New York-based producer-director St. Clair Bourne flew into Washington Saturday with a tape hot off the video recorder.
The film, shown Sunday at the National Conference on the Documentary at the American Film Institute, "The Black and The Green" treats the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland with a unique perspective: It records the visit to Belfast last year of a small group of black ministers and activists invited by the H-Block Armagh committee, an American-based Irish prisoner-support group.
The Americans, veterans of the civil rights struggles of the '60s, met with relatives of some of the 10 prisoners who died in hunger strikes at Long Kesh prison, and toured strife-ridden Belfast. Several participated in a youth convention. "It was a new subject matter to me, as it was to the people I followed," Bourne says. "They abstractly identified, being old activists, but we didn't really know what we were getting into."
The 40-minute film, presented as a journal, explores parallels between Northern Irish Catholics and American blacks. In the Belfast ghetto, the delegation members are strangers in a familiar land of crushed tenements, graffiti-stained walls and heavily armed law officers.
"The Black and The Green" ends up seeming pro-Irish Republican Army in the same sense that a film about Selma in the '60s might have ended up seeming pro-black, but then, "I'm a filmmaker from the '60s," Bourne says. "I try to be humanistically political. I don't try to impose easy answers. And to me it's a step in my own development, and perhaps for documentaries in America, if a situation that is not clearly identifiable as 'black-American' can be looked at by black Americans."
Bourne spoke of stereotypes.
"We tried to sneak an interview with this major who was half-English, half-Irish. To hear him talk about the Irish, you could have thought he was an old Southern sheriff talking about blacks."
The film also shows several delegates struggling with their philosophy of nonviolent social change. Addressing a meeting in Belfast, the Rev. James Dunn sighs: "I came over here imbued with the spirit of nonviolence. I see now that you have no choice."
"They the Irish were aware of Martin Luther King," Bourne says, "but then they said there were not tanks in the streets every day like there are here. And even in America the mood against nonviolent styles has changed. The delegation's feelings about nonviolence came out of a particular activist era in America, but they found it was not applicable in Ireland."
There was palpable tension during the Belfast stay. At one point, Bourne and his crew found themselves surrounded by a British military squad pointing loaded rifles directly at them.
"It's the only time in my film career when being black and American helped," he laughs.
Bourne now heads his own production company, the Chamba Organization, but he started out as a producer on the Emmy Award-winning "Black Journal" in late '60s.
"People from my generation grew up in the heat. We got in primarily because the people in the street disrupted ongoing business and, as a way of trying to cool that out, they let black media people have a little air time so that black people would see themselves in the media. It was the illusion of democracy, but also real because in America the media plays such an important role that to have some share in that is to be at least part of the process.
According to Bourne, there is a resistance to looking at independent black film unless it fits certain molds, mostly entertainment. Being practical, he's gone that route on occasion, making "Big City Blues," a Chicago blues documentary for the now defunct CBS cable network. In 1981, Bourne worked on the controversial NBC White Paper on race relations, "America--Black and White." Coming up June 1 on PBS is Bourne's "In Motion: Amiri Baraka," an hour-long portrait of the controversial writer-activist once known as Leroi Jones.
With "The Black and The Green" and the Baraka project, Bourne has completed four films in the last two years and has just received a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Arts "to do my first feature film, called 'Point of Entry.' And I've just been commissioned, with Clayton Riley author of 'I Remember Harlem' , to do a fiction piece for American Playhouse called 'Shepperd's Blues.' "
Like jazz musicians, many independent black filmmakers have found greater acceptance overseas than at home. Bourne's films have been featured on television from Sweden to Nigeria. When the Swedish Film Institute had a showing of his work in 1978, he said, "I was treated like a real artist. People stood up and asked deep, convoluted questions. I realized what I was on to, and it reaffirmed that my work was intellectually and artistically valid. I always knew that, but it was reinforced. Overseas, they do not automatically question the validity of the work's existence, so right away you're ahead of the game. Here you've got to fight for that."
Sponsored by the American Film Institute and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, "The Black and The Green" concludes today at the Kennedy Center.