Born in Dallas in 1948, Billy Woodberry is one of the founders of the L.A. Rebellion film movement.
I was born in a big county hospital — Parkland… They were thinking of maybe knocking it down, but they decided to preserve it. So I’m glad. And when I was born, we lived in North Dallas on Roseland and that’s important to me because shortly after, I think, we moved to a big housing project on the far, south side of town, the end of the street corner. So I actually grew up there, but I kind of imagined what it would have been like if I would have stayed in North Dallas with my original people, you know? (Laughs) North Dallas is an old part of town. The first high school was in that part of town, my mother’s from that — when she came to Dallas, she lived in that part of town. It was a smaller kind of place in a sort of important part of the city, and the black part of the city… My mother was maybe 16, 17, so she couldn’t manage to work and have me … so she took me to her grandparents — her father’s parents — in East Texas … when I was maybe nine months old or something like that… I spent the first six years there on a farm in the country. I joined them later when it was time to go to school… In the first grade, I went to the school in the country with all of the kids I knew and my cousins and took the bus. I was fine with it, but my mother was not hearing that, so I had to come [back] to the city. Every summer I went [back to the country]. I knew that world and because they were older and from a different generation, I knew those people, and I knew my great aunt, who was a bit older than them. And I remember when they got social security … I remember when they got electricity, when we got a television and the mystery about that, like what happens if it storms and the TV is on [and] this kind of stuff. So I remember a lot of things that others, even people my age, don’t know.
Then I went to Dallas in the second grade and I lived in my big housing project and that was a notorious part of town, the tough part of town. That project was new and you can’t think of it like now; now I joke, I tell my cousins and my friends, all those people you’re trying to run away from in the projects, they’ve got their own TV show (laughs). But it’s a different thing, because when we lived in there it was young families, right off, making their way, and they weren’t always like the poorest people, and they were ambitious people, and that was a transition for them until they could manage… So I lived there for nine years and then we moved — I think nine — well, I was going into the eighth grade and we moved to upper South Dallas because my uncle had a nice place and he died, and so my aunt inherited it. We spent a year there and then we moved across the river to a place called Oak Cliff.
In Black Film Review, (Volume 1, No. 4), Woodberry said about his childhood living on that small farm, “I think I absorbed the stories, the sensibilities, the sounds of that generation, born not so long ago after the end of slavery and Reconstruction.”
At Lincoln High School in Oak Cliff, Woodberry played football and saw movies down the street at the Lincoln as well as the Forest Avenue Theater — the latter now owned by Erykah Badu. He had offers from black colleges (Morgan State in Baltimore being one of them), but he decided to go west to California and went first to Santa Barbara City College.
Santa Barbara used to be a kind of weigh station for the Black Panthers because it was a very pleasant interlude before you entered Los Angeles County, where you encountered a very different police response than you did even in the Bay Area, so they liked that respite…They could kind of walk around and relax and be admired by young students, so I got to see that… My real heroes were the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people, many of whom I didn’t know until later, but I knew it from reading about them because those campaigns to raise support for the work in the South. And the Berkeley people; I didn’t know Berkeley or go to Berkeley until the 70s. I just knew their work and the people that passed through. And I picked that stuff up… I connected with that once I decided that, you know what, I really do want to finish school and see where that goes.
[After graduation] I went home, I got married, I didn’t want to stay there, so I stayed there for a total of two months, and I came to California March 1970. And I landed at my friend and his roommate’s house and I slept in his room on the floor and… She would wait. I would get a place, I would get things going. So I needed to get a job, I needed to see about school, and I probably accomplished all of it by summer with my friends. I got a job in a factory in Vernon. It’s a lithography plant. They printed all the album covers if you remember that phenomenon… My wife came. She was here for some months, then she was gonna have a baby. She was pregnant. She wanted to be back in her place, so in about six months, she moved back to have her baby and I stayed and I did a summer program at Cal State, which I didn’t have to do, but I’m actually incredibly happy… that I did it. Most of the people went to school at night because they worked during the day. And those guys, they had a kind of third-world consciousness because of the politics of the Panthers and the Chicano Moratorium… and they knew that these groups need to know each other and they need to cooperate and respect each other, so they gave you the history and they gave you the analysis and the sociology and all of that, relating to that, and you got exposed to it and it became a part of your thing. There’s no conflict, competition, and that kind of thing. You were interested in the other people and the issues, so very helpful, very useful things about how to study and how to organize your time and you direct yourself and how to ask for help if you need it and how to get support financially and otherwise — to do what you needed to do.
Woodberry continued his studies and Cal State Los Angeles, becoming a serious student as well as looking outside of his course work to grow intellectually. It was the time of the black consciousness movement, the black arts movement and he saw the large increase of black students at the top UC campuses post-1968.
It was exciting and it was easy to be excited about it and to be stimulated by it. So [in] 1972, I decide I want my degree. I found a receptive and hospitable and stimulating department in Pan-African studies, so I did my B.A. in African-American history and studies. In between graduating and the fall, I took a summer course in Latin American studies… there was this political scientist named Donald Bray who was a political scientist… That summer, Bray did a class on Cuba, but it was a class that was partly through film. And we saw all of the Cuban documentary films and the History Of A Battle [Historia de una batalla by Manuel Octavio Gómez]— the film about the literacy campaign and the brigadistas, the young ones who go in the countryside, volunteer with sleeping bags, and they wanted to teach every peasant how to at least how to read and write their name. It was a whole campaign. So you got to see all of [these] kind[s] of films. I found it really exciting and, along with starting to try to understand issues of history and political economy and philosophy and political organization and commitment, what it meant – I was excited by that… That was a part of the way that I was sort of taken with film.
My teachers, Harding and Bray, they knew I had a growing interest in that, and they mentioned to me — I had learned about UCLA Film School, but it was not something that I was committed to or sure I could. I was very tentative, but they knew I was interested, so one time, Paul Offredi, this Brazilian pedagogue, was meeting up at La Paz, the center and retreat for the United Farm Workers. This was 1970 — early 72. And they asked me would I like to go to see him because they knew I was [interested] and they said you can meet a guy, a Brazilian guy, who studies at UCLA — Mario DeSilva. He was in graduate school at UCLA. I said, “Sure.” I went, I didn’t wear warm enough clothes, I didn’t realize how cold it got. We took a van, I met him, I talked with him, I spent time with him, I went up, I saw Paul Offredi in an act with the farm workers and César Chávez, and I came back, and Mario told me, “Sure, make the application, you can do that and I will take you around.” Then, I made the application, they wrote me wonderful letters.
I was teaching myself as a part of learning about — wanting to learn about — film. And the other thing is I had made an 8mm film in my history of jazz and blues class for a guy I really love. He went to school here, did his Ph.D. in anthropology. His name was Lance Williams and he’s a real Los Angeles guy, he went to Mt. Carmel High School, he went to Cal State L.A., he came here, he knew a lot about jazz and music. He had been tutored by Quincy Jones and all those people. He’s a nice, brilliant, Catholic boy, you know what I mean? And really smart and [a] good teacher. I made this film based on a song by John Lee Hooker, “Whiskey and Women.” It was just a free-form kind of little film I made on Super 8, but I made it myself and edited in the camera. So I must’ve been interested, and he still talks about that. I made the first film in his class. [Now lost.]
I came over to visit before I got in, I think, with Mario and my then girlfriend because I had gotten a divorce and I had a new girlfriend… I came for his thesis screening. That’s where I met Charles Burnett. He was playing with a yo-yo (laughs) and being unassuming, not really showing you who he was, but Mario told me that, “that’s the guy you want to know and that’s the guy you [want to] really check out because he doesn’t do all the yapping and the posturing that the others [do], but I’m telling you, his is the real deal. I’ve worked with him, I’ve been in Watts with him. I know. He’s the real guy.” Now it took two years of something before we became friends, three almost. That was how I met him, though.
Going to UCLA was not the only film education Woodberry received. He remembers a bookstore/café named the Long March where he watched The Mother by Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s Old and New, and G. W. Pabst’s version of the Threepenny Opera. It was also a golden age of repertory cinemas in Los Angeles — Woodberry remembers seeing a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard movies at the Vanguard. At the Vagabond, (programmed by William Moritz an important historian of animation and experimental films) Woodberry saw Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes. His first date with the woman that became his second wife, was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see Brazilian films. They also would take the bus down to the Fox Venice Theater where one Saturday they saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Godard’s Tout va Bien.
It’s good to see, for me to remember, that part of my film culture was formed in the context of the cultural and political world of the time and not just in the classroom.
That’s not to dismiss at all the importance of UCLA.
This was a wonderful, wonderful place because it was a world where you were inundated with film, with the talk about it, the smell of it, the young people getting their hands on equipment for the first time… and you had the requirements that you do three film history sections, that you do two seminars, and so you were able to… see all kinds of films that I might avoid… If I have to do the history of silent film, I can’t avoid it. And the fact [is] that I’m interested in it and I will buy books and read books about it. I don’t know [if] that’s everybody’s temperament or experience, but for me, it was… It’s interesting, too, that a number of my friends, including Geoffrey Gilmore, who’s at Tribeca now, but was [for] years at Sundance and did his studies here in film theory, film studies, film history, and others. A number of those people, we’ve remained friends since school because I’m genuinely interested in what they do and what they think about.
I remember the first discussion me and Charles [Burnett] had was: Pudovkin or Eisenstein? (laughs) He says, Pudovkin, because he’s more humanist. As I learned about his things, how he acquired his interest, his taste and over the years we’ve shared those things, and I really admire, and I was enriched by learning what his interests were and what informed what he did.
In Black Film Review, (Volume 1, No. 4, 1984), Woodberry added, “It was a very fertile time for the film school. Haile Gerima was there, Larry Clark was there, Charles Burnett was there. They were ahead of me and beginning to make their films. So it was a very dynamic and fertile environment…They organized screenings in the evenings. There were constant debates and arguments. And they were all very hard working and set the standards…In that environment, I think one could do less, but only with a lot of discomfort; you didn’t have many excuses for not striving to say something more. We all felt the dearth of images, of films that expressed what we thought, what we knew.”
About his own first attempts to make film, in that same magazine, Woodberry noted, “I was exposed to films that had a social dimension…In sort of a backwards way, from these films, I started to search for films that somehow demonstrated a possibility of expressing my concern with social and political issues. At a certain point, I wanted to make films. To try.” His first student film is now lost, but his next short film, The Pocketbook exists and it’s a small masterpiece.
With a small grant from the American Film Institute, Woodberry attempted the very ambitious Bless Their Little Hearts in 1979. But in that year, he had to stop for six months. Over the next three years, he was able to shoot approximately four-fifths of the film. Woodberry received his MFA from UCLA in 1982. It had taken a while to get through school since he had to make money to support himself and to produce Bless Their Little Hearts. In September of 1983, he had the film’s first screening at the Independent Feature Market in New York. The film is now considered a pioneering and essential work of the L.A. Rebellion — influenced by Italian neo-realism and the work of Third Cinema filmmakers. Bless Their Little Hearts was awarded an OCIC and Ecumenical Jury awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2013. For some years after graduation, Woodberry taught at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
Currently, Woodberry is a permanent faculty member of the School of Film/Video and the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts, where he has taught since 1989. Over the years, Woodberry has also been an established video and multimedia installation artist, his works appearing at the Viennale, DocLisboa, Amiens International Film Festival, Camera Austria Symposium, Harvard Film Archive, Human Rights Watch Film Festival and Museum of Modern Art.
Woodberry’s film portrait of black beat poet Bob Kaufman, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (2015) was the opening film of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight in 2016. It was a film long in the making:
“I’ve been researching him for about twelve, fourteen years. I knew about him before, since the seventies, from people who introduced me to his books. I always had his books, and I was impressed, but I didn’t know so much at the time. And then in 1986, I went to the City Lights bookstore and saw this magazine, Poetry Flash, and the cover [story] was about his death. At the time, I thought, “Maybe I should make a short movie about him. A kind of tribute.” But when I looked at it, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I didn’t really grasp the tragic dimensions of his life. I was too naive — I didn’t know enough about life, enough about tragedy, enough about much. So I put it aside. In the early aughts, I took it up again. I spent six or seven years researching it, another four or five years shooting it, and I spent two years editing it.” — Interview by Danny King, Village Voice, February 19, 2016.
The film premiered at the 53rd Viennale, Vienna International Film Festival (2015), and has been featured at festivals nationally and internationally, including the 13th Doclisboa, Documentary International Film Festival – International Competition, Lisbon (2015); 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam – Signatures, (2016); 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (2016); Courtisane Film Festival, Ghent (2016); and The Flaherty Film Seminar, New York (2016).
“And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead — title lifted from a line in one of Kaufman’s poems — is director Woodberry’s inspired, moving meditation on Kaufman’s work and legacy. A seamless marriage of director and subject, the film is not only scored by but also moves to the rhythms of jazz and is itself a kind of poetry. Fans of Woodberry’s masterful 1984 film Bless Their Little Hearts (selected for preservation in the National Film Registry) won’t be surprised at the taut intelligence and rich artfulness of And When I Die, in which the director upends many bio-doc conventions. He opens the film by dropping the viewer into Kaufman’s narrative at its boiling point – after he has already made waves and a name for himself in San Francisco’s fecund poetry scene of the mid-twentieth century.” -For CraveOnline, Ernest Hardy, 2016
Woodberry’s short documentary, Marseille Après La Guerre (2016), is a portrait of dock workers in post-WWII Marseille, many of whom were of African descent, and pays homage to Senegalese film director, Ousmane Sembéne:
“These photographs [that make up the short] were found in the collection of the National Maritime Union, in their archives at the NYU library. They are views and photographs of the docks of Marseilles after the Second World War. The film is also a kind of tribute to Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese writer and filmmaker because, in ’47, he made his way back to France after serving in the war. He went back to Marseilles, where he worked and lived as a dockworker and joined the CGT [General Confederation of Labor]. So it’s a tribute to him, and a tribute those dock people, and to Marseilles at the time. It’s also a tribute to a group of young musicians who kind of reclaimed this heritage. They were very responsive to a book by Claude McKay, a Jamaican writer who lived in the United States. He wrote a book in Marseilles called Banjo, about life in the old ports of Marseilles. It’s quite a book. These young musicians — they said if their band was a book, it would be called Banjo. I liked their music, so we used it. So it’s a way of promoting my affection for Sembène and for that world and also for finding that material.” — Interview by Danny King, Village Voice, February 19, 2016.
Marseille Après La Guerre received acclaim after its screenings at the Roy and Edna Disney Theater CalArts’ Downtown Center for Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles (2016), Courtisane Film Festival, Gent (2016), and Instituto Moreira Salles, Rio de Janeiro (2016).
Woodberry’s films have been screened at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals, Viennale, Rotterdam, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Harvard Film Archive, Camera Austria Symposium, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Tate Modern, and Centre Pompidou.
He has also appeared in Charles Burnett’s When It Rains (1995) and provided narration for Thom Andersen’s Red Hollywood (1996) and James Benning’s Four Corners (1998).
In March 0f 2017, Woodberry was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellows for “individuals who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”
Main Interview Courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive. Completed on: Thursday, June 24, 2010; July 6, 2010. Interviewee: Billy Woodberry (BW). Interviewers: Jacqueline Stewart, Dr. Allyson Field, and Robyn Charles. Transcribers: Kelly Lake, Michael Kmet.