1996 Golden Gate Award
San Francisco Film Society
20th Annual Atlanta
Film and Video Festival
20th Toronto International
Planet Africa Program
Festival Cinema Africano,
The Panafrican Film & Television
Festival of Ouagadougou
Families of Value
A Film by Thomas Allen Harris
USA 1995 Color 72 min
formats available 16mm & video
Thomas Allen Harris
A Creative Collaboration Featuring:
Vanessa & Paul Eaddy, Anni Cammett, Adrian &: Anita Jones, and Lyle Ashton & Thomas Allen Harris, and Rudean Harris Leinaeng
Thomas Allen Harris & Christopher Kuhrt
"VINTAGE Families of Value" is a documentary film that explores three African-American families through the eyes of lesbian and gay siblings including the filmmaker and his younger brother. "VINTAGE Families of Value" places the camera into the hands of seven different family members to construct a collective and autobiographical portrait of modern American families.
Born in the Bronx in 1962, Thomas Allen Harris spent his formative adolescent years in Tanzania, East Africa. Harris studied biology and photography at Harvard University, and later worked as a journalist and staff producer at WNET/Thirteen, public television in New York City. For over a period of five years, he produced documentaries and public affairs shows that were broadcast nationally on PBS. In 1990, he received two Emmy nominations for the Eleventh Hour program. Harris' independent shorts Splash (91), Black Body (92), and Heaven, Earth & Hell (93) have been exhibited internationally in such venues as 1995 Whitney Biennial Exhibition and The Berlin International Film Festival. "VINTAGE Families of Value" is his first feature length film. An Assistant Professor in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego, Harris is currently completing a feature length screenplay.
In 1991, while my mother and my brother sat in the kitchen giving each other facials, I set up a camera and for the first time asked mother what she thought of the fact that her two and only sons are gay. What ensued was a conversation that moved from sexuality to a discussion of ambivalence, fear and hope regarding family. "VINTAGE Families of Value" is a film that celebrates African-American families as seen through the eyes of lesbian and gay siblings.
Because few African-American families conform to the patriarchal nuclear family model, they are depicted in popular media and government studies as amoral and in decay. "VINTAGE Families of Value" cuts through these fictions of the "vanishing" black -family by placing the camera into the hands of seven siblings who record their subjective visions of family. Over the course of five years, the film follows the lives of three sisters, Anni Cammett, Anita Jones and Adrian Jones; a brother and sister, Paul Eaddy and Vanessa Eaddy; and my younger brother, Lyle Ashton Harris, and myself. Through intimate conversations with one another, we explore issues of parenting and sibling rivalry, sexual identity and homophobia, HIV/AIDS and histories of abuse, as well as love and possibilities for redemption.
Although my brother and I never discussed our sexual identity growing up, we constructed an elaborate- childhood fantasy world together. This ritualized carnivalesque play was informed by and created in reaction to the dominant sexual, gender and racial currents that shaped our identities as black males. Our fantasy world was also a place of refuge from gender conformity pressures imposed both from inside and outside of the family. Because of my memory of that space, I was interested in exploring how imagination, performance and play is linked to the constructions of our individual and collective identities. I encouraged each of the siblings to design and to perform in their own fantasy scenes. "VINTAGE Families of Value" interweaves these acts of personal disclosure with documentary and archival footage, and audio-visual montage to create an impressionistic portrait, a virtual family album of contemporary African-American experiences.
I began shooting VINTAGE Pamilies of Value in 1990, the summer my brother, Lyle Ashton Harris, tested positive for HIV. We were vacationing with my mother on Martha's Vineyard. At Lyle's suggestion, I had brought a borrowed Hi-8mm camera and a rented Super 8mm film camera. We began using the Hi- 8mm camera to interview one another about our respective experiences and desires. During a beach outing on the South Western tip of the island, my lover at the time began shooting Lyle and me on Super 8mm film.
I was working as a journalist and staff producer for WNET Public Television in New York at this time. I was frustrated with my job and just about to embark on my career as an independent film/video artist. That fall I purchased my own Hi-8mm camera and began shooting members of my family. My brother and I continued to videotape our dialogues at his home in Los Angeles and at family gatherings in the Bronx. It was during this period that I began to formally develop VINTAGE Families of Value.With an initial grant from the Lyn Blumenthal Foundation, I began the research and development on the film.
I was interested in documenting the kinds of conversations that occurred when video cameras were placed into the hands of other queer siblings. After interviewing over forty groups of lesbian and gay siblings, I chose two families--or perhaps I should say they chose to work with me. Ironically, I had already known one member of each of the families. Paul Eaddy and Anni Cammett were acquaintances of mine through a loose network of black gay and lesbian artists living in Harlem and Brooklyn. Mutual friends informed me that Paul and Anni, who did not know each other at the time, both had queer siblings.
Paul was very reluctant to become involved in the film. He was not "out" to his family and, furthermore, he and his sister, Vanessa Eaddy, did not get along. Vanessa, on the other hand, found the project compelling. Paul agreed to participate in the project after I pursued him for two months. In the Syring of 1992, Vanessa came up to New York City from Baltimore for the first shoot. After I instructed them on the basics of Hi-8mm video camera production--including composition, angles, lighting--Vanessa volunteered to shoot and interview Paul first. I left the living room after setting them up. Forty minutes later I heard them both calling me. I returned to find Vanessa smiling while Paul was obviously upset and agitated. Thus began our two years of shooting.
Anni Cammett was immediately excited by the project. There had been a recent tragedy in her family and she saw the film as a good diversion. We both spoke with her sister, Anita Jones, who also agreed to participate in the film. They both told me that their oldest sister, Adrian Jones, was also involved in a lesbian relationship but she was not out of the closet and probably would not want to be in the film. After meeting with Adrian however, she surprised us all by her desire to participate. Adrian's lover of five years was struggling with AIDS and after experiencing the lack of benefits, health care and insurance coverage available for gay partners, Adrian felt it was imperative for her to come out publicly.
I facilitated one-on-one sibling interviews between the three sisters on my Hi- 8mm camera. During this process, Anni, Adrian and Anita discussed their radically different childhood experiences with one another. It wasn't until the three of them got together for a group conversation that the dynamics became explosive. I set them up with one camera in Adrian's living room and left them alone for an hour. I returned to find the sisters in a heated discussion. Anni who had been shooting had handed the camera over to Anita's lover who was attempting to videotape them. I propped up a second auxiliary Hi-8mm camera on the couch and then relieved the principal camera from Anita's lover who at this point had joined the conversation off-screen.
When I began editing the film in 1993, it became clear to me that the various difficulties in communication between the siblings affected the camera angles, composition, focus, and sound quality of these sibling-on-sibling interviews. I decided to re-interview each of the siblings myself to clarify their respective narratives. Both types of conversations are interwoven within the film.
I was also interested in the non-verbal and psychic spaces of these individuals. To this end, I encouraged each of the siblings to design their own fantasy scenes and perform in them. Some of these scenes were shot according to a loose script, such as Anni's cemetery meditation, while others such as Adrian Jones' make-over were shot in a documentary fashion. These scenes involved a degree of spontaneity, play and improvisation between myself and each of the siblings.
I was a one man production team and crew, coordinating seven different schedules. Due to economic constraints, I shot the majority of the dramatic portrayals on various borrowed Super 8mm film cameras. For the fantasy material, I was able to secure an afternoon to a day of shooting time per sibling. Shooting on Super 8mm film allowed me to produce the film at a very low cost. It wasn't until late in the post-production phase of the project that I received the majority of the funding which enabled me to transfer to Betacam stock for the off-line edit on an AVID system.
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