’s one-of-a-kind wit and charisma to the level of a silver screen icon.

Spirit to Spirit: Nikki Giovanni

Mirra Bank, 1986, USA, English, 29 min

Director of Photography: Skip Norman, Producers: Mirra Bank & Perrin Ireland

Followed by a conversation with Mirra Bank.

TOTAL RUNTIME: 29 min

Digitally restored by the Academy Film Archive and the Women’s Film Preservation Fund with support from the Leon Levy Foundation


Programme 5: The Independent Years

Tues 23 May 18:30, ICA

Upon completion of his degree with the DFFB Norman undertook a series of projects that extended the concerns of his student work into even more rigorous and intellectual terrain, with a series of essay films that brought a Marxist, structuralist critique to issues of Black disenfranchisement in both the United States and Africa.

On Africa, co-directed with Joey Gibbs, emerged out of a trip Norman took to West Africa in the late 1960s. Contrasting footage of Berlin—notably the site of the 1884 conference that divided the African continent among European powers—with archival colonial photography and details of its brutality, it later incorporates striking still photographs Norman captured in his travels. His grounds-eye view is paired with a voice-over detailing the operation of neocolonial banking structures, mining, and other means of continued exploitation. Initially produced as one film before separated for distribution Washington D.C. November 1970 and Black Man’s Volunteer Army of Liberation take stock of the nation’s capital early in a new decade, the former contrasting a compendium of notable Black and abolitionist figures and American wars with speakers outside a Black Panther Party registration centre, the latter an examination of a mutual aid network established in D.C. to support drug users, while deconstructing the issue’s root cause.

On Africa

Joey Gibbs & Skip Norman, 1970, West Germany, German, 35 min

Washington D.C. November 1970

Skip Norman, 1970, USA, English, 18 min

Black Man’s Volunteer Army of Liberation

Skip Norman, 1970, USA, English, 43 min

TOTAL RUNTIME: 96 min

CONTENT WARNING: Documentation of anti-Black violence

All films courtesy Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst e.V.


Programme 6: The American Years II

Thurs 25 May 18:30, ICA

While living in Washington, D.C. Norman made the acquaintance of legendary Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima, eventually leading to his role as Cinematographer on Gerima’s feature documentary Wilmington 10 — U.S.A. 10,000. Centered on the wrongful 1972 imprisonment of nine men and one woman from the North Carolina city – then still incarcerated on trumped up charges of arson and conspiracy – the film traces both the background of the accusations and the groundswell of national and international support calling for their release. Boldly nonlinear in its assemblage and expansive in scope, Gerima connects the prisoners’ plight with the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, an unfinished civil rights movement, and contemporary liberation movements stretching from Chile to South Africa, interweaving interviews with members of the jailed group and fellow political prisoner Assata Shakur with an intergenerational symphony of voices from Wilmington locals – giving notable space to reflections of the community’s Black women. As with several of Norman’s own projects, the result is cumulative, chorus-like, and vivid, effortlessly locating intimate details within a macro understanding and critique of racist systems and structures.

Wilmington 10 — U.S.A. 10,000     

Haile Gerima, 1979, USA, English, 120 min

Director of Photography: Skip Norman

4K digital restoration courtesy the Academy Film Archive

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of anti-Black violence, discussions of sexual assault, anti-Black language

Courtesy Haile Gerima, Merawi Gerima, and the Academy Film Archives