23rd Film Festival opens with a beautiful look at Sea Island Gullah culture

April 01, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The Baltimore Film Forum couldn't have chosen a better movie to open its 23rd annual International Film Festival than Julie Dash's brilliant and shimmering "Daughters of the Dust." The film will be shown tonight at 8:30 at the Senator Theatre -- just the screen on which to enjoy such a visual feast.

"Daughters of the Dust" is a re-creation of a lost culture and a lost time, yet done with such love and passion that what has vanished forever now seems timeless. It's a story of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

If you're at all familiar with the Gullahs, it's probably through "Soldier's Story." In that movie the nasty top sergeant referred to Southern blacks as "Geechees," a contemptuous and disparaging reference to the Gullahs, who, in geographical isolation, had clung to their African heritage in language, dress and custom, which he dismissed as primitive. But the Gullah culture that Dash visits is anything but primitive: it's a magical amalgamation of old and new, a profound celebration of the beauty of the land as founded on a deep religious faith. It seems, by any standards, as sophisticated and densely imagined as any world yet captured on film.

Dash focuses on the Peazant family, three generations worth, from the matriarch Nana (Cora Lee Day), who recalls slavery and her ancient religious belief, to her granddaughter Eula (Alva Rodgers), pregnant by rape and, consequently, distanced from her husband Eli (Adisa Anderson). Meanwhile Haagar (Kaycee Moore), who has joined the family through marriage, is agitating for a northward move, where opportunity lies.

The movie is set on a single day in 1902 when the Peazants try to decide their ultimate disposition -- who will move north, who will stay, whether Eli will reconcile with Eula. As all this takes place, a pleasant photographer from the mainland, Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks of "She's Gotta Have It") wanders around taking photos -- in a way, representing the magic of technology.

Yet to synopsize "Daughters of the Dust" in such a way is similar to calling Joyce's "Ulysses" a documentary on daily life in Dublin. Like Joyce, Dash tells her story visually and rhythmically rather .. than narratively; her medium is the language of film itself, and, with her cinematographer Arthur Jafa, she has created an extraordinary range of visions, using the most modern of the film's technologies, including slow motion, stop motion, extreme contrast. The movie is a dream entered and felt, as it swirls though stories and slidesthrough points of view and soaks up the beauty of the Sea Islands.

A few tickets remain for tonight's screening and champagne reception. For information, call the Baltimore Film Forum at 889-1993. The film is scheduled to play a regular theatrical engagement at the Charles shortly.

'Daughters of the Dust'

'Daughters

of the Dust' Starring Adisa Anderson and Cora Lee Day.

Directed by Julie Dash.

Released by Kino International.

Unrated.

*** 1/2

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