French director Justine de Gasquet, currently studying cinema at HEAD Geneva, discusses her archive-based short film on African-American culture, as told through the testimony of Prisoner 74A3701.
New York prisoner ibn Kenyatta refuses to attend parole hearings, “because parole is for the guilty… it becomes a slick back door confession.” Instead he has remained incarcerated since 1974, charged with the attempted murder of a police officer, an accusation he strongly refutes. In essence, if and when he is released from prison, it will be on his terms.
Throughout this period he has remained in close contact with activist Safiya Bandele, his ‘lover’ before his imprisonment, who, a few years ago, took French lessons from Justine de Gasquet, then a resident of New York, not yet a filmmaker. The pair became firm friends.
When de Gasquet decided on a future career in film, primarily as an editor, the story that Bandele told of Kenyatta remained uppermost in her thoughts. When granted access to US archives as part of her Geneva-based studies, de Gasquet was therefore determined to gather social, political and cultural footage of African American life throughout the 20th Century in order to illustrate the philosophical and polemical thoughts and observations of the prisoner. These were gleaned from an essay written in 2019 for circulation among the residents of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, where Bandele lives.
“The images of what he wrote and what he told me about America were already written in my mind in an imaginative way, and when I started searching through the real [archive] images it was obvious how to put them together,” explains de Gasquet.
Kenyatta’s is a philosophy born out of cynicism and experience, and an all-too-acute understanding of the human condition. He eschews the common aphorism that ‘we are born to die’, observing instead that ‘we are born dying’.
“When we assess our odds at becoming a de facto martyr in the Lotto birth game of life, sadly everybody comes out a winner,” he later observes. That said, whatever hope we have is not to be sought in the afterlife. “Only on this side of the grave, not after the death of the physical body, is there a change for salvation.”
At the same time, life is to be lived ‘under the warmth of that great ball of fire’.
Prisoner no. 74A3701’s words are accompanied by a series of rich images, mostly black and white, dating back to 1930’s America and the island of Haiti, where many slaves were sourced, de Gasquet points out.
We see poor African Americans (and poor whites) in mid-20th Century soup kitchens and workers picking cotton in sun-baked fields. We observe urban kids preening before the camera and their Haitian counterparts doing the same, dressed in traditional costume for Carnival.
A lone black youth attends a juvenile hearing as his disappointed mother looks on. Meanwhile on the streets outside, ranks of white policemen parade by, as individual officers swing their batons, slapping them onto bare palms.
De Gasquet presents Martin Luther King and Black Panther activist Bobby Seale (also incarcerated) in archive, and we attend the funeral of George Jackson, martialled by black-clad Panther activists. Later a group of Jackson 5 wannabes rehearse dance routines.
The director has never met Kenyatta. “Only in my dreams,” she says, “but of course I am fascinated to meet him.” So they have hitherto corresponded by letter since de Gasquet’s decision to attend the HEAD film school in Geneva.
What is astonishing about the film is that de Gasquet started the process of image collation at the beginning of lockdown, in March 2020. The footage fragments were sourced from the archive of University of California professor Rick Prelinger. Her response to a question on how she was able to turn around the film so quickly is phlegmatic. “Yes, well, it was Covid-19. We were all locked up.”
De Gasquet is very happy that her film is selected for Locarno, but would like it to travel beyond Swiss borders, which seems inevitable given its powerful and contemporary relevance.
“I hope that the film is also seen in France because I support Assa Traore (the sister of brother Adama who was killed in police custody),” she says. “The police in France has its own problems that are very similar to the case of George Floyd, and so I hope it can resonate in France also.”
Given his ongoing imprisonment, it is unlikely and sad that Kenyatta will be watching The De Facto Martyr Suite anytime soon. “There is no way he can see the film for now, but he talks to Safiya on the phone every two days, and he sent me a letter telling me that he is happy with the film as long as Safiya is happy with the film, which she is,” de Gasquet concludes.