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A Moment in the Life of Jamaa Fanaka, or The One That Started It All

About the Author

Signature image for L.A. Rebellion is a still from Ashes & Embers (1982)
UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

This is a group blog for Prof. Allyson Nadia Field's Fall 2011 graduate seminar, FTV 218: Culture, Media & Society: The "L.A. Rebellion" of Black Filmmakers, which looks at the films in the larger contexts of African American filmmaking, race in American cinema, and the social, political, and cultural environments of the films’ production.

Unable to find any previous reviews of A Day in the Life of Willie Faust, or Death on the Installment Plan (1972) by Jamaa Fanaka, I reached out to the filmmaker on Facebook and pleasantly, to my surprise, he responded. In the interview that resulted, I gained insight on the film, how it was made and the inspiration behind it. His stories about the film were as fascinating as watching it.

The 8mm, 20-minute movie was Fanaka’s first and only short film made while a student at UCLA. After receiving very positive feedback upon completion, he quickly assessed that he was not only good at filmmaking but that feature films would be his goal. Shortly after completing A Day in the Life, the prolific filmmaker went on to make three feature films while still a student: Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975), Emma Mae (1976) and Penitentiary (1979). This is such an incredible feat that, to put it in proper perspective, one should know that what he accomplished as a student has never been done before or since by anyone in the entire history of UCLA.

The movie is based on Goethe’s "Faust," which is the classic German myth about a man who makes a deal with the devil and, in exchange for his soul, is given money, women and honor. So moved by this tale, which he learned about in junior college prior to attending UCLA, Fanaka created his own depiction and named his character Willie Faust, a Black man who sells his soul to the devil for drugs. In explaining the second part of the title, …or Death on the Installment Plan, Fanaka explained that, “every time Willie takes a shot of drugs he’s making an installment payment on his own death.”

Because it was his Project One, the first film completed by a directing student in the UCLA film program, and synch sound was not allowed, the morality tale was shot without sound. It is instead superimposed over a remake of Super Fly, which was added later during the editing stage.

A true independent filmmaker, Fanaka cast himself (as Willie), his wife Lynn, his infant daughter Katina, his sister Carmen, his brother-in-law Boots, and Snooks (a friend and drug addict whose arm was used in a real shooting up drug scene). As the result of his first effort being a true family affair, Fanaka will be present along with members of his family who were in the film at the 7:30 p.m. Friday night screening, which will be shown prior to his most successful film to date, Penitentiary. This is one screening and event you don’t want to miss.

—Michelle Amor

Comments

Great review by a top graduate student of the first and only short film of my career. My thinking is that one has

 

a much better chance of reaching a mass audience with a feature film than a "short'

 

no matter how good the short may be.

For the past 3 months, I have viewed every offering from Mr. Jamaa Fanaka's incredibly impressive body of work. He is without a doubt the most interesting director that I have known. I had the opportunity of helping him a bit on "Welcome Home Brother Charles," as well as "Emma Mae." I have found that his selection of actors is beyond brilliant. He is masterful when it comes to realizing his artistic vision. Every frame of his films is wrought with magnificent tension, energy, and this is a decided pleasure. I recently updated my Facebook Russian friends with this truly original American treasure. They eagerly accepted him as a friend. I have the feeling that the body of his work will find a rapt audience in many more countries as a result of the added exposure that the LAR has given him.

 

Best

Thomas Penick Class of 1971  UCLA FILM, THEATER, AND TELEVISION