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Black filmmakers look to set history straight

The near-absence of black people from mainstream American filmmaking has become a chronic scandal. Apart from occasional pop stars like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, black actors rarely make their way into anything but token roles, and black actresses have trouble finding even those. Blacks and other minorities are also underrepresented behind the cameras.

All of which points up the crying need for an organization like the Black Filmmaker Foundation, a not-for-profit ``media arts center'' devoted to film and video production. Proudly black and proudly independent, it seeks to encourage and promote nonstudio black filmmaking as a ``countervoice'' to the Hollywood tradition, which tends to ignore blacks altogether when not stereotyping or exploiting them in pictures by and for the white majority.

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The foundation's most visible activity is an annual show called ``Dialogues With Black Filmmakers,'' now in its seventh year. The 1985 edition takes place tonight through Sunday at the Harlem School of the Arts in New York City and features a quartet of recent black-oriented films by such experienced media figures as Gordon Parks and Leslie Lee, who will be present.

The program's theme is reflected in its title, ``The Search for a Usable Past: Black History on Black Film.'' The urgency of this subject stems directly from the heritage of white-controlled Hollywood production, which has not only squeezed blacks largely out of the employment picture, but has shaped the national American consciousness of black history from a biased white perspective.

The show's emphasis is on documentary and docudrama techniques -- reflecting an awareness of a need to set history straight for blacks as well as whites by taking a cleareyed look at past events that would likely be handled in a self-serving fashion (if at all) by establishment filmmakers.

Hence the ``Dialogues'' lineup starts with two docudramas by William Greaves, a veteran black filmmaker. ``Frederick Douglass: An American Life'' was completed just this year, while ``Booker T. Washington: The Life and Legacy'' dates from 1983. Both were shot on historical locations and feature mostly black casts. Hampered by stilted dialogue and uneven performances, they aren't very imposing as movies. But they represent an important and encouraging trend in their respect for black history as seen thro ugh the eyes of blacks. And there's a strong cinematic punch in their clarity and directness of approach.

It's genuinely moving to have a fresh encounter with the extraordinary careers of Douglass and Washington, however modestly these are depicted -- and it's moving in another way to realize again that mainstream American culture still hasn't gotten the point of their bids for black dignity.

Why aren't such basic and essential questions being addressed every day in Hollywood movies? There are many answers to that, none of them very flattering to the film industry or the society it's rooted in. The Black Filmmaker Foundation and its ``Dialogues'' are one attempt to cut through the cultural haze with a new vision of black cinema, which the organization also promotes through distribution, programming, information, and consulting services. Long may it prosper. French films on tour

And speaking of worthwhile film events, another program devoted to independent movies -- this one with an international flavor -- is also in progress. It's the 1985 United States Tour of Contemporary French Cinema, presented by the French-American Film Workshop, based in Avignon, France.

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This workshop was set up as a forum for independent French and American filmmakers whose nonstudio status would ordinarily stand between them and the possibility of wide audiences.

Now in its second year, it serves as host to a summertime series of films from France and the United States alike, featuring this past July a varied bill of fare ranging from the comedy of ``Sitting Ducks'' and ``Last Night at the Alamo'' to the shocks of ``Blood Simple'' and the recaptured history of ``America and Lewis Hine.''

It has also put together a touring package of seven features and seven shorts, which will have stopped in nine American cities from coast to coast by the time it finishes its current travels. Now on screen in Texas at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the workshop moves next to the University of Texas at Austin before winding down with an abbreviated January showing at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston.

True to the maverick spirit of independent filmmaking, the programmers don't shy away from a provocative item that strikes their fancy, be it an unclassifiable excursion like Agn`es Varda's moody ``Documenteur,'' in the current tour, or a fiery psychological drama like Jeanne Labrune's ``Part of the Other,'' slated for next year's event.

Whatever one's opinion of any given film, however, it is hard to fault the workshop's commitment to imaginative cinema produced outside mainstream channels. With such creative support, independent film may someday become a true alternative to studio-bound commercial production.

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