Betty: They Say I’m Different first screened at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in November 2017. Early in 2018, the documentary had its Italian premiere at the Fourth Edition of Torino’s SeeYouSound International Music Film Festival. The film, named for Mabry’s second album, which was released in 1974, is an intimate portrait of funk singer and performer Betty Davis (née Mabry). While in New York City to study fashion, she made lasting friendships with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. Briefly married to Miles Davis, Mabry recorded four studio albums and made some memorable live performances. In the ’80s she walked away from public life, moving back to Pittsburgh, where she grew up.
On hearing about Betty Mabry, British documentary maker and Native Films cofounder Phil Cox believed hers was an important story to tell. He and producer Giovanna Stoppani spent years in conversation with her, first on the phone, and then in meetings, patiently working on “Betty’s time”. Though Mabry remained adamant about not appearing on screen, they have crafted a deeply personal, insightful, and resonant portrait. In Torino. Phil and producer Giovanna sat down with PopMatters to talk about Mabry, making art outside your own experience, and the challenges of making a documentary about someone who won’t be filmed.
How did you discover Betty Mabry?
Philip Cox: I was looking for a new film to do with music, something lyrical, and a producer began to talk to me about Betty Davis when I was at Sundance in 2011. I really didn’t know her at all and I thought, “She’s disappeared for 35 years?” And so I knew there was a story. The pivotal aspect she had was the American music culture and that she knew Jimi (Hendrix) and Sly (Stone). I wasn’t a fan of her music, but I was really intrigued by the story and I had a lot of questions.
How did you first approach her and what was her reaction?
Cox: Betty is a very famous recluse. She doesn’t do interviews, doesn’t talk or go out in public, doesn’t do anything, basically. There are one or two “gatekeepers”, and so she came to me through them. Betty wouldn’t meet us for the first two years and so we just began phone conversations. For me it was just about planting the seed.
It really needed to be done on Betty’s time or else it wouldn’t have been done. I think that’s the only reason that this film has been completed because other people had come in and wanted to do something immediately. After a couple of years, Betty finally allowed us to meet her.
Did you record some of the phone conversations?
Cox: We would record, but for me it was really very organic in that there was no way to impose anything. I just waited. At the beginning, everything was impossible. You couldn’t meet her and she didn’t want to talk. The answers were very monosyllabic, “Yes. No. I don’t remember. I can’t remember.” But then after a couple of years, she let myself and Damon Smith in a bit and we forged more of a friendship. Little by little, more things became possible.
But still, Betty didn’t want herself to be filmed. So after some years, I realized that I needed to impose a method of telling her story… Even though there are famous people she knew and who played in her band, that wasn’t of interest to me. It was more about a woman who clearly had a type of split personality. She was someone who had created a public image that, in a sense, had sort of eaten her up, and today had chosen solitude.
Furthermore, she was very happy with the solitude and independence and her fierce pioneering spirit in the ’70s of doing what she wanted to do, when she wanted. The fact that she was so single-minded in the ’70s was, in a sense, the reason for her downfall. That single-mindedness is still there today.
Plus, she has absolutely no desire to return to the public. She knows what she wants, she has embraced something else outside of music. And that’s her and I think that’s really interesting in today’s world of obsessive public image and success. Her independence is still there and she’s very much in control of herself, even if that means complete solitude. And that’s really to be respected.
Giovanna, you brought this up at the press conference yesterday: do you think your whiteness affected the filmmaking process or the film?
Giovanna Stoppani: As I said, many people tried to make films about Betty before. They tried to connect with her in the past and she always refused to collaborate. One reason she seemed willing to work with us was that we respected her timing. We understood where she was coming from, from a place of reclusiveness, a deep private space and a fierce independence. She should not be told what to do within a time frame.
In the beginning her answers in the conversations were monosyllabic but I think by the end of it, she became a stronger person. The process of making the film, of talking to us, opened up her reticence in communicating. She has become more at peace with herself. And the fact of our “whiteness”, that of the production team, it wasn’t even an issue for her. As she said herself, she had always been “beyond blackness”.
Cox: It was more of an issue for me. It’s a serious issue, because I know Betty is “claimed” by many different groups of people. She represents many things for those people. Betty doesn’t care about some things, but she cares about the quality of the work. So, for example, when the film goes to America and other people take it forward, I see my job as somehow just letting the audience feel who this person is.
There’s no judgment in the film, it’s very neutral. How did you think about the film’s structure?
Cox: There’s a poetic thread and a factual thread and those two things run side by side. The factual thread is by those who met her or knew her. The poetic thread is based on conversations with her and her lyrics and the metaphors that are represented by the crow. My films have been about Japan [Love Hotel, 2014], South American Indians [We Are the Indians, 2005], an African American. [They’re all] sort of territory where people can come at you.
In this case, we’ve had people on Facebook commenting on the fact that we’re white and in the end. It’s not for me to enter that, to battle. It’s important to try and let the work speak and to let Betty give the answers that she wants to give if that type of discourse comes up. Betty wanted us to make the film. My job is to simply try and work with her in a very, very difficult work situation. It was really Greta Garbo times ten.
How are you able to tell these kinds of stories that are distant from your own reality?
Cox: I think that every artist or creator has to be prepared to do something around yourself, so I’m doing that now. However, I like the sort of blankness of beginning and having to listen and having to enter spaces where you simply have to absorb and listen. Whether things are true or distortions, they’re all interesting.
People say, “How do you make a film about Japan if you’re not Japanese?” Well, a Japanese person sees English culture in ways that we can’t see it because we’ve become blinded by so many things. I think it’s really interesting to see it that way. Of course there are pitfalls and things you can’t do, cultural intricacies. I think to be a documentarist, you just have to be really patient, be open and be prepared to let yourself be led.
All our films are connected by a sense of humanness. The power of the Japan film is that all those characters that you saw, as an English person or an American, you would connect with all their worries or issues. It’s not that exotic. So although we go to all these faraway places, it has to be that the story is human. It’s the same with Betty, there’s something about fragility and the woman. She was still a girl and this thing was created around her. Hopefully people can connect with her.
Stoppani: Betty is not necessarily a musical documentary. It’s a story that describes the human condition.
As you mentioned, the film uses a crow as a symbol: what does it mean?
Cox: The crow came from when Betty was a little girl. Betty also talked about a bird called the cardinal. It used to sit outside her window when she was young. She says that brightly colored bird eventually became Crow. She talked about the crow and what it represents a lot and so I decided to use that visual as sort of her soul, her spirit.
Betty has a sort of dual way of being, the girl and the performer. I think the crow still represents the girl in a way, the Betty that you see [in archival footage]. Some people in her life saw it too. She says Jimi (Hendrix) recognized Crow. They formed a real friendship outside the music. Crow represents what she calls her spiritual identity, the inner Betty.
When I saw the film, I was totally absorbed by it, and I believed I was seeing Betty. But the next day I started thinking about it and realized she wasn’t filmed for the documentary. It was as if I felt her soul was in the film and so I almost convinced myself that she was there visually as well.
Cox: You get pulled away from the face. She’s of a certain age and she doesn’t want that to become her thing. It was not for me to force her. But I also had to find a way to relate to her. She doesn’t want to talk about music. It’s like taking a former drinker into a bar and asking him to talk about his life.
Stoppani: She’s very deep. When she talks to you she’s very aware of positive energy. She’s really deeply, deeply concerned with people being good to each other. She’s wary of negative energy and I think this is something that comes from inside her. She’s always been like that. She perceives when something is not quite right, over the phone as well. She knows when something is not quite right and she closes up.
Cox: Betty went through an issue with mental health. But she found that meditation brought her through.
At what point did you arrive at a vision for the film, without filming Betty?
Cox: It came to me after about three and a half years. We just decided that we had to release Betty from being visually powerful and let her go. And she was happy with that and that’s the way we went.
Stoppani: It was as if you are making a film with a bad actor, you have to be open, you have to change your vision and your ideas completely. It was a really important moment, it happened during the making and we had to make a total change.
Did you ever consider abandoning the project?
Cox: No. Parts of the team left. But you’ve got to be patient. Betty was starting to lose us. She also had to rediscover her music. She hadn’t listened to her albums in 20 years: she had been in a place where there was no music. I also realized that I wasn’t there to be Betty’s friend. I mean, we are friends, but I also have a responsibility to make this film.
Stoppani: We would never abandon the film. We would never abandon a project. It was not even a consideration. We were committed, it was our project. We needed to do it.
Earlier you underlined the importance of listening. It sounds like you committed to listening to Betty until you came up with an interesting solution.
Cox: I had to go back into the conversations and find the key phrases, like “crow”. These were things she said years ago but these were the keys to take. The film wasn’t just performing. I really had to go back and find those clues and put them back together. And with Betty we started to enter.
It’s like a collage in a sense, something that needed to be stitched together. Do you often work with [editor] Esteban Uyarra and are you comfortable with him?
Cox: Yes definitely. But as soon as we realized that her voice would guide us and that these were Betty’s words, then we were off. I also realize that many people don’t know Betty, so I had to leave spaces in there for the animations and let her feel some of that. Even if it wasn’t really about anything.
I think what’s important for me is that the film isn’t about famous people talking. It’s about personal things that have actual reasons for being. I realize that it doesn’t resonate for some people and for others it does.
I understand Betty premiered in Amsterdam in November 2017. Where might the film be going next?
Cox: It’s going to be picked up initially by some independent theaters, some workshops and community centers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There’s a huge demand, especially in America. We will take it to the US along with some other festivals in Europe, France, Copenhagen throughout spring and summer.
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On 9 August Betty: They Say I’m Different is coming to the Baltimore Creative Alliance.