For the past 15 years, I have been making documentary films that mined my family and extended African Diasporic family archive to create compelling stories that illuminate the intersections of personal family history with the historical sweep of our culture and times. My films explore issues around identity, family and desire in the context of the larger African Diasporic community. Narratively, I draw from the rich heritage of the literary and arts canon of African-American autobiography to re-define “personal” inquiry through the documentary form. In my work, autobiography is defined not by a single voice or perspective but by multiple voices—often in conversation—to produce communal perspectives.
I undertook my first feature documentary, VINTAGE • Families of Value (1995), when my brother tested HIV positive and I wanted to deepen our communication. I was also interested in implementing a collective process of shared filmmaking to expand the notion of family beyond that of the American nuclear model. I recruited two other groups of queer siblings and asked them to join us on this journey by interviewing one another over the course of three years. What emerged was a mosaic portrait of three African-American families in dialogue with one another and grappling with issues of sibling relations, HIV, abuse, love, identity, sexuality, parenting and death. This film was the first of the the “Paulding Avenue Trilogy” – including E Minha Cara/That’s My Face (2001) and Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (2005) – a series that documents life growing up in a Pan-African household in the Bronx.
With each of my films I have sought to challenge myself to expand the notion of traditional “documentary truth” by privileging dreams, poetry, desire and mythology. With E Minha Cara/That’s My Face, I created a family odyssey that moves between my quest for the “African heart and soul of Brazil” and my family’s search for a mythic motherland as embodied in home movies that document our sojourn to Tanzania, East Africa in 1974. Fueled by mythology and poetry, É Minha Cara is a journey of self-discovery that transforms and challenges conventional notions of race, spirituality and documentary filmmaking. Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela is the story of my late stepfather, B. Pule Leinaeng, who together with 11 other African National Congress comrades, left Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1960 to galvanize the anti-apartheid struggle from exile. We could not go to South Africa while I was growing up as Lee conditions in the country prevented him from returning. However, I would look at Lee’s photographs of “home” and imagine what his South Africa was like. For me, the use of nearly 100 professional and nonprofessional actors in this documentary came out of my desire to use the filmmaking process to connect and empower a younger generation by bringing them in contact with a heroic (but largely forgotten) older generation.
As I have toured with my films around North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, people often come up to me after the screenings to share stories about their family photographic archive and their desire to do something creative with it. I kept thinking about their common concern: about how to give people a structure to pursue their own historical investigations through their family archives. So when I started my new film project, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, (TALD) I thought to create a companion project that would offer a possible solution. TALD (which is inspired by co-producer Deborah Willis’ ground breaking book on Black photographers, Reflections in Black) examines the ways in which black photographers and subjects from 1840 to the present learned to use the medium of photography to construct strategically useful political, aesthetic, social and cultural representations of themselves to transform their communities and the world.
Digital Diaspora Family Reunion: One World, One Family (DDFR) is a multimedia-driven social engagement project designed to provide a home for the many stories and photographic images slowly gathering dust in some forgotten corner of the attic or buried in boxes somewhere. Now, there is a place where people can share their family archives with others who appreciate the shared struggles, sacrifices, triumphs and joys that everyday people, living their lives one day at a time, who collectively create what we eventually come to regard as “history.”
DDFR is comprised of this website, www.DDFR.TV, and a traveling experience we call DDFR ROADSHOW, which combines the best of Antiques Roadshow and StoryCorp, to gather together the neglected shards of our past residing in our archives and repurposing them for a new generation seeking some connection between themselves and the world as they know it. DDFR brings together individual personal and family narratives within a context that helps to expose the commonalities of our shared experiences and the bonds of our universal values. Truly, we are One World, One Family and we hope that DDFR becomes like our universal refrigerator door, where we post images of the ordinary miracles that make life worth living. Please join us our extended DDFR family and add your stories and images to our digital diasporic family album.