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Arthur Jafa: Dreams are Colder than Death

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By Lauren Zoë
Image courtesy of Cinema Arts Festival Houston

On November 14th, The Houston Cinema Arts Festival and Project Row Houses presented filmmaker and acclaimed cinematographer Arthur Jafa for a screening of Dreams are Colder Than Death followed by an artist talk.

Arthur Jafa has worked as a cinematographer on several films including the highly acclaimed films Crooklyn (1994) and Daughters of the Dust (1991). His recent documentary, Dreams are Colder than Death is described as an exceptional “stream of black consciousness” with soft slow visuals studying the black experience and unique stories of each person being interviewed. Shot and edited in six weeks in several cities, Jafa described wanting to make a movie about the black experiences of through an unfiltered lens. The film felt more authentic than a “scripted” documentary. He says he wanted his participants to say what they know, not what they think. Black people tend to have a very particular survival strategy when presented with the white gaze. He mentions, “pointing the camera is the white gaze.”

Saiyda Hartman, a Brooklyn professor, compares intimacy with death as her life experiences have taught her through the loss of loved ones over the years. Filmmaker Charles Burnett and Kathleen Cleaver, a well known activist during the Civil Rights era, describe the dichotomy between the way men and women make choices that lead to specific consequences. Cleaver says that unlike men, women tend to mull over their choices before reacting, which has allowed her to thrive amongst male counterparts in an era where sexism wasn’t acknowledged in a way that racism was.

Fine artist Wangechi Mutu shares her story of moving to Brooklyn from Kenya, and how the African immigrant experience shaped her views of African Americans. She says “[Africans] are not that much different from [Black Americans], although we like to pretend we are.” She also mentions that America is a very scary place, but we’re made to believe that reality is not as bad as it really is, which is why many of us are unknowingly apathetic towards serious situations that we face daily.

Female energy is a central theme in this documentary. The integral lust of the black female body in our culture through spaces like strip clubs has allowed us to almost idolize our women, sometimes through violent control. One dancer in the popular strip club in Atlanta, Magic City, says she sees her outfits, hair and makeup as a “costume.” Most of these women are well aware of the fleeting idea of using their bodies as costumes for entertainment value. Jafa cites the Magic City narrative as a “nexus of black culture,” much like prison and gang culture. So, capturing these aspects only made sense for the film to get a true and possibly an uncomfortable narrative. The idea of a woman’s body being a horror and a temple in the same notion was intriguing to me, and I wish Jafa dove more into that concept in the film. Although the film was very poignant with personal accounts and anecdotes, I think the opportunity was missed to expand on an objective viewpoint, not that of the people being interviewed. The expansion of each narrative wasn’t presented as deep as I thought it would be.

Artist Kara Walker preludes the end of the movie by saying, “Can black people be loved, not lusted, wanted or acquired? Can blackness be loved and nurtured?”

I asked Jafa how he differentiated black people from black film, and he stated that just because you are a black person in front or behind the camera doesn’t make it a black film. He continues, music is an integral part of the black experience. A white person can make black music and it can still be called black music. Black film is much like the same thing. Although versatile, the black experience can be painted with many brush strokes. I still wonder how that can be defined without a black person present.

My second question to Jafa was if he agreed that the audience unfairly puts their own demands on an artist to create a body of work to their expectations as opposed to the artists? I cited Lauryn Hill as being an example of a visionary artist who didn’t let her fans shake her like a vending machine to get work out of her. She created to her own capacity and if she felt like she succeeded in that, she was at peace with the outcome. I asked Jafa how he defined success; simply put he says, “Success is whatever you make it.”