Filmmaker finds himself reflected in Afro-Brazilian culture
By Charles Hallman
Thomas Allen Harris did what his grandfather always wanted to but didn’t get the chance — embark and complete a mythic journey to the motherland.
“My grandfather emphasized Marcus Garvey and always wanted to go to Africa, but he wasn’t able to go because my grandmother refused to let him go,” says Harris, who was born in the Bronx. “So he passed on his dream to all of his kids, and they all went to Africa.”
Harris’ mother accepted a short-term teaching job there, and took him and his brother with her when they were youngsters. “My mother imagined Africa as a place that would accept us,” said the filmmaker in That’s My Face, which was shown on the PBS World channel during Black History Month in February. “When it was time to come back to the States, none of us wanted to come back. I loved it as much [there] as back home.”
After returning, Harris constantly asked himself as he grew up, “Where do I find my face?” He later traveled to Salvador Da Bahia, the African heart and soul of Brazil.
The overall premise of That’s My Face (É Minha Cara in Portuguese, the dominant language of Brazil) is mostly autobiographical, as Harris uses new and old 8mm film footage along with hip hop and multi-voice sampling. “I was looking for a way to tell the story of my grandfather and my mother, two different generations,” he says in a recent phone interview with the MSR. However, the film deliberately reminds all of us through his self-discovery sojourn that our roots originated elsewhere.
“I always felt uncomfortable because of my experiences” living in Africa, continues Harris. “It led me to find all the Super 8[-mm film] material that my grandfather had shot of my family from the ’50s to the ’70s, and that the family made a shift from being ‘Colored’ to ‘African American.’ If I hadn’t gone to Brazil, I would not have come back to look for material that my grandfather had shot — it still would have been in his basement.”
That’s My Face was part of season four of AfroPoP, a co-production of the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) and American Public Television (APT).
Harris is president-founder of Chimpanzee Productions, which produces feature films on identity, family and spirituality. His 2001 critically acclaimed documentary was shown at several international film festivals, including Sundance. It has been broadcast on PBS, the Sundance Channel and the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and won seven international awards, including the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival.
His film “shows the similarities and differences of the United States and Brazil, juxtaposing the way we are as African Americans in America, and Africans in Brazil,” says Harris. “Especially for African Americans, so many of our images that come back to us are images that come from corporate media, whether it’s White or Black through White distribution. I think it is important for us to see ourselves outside of these images.”
Harris, a Harvard graduate who has received numerous fellowships, is presently a visiting professor at Sarah Lawrence College and is finishing his next film, which is based on Black photographers. He also been involved with the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion, a 16-year project inspired by his grandfather. It invites African Americans to bring in their family photos to discuss them and their family history.
“It’s an online site (www.DDFR.tv) and also is road show. It allows people to interact with their family photographs in a public way,” explains Harris. “Mainstream media might not be showing all of our diversity,” but there are stories sitting “in our homes — let’s take it out so that the next generation knows where we come from, and they can stand on our shoulders.
“You look at any society, any civilization, any community — they have the stories on where they come from so they can learn from the past. History is interpreted differently with each generation… The way we look at history now changes the future.
“We created Digital Diaspora Family Reunion to help create a movement so that young people would be able to understand the value of history,” emphasizes Harris. “Taking a photograph of us finishing high school, or finishing college, or taking care of our kids — this is creating history.”
For more information about AfroPoP, visit the NBPC’s website at www.blackpublicmedia.org; for more information about That’s My Face (É Minha Cara), go to http://chimpanzee productions.com. The film is also available for rent on netflix.com.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]