Interview with BFI programmers Aga Baranowska and William Fowler

Interview by: Chris Olson

As part of the BFI Season on filmmaker Shirley Clarke, I caught up with the curators to find out more about the influential artist and how they go about showcasing such an extraordinary talent.

What are your roles within the BFI?


Will: I’m a Curator of Artists’ Moving Image at the BFI National Archive. I also programme seasons and monthly Experimenta screenings at #BFI Southbank, which present artist film and alternative moving-image culture.

Aga: I programme events at BFI Southbank that provide context and interpretation for seasons and screenings presented at the venue. Occasionally, I also programme film seasons, for instance the #ShirleyClarke focus we are presenting this month.

How do you approach curating a season that covers such an influential filmmaker like Shirley Clarke?


Aga: Will and I co-programmed the season so we started the process by talking about what we would like to highlight about Shirley Clarke’s work across the six programmes.


We knew that we didn’t have enough space in the season for a complete retrospective so we were keen to both represent the diversity of her work (in the programme you can see both her short films and features, fiction and documentary work, early and late films) while also show how pioneering her work is in so many respects.


While the idea for the season originated with Clarke’s centenary this October, which we were keen to mark with this focus, we also wanted to show why and how her work is relevant and significant in the current film landscape. With this in mind, we decided to open the season with a discussion that would both provide some insight into the recurring themes and preoccupations for those less familiar with her work but also provide ways for reading and engaging with her films in the 21st century.

It's a great programme, but why do you think audiences should come?


Will: Shirley Clarke was interesting for being both a #filmmaker and an organiser, thinking about social issues and the place of cinema and what it could do, in the fullest extent of what that might mean. To that end, she was supportive of and part of the underground and independent scene of the time but was also interested in working with larger distributors and breaking out of the smaller exhibition circuit, believing that there was an audience for a different type of cinema.


Her films are made with commitment and this sense of a desire to communicate broadly while pushing the form and the sense of what cinema is and was is palpable.


Her works are proposals for a different type of film and they still feel alive and as if they are trying to explore or answer a question still now!

Thoughtful enquiry laced with restless energy is a pretty powerful and immediate combination - and that's precisely what's happening here.

What are the challenges in curating for the BFI?


Will: The programme is substantial and so thinking about how events might relate across a whole plethora of other screenings and seasons causes the mind to think!


Experimental programmes tends not to receive the level of marketing that the more established films get and so that creates an edge.


Whatever and where you are curating, it makes sense to think about the context in which your programme will appear.


We also think a lot about how an event will resonate across all the other cinema events in #London, of which there are many, and much of interest.


It is a great time and place to be a cinephile and that once rare breed of animal seems to be once again active in the wild!

For you both, what are the highlights of the Clarke season?


Will: The Cool World is undoubtedly a classic and we're delighted to have been able to source a 35mm print from the USA especially for this season - not to be missed!


Also, The Connection is an edgy, unpredictable film that predates a lot of #documentary/fact/fiction blurring film and well worth checking out. A filmmaker tries to capture the vibe of an uptight jazz group as they argue and play whilst waiting for their next drug hit.


Aga: Clarke was inspired by dance and jazz throughout her career, and it is fascinating to see how that manifested over the years from her early shorts like Dance in the Sun or A Moment in Love right until her last feature Ornette, Made in America, in which she captured the life and music of American jazz musician Ornette Coleman.



I would also like to give a shout-out to Portrait of Jason (above), a complex film that raises lots of important questions, for instance about the relationship between Shirley Clarke as a documentary filmmaker and Jason Holliday as a protagonist of the film. It is a film that you will want to talk about for a long while.


How aware were you when curating this season of the current climate for female filmmakers?


Aga: Spotlighting the work of women working in the film industry (filmmakers, actors and in other professions) is close to my programming heart. I try to be mindful of how a particular creative (filmmaker, actor, etc.) presents and reflects on their own on and off-screen work.


Clarke spoke in interviews about challenges she faced as a female filmmaker, which could be seen in her work through the identification with protagonists on the margins of the society. As with many aspects of her work, this relationship is complex, and I hope audiences will engage and discuss it as the season goes on.


What's next for you both?


Will: Experimenta Mixtape #7 on Wed 18 December at BFI Southbank. No films in advance and no guests or intros. Just films - music videos, shorts films, experimental stuff. It's also a social thing. We welcome people who are interested but perhaps new to the worlds of artist and experimental cinema.


Aga: Alongside the Shirley Clarke’s focus, I’m working on interpretative events as part of the BFI Musicals! blockbuster season, which runs until the end of the year. I will be kicking off the new year with a few special events on the Italian cinema master Federico Fellini, whose centenary BFI Southbank will be celebrating across January and February 2020.

What would you say if you were a dolphin?


Will: Onward!

Aga: Let’s go for a swim!



BFI Southbank presents American Independent: A Focus on Shirley Clarke celebrating the centenary of this this boundary-pushing, influential filmmaker this October-November.


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