Jamila Wignot (2021) | courtesy of Neon Film

Director Jamila Wignot on the Importance of Cultural Memory and Her Documentary ‘Ailey’

Director Jamila Wignot adds to the cultural archive with Ailey, her documentary about innovative dance choreographer Alvin Ailey, a man ahead of his time.

Jamila Wignot
23 July 2021 (Neon) | 20 January 2021 (Sundance)

Jamila Wignot’s Ailey (2021) explores the vision of the African American dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the world’s most renowned modern dance companies. Seeking to convey truth through movement, Alvin Ailey choreographed dance routines that spoke to the African American experience. Told through his own words and featuring archival footage and interviews with those who knew him, Wignot’s documentary is a revealing study of the man and his enduring vision.

The filmmaker’s earlier works include Town Hall (2013), co-directed with Sierra Pettengill, which follows two Pennsylvanian Tea Party Activists over two years. She directed two episodes of the series, The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2013), and an episode of, Makers: Women Who Make History (2013), chronicling the historical contributions by women in American history. 

In conversation with PopMatters, Wignot discussed how documenting and understanding our past, empowers us to confront the present. She also spoke about Ailey’s contribution to art as an indirect form of protest, and his channelling through dance the universal experience, at a time when society sought to exclude him. 

Why documentary as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?

Unfortunately no, there wasn’t a single defining moment. I wish there were because it would make for a better story. One of the earliest documentaries I remember seeing as a child was, Eyes on the Prize [Harry Hampton 1987-1990], a heavily archival and witness-driven series about the civil rights movement. I remember it being a very powerful series to watch, but it was not something that I thought, ‘I’m going to do this.’ 

Once I was exposed to the documentary world at Blackside, the production company that created the Eyes on the Prize series, I became intrigued. I came to documentary through the world of archival research, starting as an intern at Blackside, looking through photographs and footage that would ultimately be put into another series they were doing. Then I got my first job in the archival research department at WGBH, the PBS affiliate in Boston. 

There’s something I love about living through documented history, working with the material, and thinking about the ways it can be used. Coming to documentary through archive, and Eyes on the Prize being this witness-driven story, not all the films I’ve made have had the capacity to do that. Sometimes they’ve been so deep in the past that everyone’s dead, but I love being able to tell stories through the voices of those who lived it first-hand.

The Ailey film is a synthesis of both of those interests. It was really getting in and working on films, growing and sticking with it. I wasn’t a Steven Spielberg making little mini-sets in my backyard at the age of 11. 

Why do you think it’s important to get these first-hand accounts and document those experiences so they’re accessible for future generations?

The act of oral history gathering is part of what it is–to be able to sit with these individuals and hear them tell their own stories. The more expansive that gathering of witness testimony is, the more diverse understandings we have of the past that inform our present. 

There’s a way that we can allow ourselves to believe that we’re born and we determine our future. It’s what we want to do, to be forward-thinking. 

As a woman, as a person of colour, I feel the past is present in my life every day. Having ways of understanding that past in as many nuanced and complex ways as possible is important. Speaking to the people who lived through it, and gathering those stories is the only way that we will have these records to help us understand the moments that we’re in now.

There are only so many archetypal stories. Is the reason the same stories are told again and again is because we’re dealing with cyclic themes from one generation to the next? If life is an ongoing cycle, can we escape our past? 

It’s an interesting way of thinking about it because as an American, we’re desperately trying to escape the cycles of our history. From our very founding, we’re thinking about moving beyond, moving away, abandoning where we’ve come from or being asked to abandon where we come from, in order to embrace a new wholly constructed identity that is “America”. 

This idea is always there, but diving into the past is not about severing myself from it. It’s about being able to see that this is who we are. It’s why I was attracted to Mr. Ailey’s notion of blood memories, that we embody the past in our bodies. Who we are and where we come from is in our blood. 

To be able to reclaim your past and to find counter-narratives to the dominant narrative of that past is powerful. It’s part of my interest in history, to uncover stories that haven’t been told, or to see stories in new ways.

In this film, it’s about a Black man who was doing that in the 1950s. He was saying the world was wrong about the people he comes from. “Let me show you who we really are. Let me put that on stage and let me decide. I’m not going to try to become like you. I’m not going to sever myself from my people and their history.”

He made that the centre of his earliest dance works. “I’m going to dig into that and help you see yourself in me.” In his earlier works, he was thinking about the total history of the people, and how he could put that on the stage. 

In your director’s statement included in the publicity material, you speak about how Ailey found a place to express himself in a society that was trying to exclude him. When you talk about getting people to see themselves in him, is this how he created that space?  

In a country, at a point in time when it was saying everything that made Alvin Ailey who he was, was not ideal, it was not something to be celebrated, it was incredible for him to dedicate his life to providing a counter-narrative to that, and to do it in a way that was just about showcasing people. His dance works are not protest statements in the literal way we think of that. They’re much deeper, saying, “If you as an audience that is different from me, can relate to the sorrow, the love, the joy, or the sense of community that you’re witnessing on stage. The fact that you can feel these feelings.” 

He’s trying to always get at the universal human experience, and he’s doing that at a time that’s saying Black bodies in particular cannot embody the universal. In this country [America] you’re not even human if you can’t drink at the same water fountain if you can’t vote if you can’t live wherever you want to live if you’re encountering brutality and violence. 

The world caught up to him. He already knew his worth and now with the company being one of the most well-known modern dance companies in the world, that’s still staging some of those early works, it’s interesting to see him as someone who was ahead of his time.

We think of protest as banners, marches, loud and impassioned voices. It’s a direct form of protest, but did Ailey show an indirect means of protesting through art?

Don’t get me wrong, I still think we need to be out on the streets shouting [laughs], and pushing in those ways, but art has always attempted to be the vehicle for us to see each other as well. I don’t always feel optimistic about the power of art to do that, because here we are still mired in so many of the old ways, with a resurgence of certain things that we thought were behind us. 

It’s the hope, it’s the goal, it’s the mission. What he’s saying is the world may never value you, and that’s unacceptable. You always have to be able to value yourself, and that’s feeding what’s going on right now–the expression of people saying they refuse to be devalued anymore. [Protest] is one way of doing it, but dance works do that in another way by showing the richness and the wealth of communities.

In your director’s statement, you talk about the influences of Terrence Malick, Tom Volf’s Maria by Callas (2017), and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2016). What is your thought process behind blending those influences? 

… I’ve always loved Malick’s work–you’re always in a point-of-view, and it’s a very tactile and sensory-based experience. You’re often watching people make their way through space or landscapes, but it’s so sensorial that you feel it when you visualise that. …Hearing Mr. Ailey’s voice, talking about his world, that he was that kind of person. He was alive to the world around him, and that was the parallel. 

Is there a way we can find and harness archives to allow you to feel that you’re in his body moving through space and coming upon these discoveries? I loved Tom Volf’s film because Maria Callas is telling her own story in her own words. The way he allowed the music to speak for itself, the operatic moments come up and you witness an aria.

He’s saying, “I’m not going to explain, I want you to feel like you’re in a show watching her.” I thought that was liberating to trust the audience to experience the art that’s at the centre of the film. 

I’m not sure about the third [question]. I can’t remember anymore why that felt like a touchstone, except for the historical experiences of Mr. Ailey. 

Those were touchpoints for me to think about whether there was a way we could do the same thing. Is there a way of getting the experiential journey with Alvin Ailey, and then think about the fact that I wanted to be able to showcase dance, and allow it to live on its own? I wanted it to be experienced without a heavy discussion, or the type of academic approach that says, this is modern dance, this is ballet. I wanted it to be experiential.

When I first watched filmed versions of opera, I struggled with not being able to direct my gaze, the camera framing the stage, and the movements of the performers for me. Do you feel the filmed form dramatically changes the experience of viewing dance by denying our subjective gaze its freedom?

… For audiences who are familiar with live dance and then come to a dance film, it must always be approached that it’s not the same experience. I can’t possibly replicate the experience of being at a live performance. The air in the space is informing the performer on that evening. There’s an ephemeral quality–you will see the dance or the opera that one night, and the next night it will be different.

I’m literally changing the intention of the choreographer. I’m not working with them to choose the shots, or how to frame things. It’s meant to be seen on the proscenium stage, head to toe, and you as the audience member get to decide where your eye is drawn, although the choreographer is typically doing things to draw your eye. I’m altering the intent and not thinking that one-to-one is important. 

There are dances that are beautifully rendered that are different from the live show, and there are other versions, that just don’t work. One of the challenges was which dances we could feature based on the quality of the filmed version of the performance. 

You’re trying as best you can to channel the intent and desire of Mr. Ailey, in bringing these works to life.