The Rebellion of Roots

The Films of Billy Woodberry

29 May - 2 June 2024 - Check programme
Curator
Javier H. Estrada
Organised by
Museo Reina Sofía and Documenta Madrid (21st International Film Festival)

The focal point of this film season organised by the Museo Reina Sofía and Documenta Madrid is film-maker Billy Woodberry (Dallas, 1950), whose filmography, despite comprising only a handful of works, is striking for its great political and creative intensity. Through his films, Woodberry unearths and probes episodes of history that have disappeared into obscurity, stressing that which official accounts deemed irrelevant to then place them under the spotlight, not solely from activism but also capturing their sensorial and poetic side.  

Along with film-makers such as Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, Woodberry was one of the founders of L.A. Rebellion, an African-American film movement, made up of students from the University of California (UCLA) in Los Angeles, which in the period stretching from the 1960s to the 1980s imagined an alternative scene to Hollywood, one which was sensitive to the real life of Black communities in the USA. He began by directing the short film The Pocketbook (1980), a clear-eyed account of learning via a young man who, after a failed robbery attempt, starts to question the route his life is taking. This was followed by his debut feature Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), which, drawing from neo-realism and Third Cinema film-makers, is an essential film of his generation centred on an African-American family who fall apart through the father’s struggle to find employment. With Charles Burnett as a screenwriter and cinematographer, the film was an award-winner at Berlinale and received widespread international acclaim. Nevertheless, Woodberry decided to relinquish his film-making to focus on teaching: he has taught at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) since 1989.   

With the turn of the century, he decided to start from scratch and reinvent his practice, using audiovisual and photographic archive as the raw material of his work. Since that point, he has made documentaries evoking the memory of indispensable figures that shook up the artistic and political scene of African and African descent communities, for instance Ousmane Sembène in Marseille après la guerre (2005), Bob Kaufman in And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (2015) and Mário Pinto de Andrade in Mário (2024). Thus, Woodberry’s film-making is a sensitive yet defiant perspective of the past, underscoring the persistence of traces of colonialism and inspiring to overcome them through figures who fought with actions, verses and images for freedom and Black identity.

Programa

Billy Woodberry, Mário, film, 2024
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 - 7pm
Session 1

Billy Woodberry. Mário
USA, France and Portugal, 2024, b/w and colour, original version in Portuguese and French with Spanish subtitles, DA, 120’

– Presented by Billy Woodberry

The Spanish premiere of Woodberry’s most recent film, Mário, which follows the tracks of revolutionary poet Mário Pinto de Andrade, an indispensable reference point in the anti-colonialist cause in Africa from the 1950s to the 1970s. Employing documentary, the film-maker unfurls in this film a striking audiovisual and photographic archive, carrying out a filmic and historical exercise in archaeology.

Mário explores the existential and political journey of a charismatic leader with unflinching resistance who devised a powerful and decisive pan-African theory to liberate different territories, interweaving other major figures such as António Agostinho Neto and Amílcar Cabral. The film underscores the need to forge solid foundations of thought to undertake the struggle and accomplish long-lasting objectives.

Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200

200 people

Admission

Free, until full capacity is reached. Tickets may be collected at the Museo’s Ticket Offices or on the Museo Reina Sofía website from 10am on 27 May (a maximum of 2 per person). 20% of the visitor-capacity will be reserved for attendance without ticket collection on the day of the activity. Doors open 30 minutes before the screening

Billy Woodberry, A Story From Africa, film, 2019
Friday, 31 May 2024 - 7pm
Session 2

Billy Woodberry. A Story from Africa
Portugal, 2019, colour and b/w, without dialogue, DA, 40’

– With a lecture by Billy Woodberry

A handful of photographs, miraculous survivors of oblivion, constitutes the origin and sole material of A Story from Africa. The prints take us back to the times of the 1907 Portuguese Pacification Campaign in southern Angola to subdue the Kwamato tribe following on from the Berlin Conference (1884–1885), whereby European empires partitioned African territories.     

The Portuguese Pacification Campaign was documented by Alferes Velloso de Castro, inevitably through a colonialist gaze, in his book A Campanha do Cuamato em 1907: Breve Narrativa Acompanhada de Photographias (Imprensa Nacional, 1908). Using this photographic record of the occupation, Woodbury uncovers the reaction of the Kwamato people to this Portuguese subjugation and conquest and the odd unexpected ally, for instance the nobleman Calipalula, a soba (traditional leader) who joined the Portuguese troops to defeat his rival tribe.    

Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200

200 people

Admission

Free, until full capacity is reached. Tickets may be collected at the Museo’s Ticket Offices or on the Museo Reina Sofía website from 10am on 27 May (a maximum of 2 per person). 20% of the visitor-capacity will be reserved for attendance without ticket collection on the day of the activity. Doors open 30 minutes before the screening

Billy Woodberry, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, film,  2015
Saturday, 1 June 2024 - 7pm
Session 3

Billy Woodberry. Marseille après la guerre
USA and Portugal, 2016, b/w, without dialogue, DA, 11’

Billy Woodberry. And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead
USA and Portugal, 2015, b/w and colour, original version in English with Spanish subtitles, DA, 89’

Film-maker and activist Ousmane Sembène, a master of African cinema, is the subject of an emotive tribute in Marseille après la guerre, a film made up of photographs of Marseille’s docks taken in 1947. The images reflect the life and struggles of the dockers, exemplified in a strike led by African emigrants in which Sembène was involved. A reminder of the exploitation and racism that characterised colonialist France to understand the tensions that still flood its streets today.

The second feature And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead works again to bring back to life voices and events wrapped in collective amnesia. In this instance, it comes in the form of a homage to Bob Kaufman, a beat generation poet regarded as the “African-American Rimbaud”, whose life and work were surrounded by an aura of legend and fascination. Woodberry draws from the strummed rhythm of Kaufman’s poetry, entangled in wisdom and dread, and the coarse textures of celluloid to return to its rawest splendour the face and discourse of an irrepressible artist.

Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200

200 people

Admission

Free, until full capacity is reached. Tickets may be collected at the Museo’s Ticket Offices or on the Museo Reina Sofía website from 10am on 27 May (a maximum of 2 per person). 20% of the visitor-capacity will be reserved for attendance without ticket collection on the day of the activity. Doors open 30 minutes before the screenings

Billy Woodberry, Bless Their Little Hearts, film, 1984
Sunday, 2 June 2024 - 12pm
Session 4

Billy Woodberry. The Pocketbook
USA, 1980, b/w, original version in English with Spanish subtitles, DA, 13’

Billy Woodberry. Bless Their Little Hearts
USA, 1984, b/w, original version in English with Spanish subtitles, DA, 80’

Billy Woodberry’s first work as a film-maker was the short film The Pocketbook, influenced by the story “Thank You, Ma'am” (1958), written by poet and novelist Langston Hughes. This short story on the awakening of consciousness centres on a boy compelled to commit petty thefts who, following a failed attempt to steal a woman’s purse, is taken aback by the understanding and support he receives instead of punishment. A fable with moral tinges and a profound humanist spirit that stresses the importance of giving second chances to young people staring into the abyss.

In his debut feature film, Bless Their Little Hearts, Woodberry explores the fractures of an African American family split by the existential crisis of Charlie Banks, whose wife takes charge of keeping the family afloat financially owing to his long-term unemployment. Dependency leads to frustration and opens the wound of his sullied masculinity as he resorts to infidelity as an escape from rage and desperation. A sentimental commotion which reflects the unstoppable spiral of self-destruction of a man tied to outmoded codes and the alienating contexts of the working class in Los Angeles.

Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200

200 people

Admission

Free, until full capacity is reached. Tickets may be collected at the Museo’s Ticket Offices or on the Museo Reina Sofía website from 10am on 27 May (a maximum of 2 per person). 20% of the visitor-capacity will be reserved for attendance without ticket collection on the day of the activity. Doors open 30 minutes before the screenings