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Water Ritual #1  /  L.A. In My Mind  /  Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes  /  Cycles  /  A Period Piece

Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979)
October 9, 2011 - 7:00 pm
Zeinabu irene Davis, O.Funmilayo Makarah, Barbara McCullough.

Funded with a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Avant-Garde Masters Grant Program funded by The Film Foundation.

Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979)

Restoration premiere!

Directed by Barbara McCullough

Made in collaboration with performer Yolanda Vidato, Water Ritual #1 examines Black women’s ongoing struggle for spiritual and psychological space through improvisational, symbolic acts. Shot in 16mm black-and-white, the film was made in an area in Watts that had been cleared to make way for the I-105 freeway, but ultimately abandoned. At first sight, Milanda (Vidato, wearing a simple dress and scarves on her head and waist) and her environs (burnt-out houses overgrown with weeds) might seem to be located in Africa or the Caribbean, or at some time in the past. This layering of locations and temporalities continues to the film’s striking conclusion, in which a now nude Milanda squats and urinates inside an urban ruin. By making “water,” Milanda evokes the numerous female water-based figures in African-Diaspora cosmology as she attempts to expel the putrefaction she has absorbed from her physical environment, while symbolically cleansing the environment itself. 

Structured as a ritual for Barbara McCullough’s “participant-viewers,” Water Ritual #1 honors Black/Third World women’s beauty and self-possession, and has been recognized as a pioneering work in Black feminist and experimental filmmaking. The film was inspired in part by the mental breakdown of a female friend of McCullough’s who retreated into “her own internal being.” The film shares with Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep a concern for how conditions of poverty, exploitation and anger render the Los Angeles landscape not as the fabled promised land for Black migrants, but as both causes and emblems of Black mental anguish. Although the film reflects a chain of abandonments— the city has turned its back on the Black community, residents have vacated their homes, and the deserted homes leave remaining folks like Milanda stranded and desolate—McCullough suggests that sites of urban blight can be activated as consecrated ground. —Jacqueline Stewart

Producer: Barbara McCullough. Screenwriter: Barbara McCullough. Cinematographer: Peter Blue, Ben Caldwell, Roho. Editor: Barbara McCullough.

35mm, black and white, 6 min.

Restored from the original 16mm b/w reversal a/b rolls, the original 16mm magnetic soundtrack and a 16mm composite print, by UCLA Film & Television Archive.  Laboratory services by Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory, Audio Mechanics, and DJ Audio.

L.A. In My Mind (2006)

Directed by O.Funmilayo Makarah

A captivating montage of notable Los Angeles sites, laced with free-floating names of places and people and accompanied by street noises, becomes a delightful and personal canon of spiritually sustaining quantities. —Shannon Kelley

Digital video, color, 4 min.

Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space (1981)

Directed by Barbara McCullough

Barbara McCullough’s journey as a film- and video-maker has focused less on finished products and more on processes, at once aesthetic and spiritual. Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space represents a significant stretch along McCullough’s path, where she conversed with other L.A.-based Black artists about the role of ritual in Black life and creative practice. Visual artist David Hammons likens his activities to vanguard musicians as he improvises an outdoor composition of found objects. Poets Raspoeter Ojenke, Kenneth Severin, K. Curtis Lyle and Kamau Daa’ood describe and display their synergistic approaches, as do improvisational musicians Freedom in Expression, accompanying one another with voice and percussion.  Kinshasha Cornwill and Houston Cornwill describe their performance/visual art collaborations. Senga Nengudi recalls feeling “possessed” while dancing in costume at the collaborative performance she staged to open her “Freeway Fets” installation at a Los Angeles freeway underpass. And in an intimate conversation, Betye Saar offers McCullough an inspiring definition of ritual: It is not just a rite, but also what feels “right,” a process that builds the artist’s confidence and the traditions that can be passed along to future generations.

McCullough uses video footage, still photographs, interview audio and musical selections by Don Cherry to explore how her own film and video practice fits into Black traditions of performance and visual arts. McCullough opens Shopping Bag Spirits with footage from her own project, Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification, a landmark of Black and feminist experimental filmmaking. In addition to featuring alternate shots, McCullough’s 16mm film footage is enhanced with video effects. Blighted urban ruins become enchanted with glowing purples and blues, as video technologies (explored in courses with Shirley Clarke), add new dimensions to McCullough’s repertoire. —Jacqueline Stewart

Producer: Barbara McCullough. Screenwriter: Barbara McCullough. Cinematographer: Barbara McCullough, Bernard Nicolas, John Simmons, Roderick Young. Editor:  Barbara McCullough.

Digital video, color, 60 min.

Cycles (1989)

Directed by Zeinabu irene Davis

As a woman anxiously awaits her overdue period, she performs African-based rituals of purification. She cleans house and body, and calls on the spirits (Orishas in the Yoruba tradition), receiving much needed inspiration and assurance in a dream. The film combines beautifully intimate still and moving images of the woman’s body and home space, along with playful stop-motion sequences. —Jacqueline Stewart

Wimmin with a Mission Productions, Mosaic Films. Producer: Zeinabu irene Davis. Screenwriter: Doris-Owanda Johnson. Cinematographer: Pierre Hermann Désir. Editor:  Zeinabu irene Davis. Cast: Stephanie Ingram, Darryl Munyungo Jackson, Marc Chery, Doris-Owanda Johnson, Zeinabu irene Davis. 

16mm, b/w, 17 min.

A Period Piece (1991)

Directed by Zeinabu irene Davis

In this video work, Zeinabu irene Davis and collaborator Quinta Seward perform a comic rap (old-school style) about the false promises in ads for feminine hygiene products.  Lampooning the classic embarrassing scenarios (getting your period at the prom, exercise class or walking down the aisle), the rap’s feminist refrain reminds us that “confidence” comes from within, not from a box or tube. —Jacqueline Stewart

Screenwriter: Zeinabu irene Davis. Cast: Zeinabu irene Davis, Sandra Sealy. 

Digital video, color, 5 min.