A Portrait Study: Ann Arbor Film Festival highlights the Black, queer, experimental cinema of Edward Owens


Edward Owens, with his hand on his bowed head, as seen in his film Remembrance: A Portrait Study

Edward Owens as seen in his film Remembrance: A Portrait Study.

Edward Owens' story may have been lost to history were it not for film programmer, writer, and Bard College professor Ed Halter.

An obscure figure from one of cinema's most elusive realms, Owens was a Black, queer, experimental filmmaker from Chicago whose career was cut tragically short.

In 2009, intrigued by an entry in the Film-Maker's Co-Op catalog about the experimental short Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts, Halter reached out to Owens decades after he left his life in filmmaking behind. Their conversations brought newfound context to Owens' artistic vision, which helped amplify the voice of an artist whose compelling story was at risk of being relegated to obscurity. 

Owens' life and limited collection of works is the subject of the 61st Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) program "Remembrance/Vacancy: The Films of Edward Owens" at the State Theatre on Thursday, March 23, 7 pm.

The event offers audiences the rare opportunity of seeing three Owens films back to backRemembrance: A Portrait Study (1967, 6 min.), Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1966, 6 min.), and Tomorrow's Promise (1967, 45 min.).

Following the screenings is a conversation between Emily Martin, who programmed the event, and Jessica Ruffin, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan's Department of Film, Television, and Media.

Remembrance: A Portrait Study offers intimate insight into Owens as he captures a filmic portrait of his mother, Mildred, and two of her friends during an evening of drinking and bonding. Set to the tune of '50s and '60s radio hits, the film showcases Owens' burgeoning talent for baroque lighting. Conversely, Owens eschews sound for Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts, a silent study of dark and light-skinned subjects.

Tomorrow's Promise is the longest and most personally revealing of the three films. Owens said it represents his attempt "to 'recreate' the protagonist of my personal life." At 45 minutes, Tomorrow's Promise is epic—and the director's final work. 

Owens' first film, Autre Fois J'ai Aime Une Femme (1966, 24 min.), was noticed by famed experimental filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos, the founder of the film program at the School of the Art Institute Chicago (SAIC) where the young artist studied painting and sculpture. 

Impressed by Owens' burgeoning talent behind the camera, Markopoulos convinced the Chicago native to relocate to New York City. There, Markopoulos became Owens' mentor in the 1960s New York avant-garde scene, introducing him to the likes of filmmaker Marie Menken, artist Andy Warhol, and filmmaker Charles Boultenhouse, with whom he became romantically involved. 

What everyone had failed to realize, including Owen, was that he was struggling with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. It was a battle that would ultimately get the best of Owens when, at the moment where it seemed as though anything would be possible for the emerging talent, he returned to Chicago seemingly as quickly as he left. 

With AAFF's "Remembrance/Vacancy" program, Martin continues the work started by Halter more than a decade prior to expose Owens' films to more eyes.

A portrait of Emily Martin, the programmer of Ann Arbor Film Festival's Edward Owens event.

Emily Martin portrait courtesy of Video Data Bank.

Drawn to experimental film as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, Martin became a programming intern with the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Later, as a student at SAIC, she began working with Video Data Bank, an organization founded at the school in 1976 and dedicated to being a top resource for "video by or about contemporary artists."

Today, Martin is the distribution manager for Video Data Bank, a position that affords her the luxury of feeding her appetite for experimental films and the artists behind them. She credits the Ann Arbor Film Festival with introducing her to that world, so it seems especially fitting that she would help facilitate the discussion about Owens and his oeuvre for this program. 

As for her introduction to Owens' work, Martin recalls, "There are a few Chicago organizations involved in the restoration and preservation of this work. The Chicago Film Society is involved in the restoration of it, and the Joan Flash Special Collection at SAIC is also somewhat involved in that process. There's a program that the school does called 'Conversations at the Edge.' They did a screening of the work. They had Ed Halter, who initially had been searching through the Filmmaker's Co-Op's catalog, who had begun to look further into Owens."

The restoration process is still ongoing, and getting Owens' work back in front of audiences is only the beginning of his rediscovery. There are many conversations to be had about the films and the man who made them.

"In terms of what younger filmmakers, historians, critics, have been able to comment on or engage with is the kind of experimental, independent Black filmmaking of the L.A. Rebellion time, which is a little bit later," Martin says. Since his work is pre-L.A. Rebellion "there's really no reference for that kind of thing. Pre-that we have Race Films and Oscar Micheaux, but that kind-of in-between is a bit more complicated." 

A still featuring a close-up of a woman's face from Edward Owens' film Remembrance: A Portrait Study

A still from Edward Owens' film Remembrance: A Portrait Study.

The fact that the Black Arts Movement was sweeping through Chicago just as a teenage Owens' was filming Autre Fois J'ai Aime Une Femme does offer some compelling historical context, despite the artist's own claim to have known no other Black filmmakers at the time. This, explains Martin, could be attributed to the fact that much of the art coming out of that movement was music, painting, dance photography. 

For Martin, the surfacing of these Owens films offers the perfect opportunity to begin an informed dialogue that could help us to better understand not just the director's vision but also his complicated life behind the scenes.

"In his work, and the way he's talked about his work in the past, there's nothing explicitly about Blackness or engaging with Blackness," Martin says, "but what are the ways we can think about it within that context?" 

It's just one question of many that is likely to arise while discussing the fleeting, enigmatic figure who bridged two of the most vibrant arts movements of the 20th century.

Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.

"Remembrance/Vacancy: The Films of Edward Owens" screens at the State Theatre at 7 pm on Thursday, March 23. Visit aafilmfest.org for tickets and more information.