Film Love: Andy Ditzler screens black history at 24 frames per second 

Film Love curator Andy Ditzler treats old short films, and even film projectors, with the care and attention most people reserve for their children.

Before screening "Movies of Local People: Kannapolis" in the basement studio of his Grant Park home, he uses a cotton swab to clean his 16-mm projector. "You should always do this. There's a lot of motion of the film inside the gate, where the buildup of emulsion takes place. That's how film starts to get scratches. I love film, but it's stressful to work with it."

After threading the film onto the reels, Ditzler dims the lights, switches on the projector and soaks up "Kannapolis'" vision of a segregated North Carolina town in 1941. Throughout the Great Depression, photographer H. Lee Waters traveled the South, filming people on the streets and then showing the images at the towns' movie theaters so they could see themselves on the big screen. (It's a far cry from the online exhibition of snapshots on, say, today's Flickr photo sites.) Selected for the prestigious National Film Registry, "Kannapolis" first shows the blue-collar white neighborhoods, then the more impoverished African-American ones. The film serves as a kind of silent slide show of faces, the vivacious and the dignified, the camera-shy and the camera-hogs, and how one community lived in the Jim Crow South.

"What a beautiful print!" Ditzler says when he first sees "Kannapolis'" crisp, sepia hues. In part he's relieved because he programmed the film, sight unseen, as one of the introductory subjects of this month's installment of his 6-year-old film series, Film Love. For February, Ditzler curates Civil Rights on Film: Four Nights of Rare Films on African-American Life, 1941-1967, which offers richer and more complex glimpses of the Civil Rights era than we get from history books.

"I'm very happy with it," Ditzler says when "Kannapolis" is over. "I'm happy with how it'll fit with the series and how it'll begin the series. I also like how it'll relate to Portrait of Jason, which ends the series, and which presents a subject who has a whole other relationship to the camera. And the print's lovely and I really enjoy it."

Since 2003, Ditzler has used the Film Love series to screen obscure or experimental films that have less in common with Hollywood entertainments and more with other forms of avant-garde expression such as beat poetry. When former Creative Loafing film critic Felicia Feaster named Ditzler's work Best Atlanta Film Series in 2006, she wrote, "Andy Ditzler's frightfully ambitious, dedicated series at Eyedrum, devoted to avant-garde and experimental film often unavailable to consumers by the likes of Stan Brakhage, Chantal Akerman and Joseph Cornell, is an Atlanta film culture treasure."

Ditzler strives to give little-known artwork a public forum and champions films on their original prints. But mostly, he wants to see the films for himself. "I'm sort of selfish in curating Film Love. The goal when I started it was to see films that were not available any other way, ones that I was intensely curious about, or ones that seemed important in other ways. I learned if I was interested enough in something to present it, there's always at least some other people interested in seeing them."

When not working his part-time job at the Emory University Music and Media Library or pursuing his other passion as a percussionist, Ditzler tracks down and screens potential Film Love contenders, which can take some detective work. Google searches help, but just as often he finds out about films through old catalogs he digs up in libraries, and rare books such as Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel. Vogel's tome lists hundreds of films from the peak of experimental filmmaking in the 1950s and '60s, particularly in New York and San Francisco. The book led Ditzler to the film I Am A Man, about a Black Power activist in New Haven in 1970.

"I tracked that down, watched it and developed a program on the media and Black Power, Malcolm X and MLK, and how they were represented. From that intuitive choice – 'I've got to see that film!' – came a program that doesn't include that film."

Ditzler intends the four evenings of Civil Rights on Film to mark a contrast with such exhaustive, impeccable Civil Rights documentaries as Eyes on the Prize. "I think [Eyes on the Prize] is wonderful. It has fabulous footage and fabulous editing. They've covered the documentary aspect, taking all the stuff and editing it into a narrative later. I'm showing films and watching them as they are, and as they were. I'm trying to look at films in whole, rather than show a documentary. As good as those documentaries are, they have many, many outlets. I'm trying to show actual works."

The series begins Fri., Feb. 20, 8 p.m., at the Atlanta Cyclorama with the theme "Life, Work, and Segregation in the South," which sets the tone and establishes the context for the African-American social justice movement. Ditzler pairs "Kannapolis" with 1953's All My Babies – a film the Georgia Department of Public Health intended as training material for illiterate midwives. The film offers a heartfelt, if occasionally condescending, portrait of midwife Mary Francis Hill Coley from Albany, Ga., and includes graphic childbirth footage. It none-too-subtly reinforces the white power structure, such as a scene in which a white health officer informs Coley and other midwives, "Your records show that you can keep clean." It also offers a glimpse of impoverished living conditions: One tumbledown shack has packing cardboard lining the walls, while even the "nice," well-prepared residence uses newspaper instead of linen during the birth.


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