The short Q&A is over; is there anything else director Sterlin Harjo of Tulsa would like to tell the international audience in Amiens, France, before we watch his acclaimed indie shorts “Goodnight Irene” and “Barking Water?”
“Yes,” Harjo tells us, as his French interpreter, Andy, waits to translate. “My interpreter is single, so if there are any young ladies in the audience tonight…”
The English speakers in the audience laugh, Andy turns as red as a French wine, and he never actually translates it for the French speakers. But the sentiment’s clear enough: Amiens may be a sleepy town showcasing serious works this week at its modest cultural center, but hey, there’s still a role for irreverence here.
This November’s Festival International du Film D’Amiens, in its 33rd year, teeters on that delicate tightrope between provincialism and relevance, shocking visuals and campy wonders. Among the categories in this year’s festival are “Mexico SF,” which brings brave fans of vintage science fiction a cavalcade of black and white aliens and robots that would make Ed Wood blush, all battling it out for the supremacy of the world with masked wrestlers and buxom onesie-wearing women.
But the category of films that is drawing some of the most viewers is “Tulsa Oklahoma Cinéma,” a retrospective festival within the festival that includes everything from depression-era films starring Henry Fonda and Will Rogers to Tom Cruise vehicles directed by Ron Howard and Francis Ford Coppola. And let’s not forget the work of Tulsa’s original bad boy, Larry Clark, represented here with screenings of nearly all his great films, from Kids to Bully to last year’s Marfa Girl.
Of the all the directors being showcased, only Harjo has shown up in person. Has he enjoyed any of the French and international films he’s seen so far?
“Well, the only film I’ve watched so far has been The Outsiders, which was filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ha ha! But I’ve been really inspired by it. I’ve seen it a hundred times, and seeing it on the big screen… you can’t keep your eyes off Matt Dillon. And then they kill him! More than any film, that movie has inspired me, because I saw it at such a young age.”
The populace of Amiens seems to agree. The Outsiders screening he’s referring to was utterly sold out, even though the quality of the print was a little suspect. They even had to pause for ten minutes halfway through to rethread the film, since one reel was spliced in upside down (later in the week, they’ll be displaying The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, a director’s cut that stays truer to author S.E. Hinton’s original vision).
Other films in the series have been equally popular with the populace of Amiens, regardless of theme or style. The under-age sex and violence of Larry Clark’s films sold out quickly. And even a 10 a.m. screening of a 1930’s Will Rogers film, Judge Priest, has a healthy mob of viewers.
Why so much interest in Oklahoma, and particularly Tulsa?
“Tulsa was invited to the film festival through its sister city relationship with Amiens, which was officially signed in 2005 as part of Tulsa Global Alliance and the mayor-to-mayor relationship through Sister Cities International.”
I’m talking with Judy Glenn, Vice President of Tulsa Global Alliance and a fantastic French speaker. She’s here to help coordinate speakers and entertainment for the festival, as well as to help shepherd about a dozen members of Tulsa Global Alliance to the festival and through Amiens itself. The TGA members are here to watch films, sample some local cuisine, and represent the best of Americanism (although some of the older ladies in the group talk rather loudly during a few of the screenings).
“One thing that intrigued us about the festival,” Glenn tells me, “was how they look through our history through French eyes, how they look at the story of Okies going to California, movies from the 30s, the 50s, the Outsiders, Rumble Fish … and the film industry has truly come back to Oklahoma now, through fresh new filmmakers and even the film industry in the soundtracks. The music of Woody Guthrie has inspired a lot of the works that were chosen.”
There are definitely some Dust Bowl films in the line up. But other than the fact that Oklahoma or Oklahoman directors/actors are featured, these films have little thematically or stylistically in common. Maybe that’s part of the appeal, variety versus homogeneity.
“You also have some archival material.” Now I’m talking to Terry Cearley, former education liaison of the Circle Cinema Theater in Tulsa, which has hosted its own French film festivals in recent years.
The façade of the Circle Cinema actually appears, briefly, as a location in some of the Coppola films showing this week! But Cearley is more interested in the festival’s documentary footage, film snippets plucked from the more forgotten corners of history. “Some in part may have been generated outside of the state, but the subject matter pertains to Oklahoma history, including materials relating to the black community of Oklahoma and some of the events leading up to the Tulsa Race Riot as well.”
The Tulsa Oklahoma Cinéma category has some of the oldest, rarest footage in the festival, and some of it was presented as a complete surprise. Perhaps as a counterbalance to make the Will Rogers film Judge Priest more palatable to modern eyes (the film co-stars perhaps the most offensive black character actor of all time, Stepin Fetchit himself), viewers of the 10 a.m. screening were first treated to a “short,” a brief reel of some unedited, silent snippets of life in the African American communities around Tulsa in the mid-twenties. Starting with what appeared to be a church group walking to a baptism or wedding, it included scenes of kids in ties and bowler hats filing out of Booker T. Washington High School, the fronts of stores, a shot of Tulsa’s original Greenwood district (before a highway bisected it), and people milling around piles of brick and rubble left over from the Tulsa Race Riot of five years earlier.
“It’s very much just raw footage,” Terry Cearley explains, “but it’s a part of our history. And it hasn’t always been the most flattering portrayal of our city. But the extraordinary nature of our history, whether it’s our Western heritage, or our racial heritage, or simply the pull of talent that originated from our state—there are a multiplicity of ties here, but they all relate back to our city.”
Are we giving the French the wrong idea about Oklahoma? Can any foreign city, filled with people who don’t know all the nuances of Oklahoma’s historic treatment of African Americans and Native Americans, understand the catharsis in these films as well as the blame and finger-pointing?
Sterlin Harjo questions whether we Tulsans know our history any better than the French do. “One of the ladies from the Tulsa coalition asked me what tribe I was from. And when I said ‘Seminole and Creek,’ she asked me if that was one tribe or two, which I thought was funny, because Tulsa was founded by Muskogee Creek people, and it’s a Muskogee Creek word … at this point, I’m sort of over the Oklahoma thing. I’ve been there, I’ve made films there. But that’s just where I’m from. I don’t get any extra support because I make films there. I get pats on the back and people thank me that I’m there. But whatever, I could be anywhere.”
Will Harjo really leave Tulsa for more cosmopolitan muses, as did Larry Clark, or Todd Lincoln (formerly of the Tulsa Overground Film Festival), or the dozens of other people in film and music and the creative arts who leave for more welcome pastures every year? (Full disclosure: I’m one of them, having left Tulsa for USC in 1995 and remained in Los Angeles ever since.)
Certainly Oklahoma could learn from Harjo’s films, and from the entire collection of films showing in Amiens. This is a great festival, and if you squint just right, you almost feel like these movies belong together, like we have a tradition worth being proud of. If the film loving community of Tulsa could bring some of this energy back home, foment it, and keep it, perhaps someday we might not need to go abroad to appreciate our own film history or to champion it from out of state. Flawed or not, consistent or not, this is our legacy to claim.
D. M. Collins