In Drylongso, Pica (Toby Smith) coughs her way through each day. She goes to photography class at the local college, works nights putting up posters for various missing persons and political organizers, and survives in a household with her mother and grandmother, along with an open-door assortment of the former’s friends. Her sickness becomes an afterthought, a part of her character that cannot be fixed, treated, or resolved.
Pica documents the Black men in her neighborhood in Oakland, several of which have gone missing or have been murdered by an anonymous serial killer. She asks them, “Can I take your picture?” pulls out her Polaroid camera, and snaps a shot, keeping them in a rubber-banded stack in her backpack. Her photography, and her extended art, can be seen as a way of documentation, but also as remembrance. Funerals keep happening, but at least these young Black men dying have this “evidence of existence,” as Pica calls it.
Writer-director Cauleen Smith made Drylongso when she was in college, 25 years ago, premiering at Sundance in 1998. She has gone on to create dozens of short films, art installations, and more experimental work, focused on similar themes of feminism, racial violence, and Black communities. The low-key hangout movie should have been a stepping stone for Smith, but, as with many other works by Black female filmmaking of the last half-century, it fell out of circulation.
With Pica and her friend, Tobi (April Barnett), Drylongso becomes a film about two women surviving, coping, and continually moving forward. It’s a film about a tight-knit community in Oakland, one that helped Smith make the film, working in collaboration with the then-college student. It still focuses on this idea of Black men as an endangered species, but, according to Smith in various interviews over the years, that’s where most viewers lose the thread. It’s not just about racial violence or continued trauma. Drylongso concerns itself with female friendship and the dreams these Black women have for the future.
Now, the film has been restored in 4K, supervised by Smith, in a collaboration with the Criterion Collection, Janus Films, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It should reach a wider, and newer, audience than before. And the restoration still looks beautiful in all of its micro-budget and DIY filmmaking, with assurance that Smith knew where to put the camera and how to frame each moment.
Ahead of a theatrical run beginning at Film at Lincoln Center this Friday, I chatted with Smith about the restoration of the film, her approach to art, violence fatigue in Black communities, and the impact of teaching art versus teaching film.
The Film Stage: Since the film was first released 25 years ago, have you returned to it often, if at all?
Cauleen Smith: In 1998, when it came out, definitely. And then a couple of years after there was a lot of touring and screening and talking. And I think I just kind of had enough of talking about it and really wanted to move onto something else. You can be out there huffing it, trying to get people to watch it, or you can be trying to make something else. So I just moved onto something else. And then, you know, once it fell out of distribution, it’s just really easy to forget about it and focus on what you have in front of you.
And how did it feel returning to it, since you supervised the restoration?
It was really interesting because restorations, there’s a lot you can do, you can change things, which I didn’t know. I didn’t know that you would want to do that. And so I thought about the options in that regard. And I realized that, even though for me, almost every shot is a compromise where I know that there could have been something else going on if circumstances had been different. I also really stand by each shot in the film and really feel like we were solving so many problems and telling so much story in that tiny, 60-millimeter frame that we had. I didn’t really feel like augmenting that. I thought this is a film that was shot with about $20,000 of cash, and it probably looks that way, and it probably should look that way. Do you know what I mean? So I focused instead on things like the quality of the exposure or the grain instead of actually trying to fix things.
So you had the option to add or subtract?
Apparently you can really do a lot of crazy things, like substituting things. I felt like that would be a betrayal to the younger filmmaker that I was at the time, and also, in some of the scenes I really feel like we got what we set out to get. Like I said: we solve so many problems with just one shot or one rack focus or something. Last week my assistant camera Robert [Hubbard] said that he found a roll of film in his basement, like an unexposed roll of film. I’m staring at it and I really want to get it processed because I have a vague recollection editing it, combing through dailies over and over looking for something that I knew we’d shot but I just couldn’t find it. And so I might not remember right now what that was, but I can’t wait. I really hope that this film is salvageable. And I really wish I’d gotten it a year and a half ago. Maybe that would have been something I would have changed. Maybe I would have added whatever the scene is that’s on this missing roll.
How does it feel to be returning to something that you made when you were so much younger? Do you feel like you’re returning to that part of yourself?
At first I did. But now I’ve been enjoying looking at the film in terms of thinking about the conditions of production and how we had to make it in Oakland, and how the community really buoyed us and supported us and protected us. It’s really wonderful to think back on that and think about how that really shaped how I went on to make films and how I make them now. It should be a relational process, as opposed to an invade-and-conquer process.
Is there something you miss about that younger experience, about having so much unknown of the filmmaking process? About scraping by, having actors just be folks passing by on the street, about that sense of community?
The unknown part––I think there’s still so much I don’t know. I feel like every time you make something there’s a moment where you’re confronted with it. That’s kind of the cool moment, and the scary moment at the same time. So that part is not unfamiliar, particularly because I’m always experimenting with how to make films nowadays. But I think the cool part was really the opportunities that would present themselves and being able to take advantage of them. That’s the kind of thing when you have no money, so you just have to ask for things or barter for things. You can really only do that once as a filmmaker, and then you have to mature into something where people are not volunteering or not just trying to support you. But it’s an exchange, maybe not so much transactional, but an exchange of what they’re contributing for what you’re making.
Do you think your approach to these kinds of productions, and your approach to creating art in general, has changed a lot in the last 20 years? Or do you still feel similar in your pursuit of certain ideas, certain approaches?
I’m still interested in the same ideas and same politics and same social ethic, but the way that I learned a lot about what I do and don’t like about filmmaking in that process, it really imprinted me and I’m still thinking about that all the time. What’s the way that I want to make this film that’s reflective of the politics that I’m conveying inside of it? I want the making of it, the process and the content of it, and its aesthetics to be equally consistent. And that’s something that I’m always testing out and tweaking and trying to learn from.
I was just curious about the decision for Pica to have this sickness throughout the film. It becomes a throughline that only gets worse over time.
Almost everything in the film can be attached to something that was happening or happened in my life. And in my group of friends, before I made this film, I had a good friend who was chronically ill and didn’t really have the means to go to a doctor and she succumbed to illness. She died very, very young, and the film was dedicated to Andrelle. There’s a weird way in which, when you don’t have many means, your actual physical or even mental health is completely sidelined for these tasks that you need to perform just to stay or keep things in order.
I don’t think healthcare really has the best history with Black people in particular, and it’s often really pointless going to a doctor because they don’t treat you anyway. They just condescend and tell you you’re not really sick or tell you you’re not really in pain or cause more pain often. So physical ailment was just a part of giving the character another way to embody another kind of obstacle, as part of this narrative of a character who’s being tested. These very, very low key things that press in on an individual. Because the film does have these very high-key dramatic moments, like the predator. But I think people often miss it. The film is really about these two girls, and the mundane aspects of how much danger they’re in every day all the time. It’s what I was really interested in, and that illness is part of setting that tone.
Can you talk more about that normalcy of danger and the regularity of death around these two characters?
This is the ‘90s. I don’t know if it’s changed that much, depending on where you live in the country. But the 90s, this way in which the Black communities got dumped so much crack and the way that it circulated the levels of violence and the absolute lack of any assistance from cities or municipalities or our public policy. This is something people had to deal with. So violence was so mundane, at least in my experience of it. To me that just seemed like a really great kind of tonal aura to set for the film. It’s just that air you breathe depending on where you live in any city. And in terms of making a movie and classical three-act structure and conflict and all those things, I thought that the most mundane teenage life in Oakland is more dramatic than half the movies that I’m watching. People cope, you know, so I think I was just pulling from what was really there at the time.
It often feels like a hangout film, though, with Pica and Tobi. How did you juxtapose their experience sitting and watching movies with those high-key moments of violence and trauma that you just mentioned?
To me, I think that’s just incredibly mundane. I think that’s kind of how life works. Those extremes are perfect for a film narrative because it’s in the sort of pastoral moments, like crossing through an empty lot or sitting on your porch and watching kids buy ice cream, that I felt like you could kind of spend time with the characters’ interiority. And then in these moments of high-key, high-pitched conflict or tragedy or trauma, then you encounter the ways that they deal with crisis, and how that shapes them and informs them and what they learned from it. This is my first feature. I wasn’t actually thinking that it was odd to have those really extreme tone shifts, because I really feel like that really is like normal life. The film is called everyday people because I was really trying to make a slice of people who completely go unnoticed, or are never in films, or don’t even imagine themselves to be extraordinary. They don’t want to be extraordinary.
After that conversation with Pica and Tobi about how many funerals each of them has been to that year, the film’s second half focuses more on remembrance, with Pica creating these shrines or memorials for some of the Black men who have died. How did you approach putting the idea of remembrance in the film?
I think the Polaroids and the tarot cards function, both as divination devices. So they’re both reflecting on the past and also predicting futures. And they’re almost interchangeable for her in some regards, in terms of the power that she assigns them or draws from them. And to me, it was really important that there was a physical manifestation of these concerns that she has, these social concerns or obsessions, that there’s an external expression of her anxieties. Someone else recently asked me if it was a conscious thing that she’s basically making reliquaries, and I was like, “Oh, I didn’t really think of those assemblage sculptures at the end as reliquaries.” But now, 20 years later, as a contemporary artist, I absolutely do.
I was thinking of them as a very eccentric, full-key version of the street shrines that you see in a city, when someone is murdered on the street and people leave the teddy bears and votive candles and all that stuff. Pica’s way of doing it was through this kind of assemblage of found objects because she didn’t have the means to do it another way. That she was even thinking about portraiture, which I guess could also be a form of remembrance. But I also think there’s something about when you make altars and shrines, it’s so very much about the now and the what’s next. Now that this has occurred, can we make it so that this never occurs after that? I think Pica is really trying in her powerlessness to express that materially.
Do you think making these shrines fights any sort of numbness that she could be feeling or that the community is feeling?
I don’t know if it’s numbness. Maybe it’s fatigue. When violence becomes so common and so mundane, it takes a lot for you to experience alarm or even sometimes sadness, depending on what has occurred. And I think that she finds a way to. I like her character so much because she very intuitively decides that she wants to give something to the community that’s beautiful. The process of the film is really her trying to figure out how to do that. Her journey as a character is not so much like this big social battle, or this big David and Goliath battle where she beats somebody. Her victory is that she succeeds in giving away something, making something that didn’t exist before.
How has the experience of teaching been for you, especially the impact and power of teaching versus creating?
I love teaching, mainly because I learn so much from my students. I like teaching art more than I ever enjoyed teaching film. Because film education is very craft based, very technical based. There’s a way in which we evaluate success that’s based on how close you can approximate something that looks like it’s been commercially produced. And that’s just really boring to me. Almost anything you want to learn about filmmaking now I feel like you can learn it on YouTube or by listening to DVD commentaries. I just was losing the thread of why you would pay money to go to school to do something where you can be on a set, probably getting paid to learn to do it or finding someone to teach you how to do it. Or watching people do it. But with art, what I love is that it’s about ideas. So I don’t have to only talk to filmmakers; I can have a really, really fun and interesting and challenging conversation with a painter or a sculptor about their materials. We arrive at some ideas that are meaningful to us in the world as people. You don’t have to conform to a particular mode of aesthetics, phrases like good production value or high-quality image.
Even when I was a baby filmmaker, I was just like “Why would we want everything to look the same way? Why is this interesting?” All you need to make that kind of image is money. You don’t need talent, and you actually see that a lot in Hollywood: intensely mediocre aesthetics backed up by millions of dollars. The director literally doesn’t know where to put the camera to tell the story. This is really common in TV and film. When I’m watching it I’m like “Wow, I cannot believe this person has a job.” They’re so, so mediocre, but it looks good. I feel like my whole life’s work has been about really resisting the idea that the quality of the image determines the quality of the work and really pushing forward the intent or purpose or content or thought or ideas. Pushing those ways forward, even if it means it looks scotch-taped together.
So people notice that it’s scotch-taped together. So they’re like “Oh, she wants us to pay attention to this idea. She actually does not care about production value and high-quality images.” Which isn’t really true. I do care. I love a beautiful image. I think cinematography, light and capturing light––and celluloid in particular––is a really high art form. I very much respect the craft of filmmaking. I just think that there are a multitude of ways to deploy that craft, not just the one that the industry uses to circulate its media.
Drylongso opens at Film at Lincoln Center on Friday, March 17.