Open Space is a web publication affiliated with San Francisco MoMA that has just resumed publishing after a late-summer break. Among its first features of the season is a piece by poet and writer Syd Staiti on Agnès Varda’s filming visits to the San Francisco Bay Area during the late sixties. These visits resulted in two films: Uncle Yanco (1967), an intimate portrait of her uncle, a painter living on a houseboat north of San Francisco; and Black Panthers (1968), a documentary-style film shot at an Oakland rally for Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. As Staiti writes, these contrasting films display the breadth of subject matter and emotional tenor that make Varda’s work so original. Check out an excerpt from the piece below.
The following year, Varda returned to the Bay Area, this time to film Black Panthers, a thirty-one-minute documentary shot primarily at a “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, organized after Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton was arrested in October 1967. Black Panthers was commissioned by French TV and dropped at the last minute, a few months after the May ’68 riots. “We weren’t supposed to reawaken the students’ anger,” Varda says. In this film, unlike Uncle Yanco, Varda opts for a straightforward documentary approach. She doesn’t use her own voice to narrate, but that of an unnamed American woman, presumably photographer Eve Crane. Varda keeps the focus on the Panthers, her camera canvassing the rally, the Panther headquarters, Oakland city streets, then back to the rally, resting on people singing and dancing, eating and talking, sitting in the grass with Mao’s Little Red Book. She films rows of Black Panthers marching, holding “Free Huey” flags in linear formation. These snapshots are interspersed with interview footage of Newton during his incarceration, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) delivering a speech at the rally, and brief, spontaneous interviews with others lingering about. Perhaps most intimately, we are allowed in on a conversation with Kathleen Cleaver, sitting on a porch with other women as she talks directly to the camera about natural hairstyles, notions of beauty in relation to Blackness, and the role of women in the movement.
Image of Agnès Varda via BFI.