Passing Through is an astonishing film but not one that can be quickly described. Formally, it is so audacious that it defies summary; its narrative elements cannot account for the film’s free-form structure which moves in multiple directions, sometimes following what Clark has described as accent marks, sometimes enjoying the possibility to rest on a “note” or develop, in cinematic form, unexpected musical phrasing. From an analytical standpoint Passing Through is hard to seize.
As an artifact that existed solely as a 16mm print until the digital transfer performed by the UCLA Film & Television Archive this past spring the film is even more elusive. A hard-to see “cult” film Passing Through is a purposefully withdrawing object; yet it maintains an objecthood that is at the same time vulnerable and matter-of-fact.
Here is a story that illustrates this fact. After the film release Haile Gerima, Clark’s classmate, friend and collaborator (and director of Bush Mama, 1975), purchased a copy of the print for Howard University, the institution where he was (and still is) teaching. One, or perhaps two years later Gerima contacted Clark to report that the print could no longer be played: some of his students had watched the film so many times that the film was coming apart. Eventually, these students turned out to be Ernest Dickerson (cinematographer for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, 1990) and Arthur Jafa (the cinematographer for Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), who also worked with John Akomfrah in Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), Spike Lee in Crooklyn (1994) and recently directed Dreams are Colder Than Death (2014)). They had studied the film’s opening sequence so closely that they had worn out the print.
And here is another story that puts this objecthood in context: Clark has talked about how Charles Burnett shot Killer of Sheep one week at the time because he could only afford to buy one roll of film per week. After 52 weeks of shooting he had a feature-length film. Burnett then edited and put together the negative with some old glue he had found. When he took it to the lab, the film fell apart and he had to re-cut it, re-mix it, and put it all together again. The film went on to win awards at the Berlin and Sundance film festivals and was included in the National Film Registry in 1990. Charlie, Clark likes to point out, it went on to win the McArthur “genius” award….
The undeniable objecthood of the L.A. Rebellion films is essential to their cultural work. Their simultaneous resilience and vulnerability demand a different ethics of reception and consumption. Passing Through has always lived an ephemeral life: it never had a theatrical release and yet it was seen all over the world in the art cinema festival circuit and in the U.S. in art galleries and museums but also in cultural centers, basements of churches, and as part of fundraisers against apartheid. Besides the UCLA archive, the Mozambique Film Institute owns a copy of the film and, as Clark traveled a lot with film, he met important political figures and intellectuals (Aimé Cesaire and Thomas Sankara, among many others). In Ouagadugou for the FESPACO festival, following President Sankara’s request Clark, and other black American filmmakers “where part of a team that early one morning traveled to a desolate site eight miles from Ouaga […] to manually lay 200 yards of [railroad] track. Led by Senegalese director [Ousmane] Sembène, they toiled for an hour under the fierce but hazy sun, using iron pincers to lift heavy metal tracks onto a gravel bed.” (The Chicago Tribune Magazine, July 7, 1985, p. 26)
The filmmaker is an artist, a warrior, a worker. The film is a mesmerizing trip through complicated sonic and visual layers, but also a call to action, to objection, and uncompromising creativity.