Burnett accepts first Freedom in Film award

Friday, June 11, 1999

Left, Michael C...
Left, Michael Catalano, executive director, Nashville Independent Film Festival, John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, Charles Burnett and Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center.

Charles Burnett says he learned early in his 30-year film career — in fact, it was while earning his master’s degree in film at UCLA in the mid-1970s — that simple determination can go a long way in finishing a film.

“One of the good things at UCLA is that they tell you: ‘Here’s a camera. Here’s a stock of film. Don’t come back without a good film. No excuses,’” Burnett said. “And at the end of the day, you are ultimately responsible for finishing the film.”

In making his first feature film “Killer of Sheep,” Burnett spent less than $20,000, shot mostly on weekends over the course of a year and talked the owner of a slaughterhouse into letting him shoot part of the film there.

Making the film, which served as his master’s thesis, proved to be mostly stress-free for Burnett because he wasn’t worrying about marketing or distribution or a producer’s opinions. But Burnett said the work on his first film gave him courage when it came time to battle producers, distributors and studio officials to get his vision up on the screen.

“There’s nothing sophisticated about it,” he said. “Even today, film is a very simple thing if you reduce it to its very basic elements.”

Burnett’s sheer determination contributed to his earning the inaugural Freedom in Film Award from the First Amendment Center and the Nashville Independent Film Festival. Burnett visited the center this afternoon to receive his award.

Ken Paulson, the center’s executive director, said the award was created to recognize “the people who made the tough calls as part of filmmaking, people who followed their own muse and made decisions about content that needed to be shared and didn’t necessarily succumb to commercial pressures.”

Paulson and Michael Catalano, executive director of the film festival, said the lifetime award honors Burnett for films such as “Killer of Sheep,” one of only 250 films to be listed as a national treasure in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Burnett’s 1990 film “To Sleep in Anger” also earned a variety of independent-filmmaking and critics awards.

Burnett has also won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant and has been a scholar at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles.

“Charles was a find for us,” said Catalano, who praised the filmmaker for making movies from the heart. “What’s truly amazing is how many people are not aware of him and his impact on film.”

Burnett says he’s found it disconcerting over the years that several of his films, particularly “Killer of Sheep,” are difficult to find or aren’t available on video. He says filmmakers can control the marketing and distribution of the films but only if they pay for all of it themselves.

“But you can’t spend a year making a movie and then spend the next two trying to sell it,” he said.

Burnett says the most difficult part of making movies is the “constant effort from those who try to control all of the content of the film. … It can be a strong daily battle of trying to preserve what goes on the screen.”

He recalled some “strange” obstacles that came up when working with Disney on the slavery tale of “Nightjohn.” He said studio executives objected to a scene cutting from the main character chasing a rabbit to one with a dead rabbit cooking over a fire but didn’t flinch at a scene in which a character had his fingers chopped off.

Film formats, too, can be restricting, Burnett says. Because of the length of a movie, characters often can’t be developed extensively. And especially in films written for television, stories have to be written with commercial breaks in mind.

For the television film “Selma, Lord, Selma,” Burnett said he worked hard to condense a lot of personalities involved in the civil rights struggle in 1960s Alabama.

“It hints at truth and, I think, does that in a plausible way, an entertaining way,” he said. “Hopefully, [films ] will encourage you to do some research on your own.”

Although Burnett said criticism of films by him and others can sometimes hurt or be misguided, he said such comments promote discussion of important social issues.

“It’s important for the people to bring these issues up,” he said. “I think you have to be critical of everything because there are, sometimes, messages in things.”

First Amendment Center intern Caitlin Fitz contributed to this report.