“I think one of the things about the kids then which was very beautiful and limited them in certain personal ways was that they didn’t have a sense of the world. They had a sense of their own world.” – Tony Silver, Director of Style Wars
In part three of this interview with Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver, the two men behind classic hip hop movie, Style Wars, we discuss DONDI, dealings with police, their middle-class-white-man privileges and passion.
It was interesting hearing DONDI explain Rammellzee’s armed letter theory in the outtakes.
Henry: He explains it while having a spin, “Well, that’s Rammellzee. That’s his idea. I don’t really completely get it but this is what we did together.” He’s slightly abashed by it.
Tony: Yeah. Critical of it. It’s not his vision but he’s being asked about it. I had not known DONDI. I think I had met him once or twice in passing maybe at a gallery. He was, of course, very shy and quite camera shy, and hesitant. I think in some of the outtakes, even some of the outtakes that are not on the DVD which I hope to get into a later edition, there’s a real sense of privacy about DONDI that’s different from fear of exposure or fear of police or whatever. It’s some kind of a really deeply personal thing in him which I think is very special. I think, somehow or other, it filters through. It’s one of the reasons perhaps – I speculate – that he is so admired and revered.
Henry: It had something to do with his painting, too.
Tony: Of course, but in addition to that his whole way of conducting himself and holding himself apart in certain ways.
Have you ever been raided, Henry?
Henry: Actually, no. I did get called by the FBI once about ten or fifteen years ago asking me about threats made on the train lines and I laughed and I said, “Don’t you know bombing is a metaphor here?” And they said somewhat sinisterly, “We’ve read your books” [laughing]. But it didn’t come to anything. They didn’t pursue it with me so I don’t know what came of that. I’ve never had any raids because I think at the time when I was very active that wasn’t their strategy. The vandal squad would show up at art shows and kind of hang out because all the writers knew them. There’d be sort of jocular encounters between them: “If I were to catch you somewhere else it would be different but here it’s kind of mutual ground.” And I had met them several times on those occasions but that’s all changed.
They’re much more hardcore right now. I did get stopped by cops taking pictures once, or a couple of times, fortunately by a different cop each time. In New York you’re not allowed to take pictures in the subway without a permit and to get a permit is a lot of bureaucracy and it only lasts three days. So clearly that wouldn’t have done me any good so I never did get a permit and I just hoped I wouldn’t see the same cop twice. They’d come up to you and say, “You can’t do this. Get off the line.” And I’d say, “Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’m a sociology professor doing this as a project.” And they would say, “Well, you’ll have to get permission.” One time I was doing it with a bunch of kids who were very young – like 12 and that kind of thing. They were taking pictures and I was taking pictures and they threw them [the kids] up against the wall and they cursed me saying I was too old to be engaging in this kind of activity.
That leads me into my next question. It seems that you’ve never really suffered overt political interference, only more subtle things such as not getting funding because of the subject matter of the film.
Tony: Our greatest surprise was that after a two-pronged effort by Henry and me – Henry through one avenue and I through another – to get to Richard Ravitch so that we could bring our crew with lights and all into the subway – especially at the Grand Avenue, that it worked. I don’t know how to explain Richard Ravitch exactly except that in the end, he said, “OK, I can understand this. This is something that’s worth documenting. It’s been going on for a long time. And I’ll give the order that there should be cooperation with you but you can’t film the defacement, the act of defacement of our property.” So that was the deal. We did finally film CAP defacing not only his property but everybody else’s but that wasn’t set up.
Could you – and I’m going to use the words you used on the DVD interview – have achieved this project by being anything other than “middle-aged white men”?
Henry: That’s a very interesting question.
Tony: I don’t think I could.
Henry: It’s probably statistically more probable that a middle-aged white man will have the leisure time to spend hours and hours on a daily basis sometimes trying to catch trains without any remuneration. I think that gives you one type of answer.
Tony: Well, the only thing about that, Henry, is that we meet every day a dozen film-makers in the film world who are in their twenties who have the same kind of passion for whatever their subject is and are willing to put themselves on the line for it even if they have to starve to do it. So it was partly leisure but it was also passion. I mean I didn’t have the leisure.
Henry: But you had the passion…
Tony: And even if you didn’t have the leisure you would have had the passion. So I think that’s really the motivating thing. Each of us, in our own different way, saw what was going on from outside. So the answer, perhaps, is a provisional ‘yes’. Or maybe the answer’s ‘no’ [laughing]. I couldn’t have done it if I were a twenty-year-old black kid, or twenty-nine-year-old black kid. I would have approached it in a completely different way as purely something to celebrate without any analysis, without any dialectic, without any debate, without any argument, without trying to film as many sides of this frontline of this war as possible, and to feel it. I don’t think I would have wanted to film Skeme’s mother, for example. I think I would have been afraid to do that. I think I would have identified too closely with the kid’s point of view on an exclusive basis.
Henry: Is what you’re saying: that this couldn’t have been made, too, by anyone else because they wouldn’t have had similar access to Ravitch, Koch and funding agencies?
Tony: Now they would.
Yes, but I like the way you answered it. But talk to me about that level as well.
Tony: I have to think it’s a function of the time. I think the answer today would be different. Not only are film-makers more sophisticated but the film subjects are more sophisticated too about media and about the ambiguities of the world.
The level of media savvy-ness in America now would almost defeat the purpose of doing a Style Wars this millennium because everyone is so aware of how they would be portrayed – not that they weren’t back then, but it’s hyper-savvy now.
Tony: This is true. I think there are two sides to that. Just thinking about the neo-graffiti movement. I think there are a lot of young artists here and in Japan and Europe and probably in Australia – although I don’t know much about it – who are similarly operating on their own wavelength and in media in their own devising and appropriating media as they will in order to do what they want to do but they have a sense of living in a larger world because it’s a much more sophisticated time. I think one of the things about the kids then which was very beautiful and limited them in certain personal ways was that they didn’t have a sense of the world. They had a sense of their own world. That’s what gave birth to the whole thing. Equivalent artists today know how to brand themselves – in the world, on the web, whatever. Kids then they found the subway to do it but they were really branding themselves to one another first and to the world secondarily.
Read the rest of this 4-part interview
Part 1 of the Style Wars interview: Wild Style, Rock Steady Crew, Skeme
Part 2 of the Style Wars interview: Iz the Wiz, Min, CAP
Part 3 of the Style Wars interview: DONDI, the police, passion
Part 4 of the Style Wars interview: Marther Cooper, Case, Kay Slay
- Photos courtesy Henry Chalfant
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