Thursday, November 3, 2011

All Me- Winfred Rembert

Chain Gang - The Ditch, Winfred Rembert (2005)

All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert is an illuminating documentary about a black artist who lived through the racial strife of the south in the 1960s and who today creates strikingly original artworks that recall his own struggles as well as those of his friends and counterparts. In the process of this film, we meet a remarkable man who has gone from poverty to the status of a celebrated artisan, all the while remaining someone who has retained his simple country heritage.

The film is directed by Vivian Ducat, a native New Yorker, who has produced a number of films in England and in America over the past twenty years; these ranged from series episodes for the BBC to 
an episode of The American Experience for PBS. In early 2010, she attended a show of Rembert's works at a gallery in New York, where she met the artist. Impressed by his craft as well as his storytelling ability, she decided to make a short film about him and soon afterward got the news that she would direct and produce a feature-length documentary on Rembert.

Ducat has made a highly entertaining film about Rembert and it's clear watching the film that she believes this is a truly special man whose life story needed to be chronicled. Rembert, now 65, grew up in the small rural town of Cuthbert, Georgia and was given away at birth to a great aunt. He spent much of his youth and early adulthood working in the local peanut and cotton fields and this time clearly meant a lot to him, as many of his works portray scenes of workers "toiling"- as he likes to describe it - at their work.

Rembert was impressed by the speeches he heard from Martin Luther King, Jr and decided to attend a civil rights demonstration; he was jailed for this and after escaping, he was then strung up by a local gang who were ready to kill him. This part of the film is told by Rembert in clear, stirring detail, as we see some of his works depicting this act.

He survived, but was forced to work on a chain gang for several years. While in prison, he drew scenes of his life's experiences and started to experiment with art on leather. Later on, he would make small pieces of jewelry and even a jacket for his children, who were the envy of all their friends when they wore these pieces of art. Encouraged by this, Rembert continued with his craft, eventually catching the attention of some influential individuals along the way who were able to help fund his studio work.

Chain Gang Picking Cotton (2004)

Rembert creates by starting with a drawing that he then reproduces on a leather canvas by numerous hand tools, among them a number of small hammers and picks. He then illustrates the canvas with dyes, as paint would crack on leather if folded. Along the way, Ducat includes several scenes of Rembert at work and it's fascinating to watch this unusual handiwork of the artist.

The director also includes a scene where Rembert speaks to college students about his experiences from decades past and about how ugly racial tensions were in the Deep South. It's interesting to see the reactions of the students, most of whom probably have never met anyone who has been a first-person witness to that time.

There are many scenes that focus on Cuthbert, as we see what the town looks like today and watch and listen to some of Rembert's boyhood friends. We also see what the artist's current life is like, as he lives near Yale University (where his first one-man show took place) in a simple neighborhood where he can roast a pig or play a little pick-up basketball with friends (he still has a few slick moves at his age!).

But it's small town Georgia that still means so much to Winfred Rembert and the film concludes with his art being moved from a gallery in New York City to a special show in Albany, GA, not far from Cuthbert. "Nothing compares to coming back home... I'm here and I'm somebody," the artist says.

His journey is complete and has a nice circular nature to it, from a poor background to a celebrated artist; from the simplicity of a humble town in Georgia to the rich interiors of a New York City gallery and finally back home again. All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert is a nicely detailed look at one special man's path in life, one that has a few more chapters to be written.

All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert won a silver plaque in the documentary category at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival. The film's next showing will be on Saturday, November 12 at the Albany, GA Civil Rights Institute for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Albany, Georgia Movement.

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