Finding Christa. In Search of Our Fathers
Black autobiographical documentary

by Jim Lane

from Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 38-46
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1996, 2006

"The diary film draws upon the pure lyric, and often becomes indistinguishable from it. It arises out of the filmmaker's self-consciousness about the temporality of filming and editing. It explores that temporality as if it were the time of living. Often it suppresses the compounding of editing or sound in order to press home the equation. However, it is the autobiographical cinema per se that confronts fully the rupture between the time of cinema and the time of experience and invents forms to contain what it finds there." — P. Adam Sitney[1][open notes in new window]

"In the conjunction of history and autobiography we encounter once more the fundamental paradox of a referential art: the simultaneous acceptance and refusal of the constraints of the real." — Paul John Eakin[2]

In this essay, I will address the approach to subjectivity, temporality, and narrative in two African American, autobiographical documentaries: Marco Williams' IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS (1992) and Camille Billops and James Hatch's FINDING CHRISTA (1991). In this analysis, I will concentrate on how the representation of time influences subjectivity and claims to African American history in autobiographical documentary. I wish to place these films within the larger movement of autobiographical documentary in the United States and discuss how these filmmakers overcome the potential ideological constraints of chronological narrative and assert African American history through autobiographical strategies.

Since 1968, many filmmakers have explored autobiographical representation through documentary film and video.[3] These film and video makers have turned their cameras and tape recorders on themselves, their families, and their immediate world. A movement of autobiographical documentary has followed that has rejected the myth of the objective camera of U.S. direct-cinema and endorsed a politics of experience. The majority of these documentarists have produced their films in the United States, where the most complex development of the autobiographical documentary has occurred.[4] African American filmmakers have been conspicuously absent from this documentary movement. Recently, however, the release of Marco Williams' IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS and Camille Billops and James Hatch's FINDING CHRISTA have offered an opportunity to examine the convergence of autobiography, documentary, and African American culture.[5]

Marco Williams shot IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS over a ten year period beginning in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1981 and concluding in Los Angeles, California in 1991. The film contains dual projects that form the two narrative threads interwoven throughout the film. One project depicts Williams' journey to find and meet with his father, James Berry, whom Williams does not know. This search involves several emotional conversations with his mother, Winnie, in Paris, Cambridge and Los Angeles and concludes with Williams finally meeting his father in Springfield, Ohio. The other project involves Williams' attempt to draw a portrait of his extended family in Philadelphia. This extended family, comprised of aunts and cousins, has a tradition of absent fathers which troubles Williams, forcing him to examine his own family in the context of an article, to which he refers in the opening of the film, that cites a statistic stating that 47% of black families in the United States have absent fathers. These two projects, therefore, are inextricably bound to each other: Williams' own search for his historically absent father is framed by a broader examination of his extended family to which he has unique access.

IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS cogently suggests an alternative way of viewing the African American matriarchy and the sons and daughters growing up in such a situation. Williams implicitly undercuts the pejorative, status quo views of the single mother, African American family, views initiated by mainstream liberalism of the sixties and cynically transformed by eighties neo-conservatism.[6] We come to see his family organized around a matriarchal structure which does not produce the social problems which mainstream United States so fears. Williams' family is a functioning, working class group which supports itself. It is a family with a history, most succinctly represented through oral testimony, which has created a network of caring and empowered particular family members. This is especially the case for the filmmaker himself and his mother.

FINDING CHRISTA is also a family portrait film, comprised mainly of interviews with the filmmakers' family, friends, and the filmmakers themselves, embedded in the larger pattern of a search. Camille Billops, with the aid of her co-director and husband, James Hatch, initiates this project when her daughter Christa, whom Camille had given up for adoption at age four, endeavors to reunite with her mother after thirty years of anonymity. The film is as much an attempt to represent the present reuniting of daughter and mother as it is an attempt to re-examine the family history and past events which led up to Camille's decision to give up custody of Christa. FINDING CHRISTA offers another view of the African American family as seen through the lens of a mother who was criticized for "abandoning" her daughter and pursuing her career in art and a new life with her husband, who is not Christa's father.

FINDING CHRISTA presents a woman looking back on a defining moment in her life, sparked by an unexpected solicitation from her daughter. Through this retrospection, Billops realizes that her choices went against the prevailing opinion of her mother, aunts, and cousins who wished to keep Christa, a child "born out of wedlock," within the family. Through an examination of the attitudes voiced by family members in the filmed interviews, Billops determines that although her decision was a painful one, it was the right one. She was able to pursue her career in art and find her husband, James Hatch. As Billops states in the film, she realized later that this choice came from a feminist impulse to gain economic and familial independence.

IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS and FINDING CHRISTA present a forceful case for what an African American matriarchy is or can be. The films achieve an implicit re-examination of official history of the African American family through an autobiographical strategy determined to articulate both an immediate personal experience and a broader critique of that experience through social/ historical specificity.

I do not argue that these films are the 'only" or "proper" approach to the problem of subjectivity, narrative, and temporality. Instead, what I wish to propose in this essay is the political and historical viability of a variety of approaches to chronological narrative in the autobiographical documentary. IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS and FINDING CHRISTA are a fertile testing ground for competing theories of narrative and time. I wish to place these films in the middle of these debates as a way to read the films and to address pertinent theoretical arguments, which will be delineated below.


I would like to examine the use of narrative structuring within the autobiographical mode of documentary in the context of IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS and FINDING CHRISTA. Hayden White, states that narrative discourse, especially

"chronological narrative, is an arbitrary imposition on historical events. The emplotment of events into chronological stories does not reflect a real world structure but rather the vicissitudes of narrative discourse, which is linked to ideology and morality. Events are not inherently narrativized. In the name of truth and reference, narrative discourse can muddy truth claims of historical events."

White critiques historians for their use of narrative. He understands the institutional struggle to privilege narrative history as the "discourse of the real."[7]

IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS and FINDING CHRISTA are not written histories like those Hayden White critiques. Nonetheless, the films present a type of history and discourse (audio/visual documentary autobiography-as-history in chronological narrative form) which could be susceptible to many of White's charges. Moreover, there is a convergence of documentary, a representational mode often viewed as a "discourse of the real," and autobiography, a mode similarly viewed as a "discourse of the real." The auto
biographical documentary as a genre deepens the question of such films' connection to history and the role that narrative, especially chronological narrative, plays in this connection.[8]

Marco Williams presents himself in his film as a narrator who in voice-over introduces people or topics, responds to what people say in the film, or recounts events not seen by the viewer. The film's chronology is presented through voiceover, intertitles, such as "Cambridge, Spring 1981," "Harlem, Mid-Summer 1982," "Philadelphia, 1983," "Paris, Christmas 1984," "Philadelphia, Mother's Day 1985," etc., and also through peoples' physical transformations, especially in the case of Marco's mother, Winnie, whose hair turns gray through the years of the filming.

The film also utilizes classic narrative codes. It begins with a question (Who/where is Marco's father?) and delays the answer to end of the film. Moreover, the film presents a narrator/ author/ main character who attempts to shed an uncertain self in favor of a self who can resolve the questions of his own personal history. Wiliams concludes the film with a passage from E.M. Forster's Howard's End, which states, "Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer." Indeed, this narrative trajectory seems particularly vulnerable to post-structural and deconstructive critiques, given the film's suggestion there might be a resolution based on a non-fragmentary existence.

Camille Billops and James Hatch utilize a more thematic organization in their film, indicated by inter-titles such as "Why did You Leave Me?" "Christa, Where Were You?" "O.K. Christa, What Now? " and "Almost Home." Unlike the intertitles in Williams' film, these titles serve little narrative function, such as establishing time and place. They do, however, serve to structure the various intercut interviews which recreate events through memory at a micro-narrative level. As the film presents these intercut testimonies, the story that emerges is understood and expressed as a chronology of events. As we will see below, the nagging, painful questions about her mother's identity, voiced at the beginning by Christa, are indeed resolved by the film's completion and by knowledge seen as a resolution to self-doubt. Thus, while it is a fair observation to note that IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS functions much more cleanly as a chronological narrative, FINDING CHRISTA also utilizes chronological narrative at the same time it attempts to complicate it. Moreover, both films articulate a progression from fundamental insecurity about the filmmaker's circumstances to a resolution based on knowledge, acceptance, and understanding.[9]

It is difficult to argue against Hayden White about the arbitrariness of plotting and narrating historical events. There is a theoretical possibility that these documentaries' use of chronological narrative might undermine their autobiographical and historical claims. However, I assert that the films' autobiographical claims are not completely overshadowed by the ideological pitfalls of chronological narrative.

These documentaries open a discursive space complicating White's claims. Chronological narrative and micronarratives, as deployed in these films, speak to the filmmakers' personal histories and form the basis of their autobiographical acts. It is the autobiographical act which marks the rupture between Sitney's "time of cinema and time of experience." The films' chronological narrative, therefore, give an indication of specific cinematic choices made in response to questions such as these: How does the filmmaker organize the shot material? How does the filmmaker organize this material in such a way as to represent and interpret the historical events? Representation and interpretation, embedded in the narrative, have here a phenomenological function as well as an autobiographical function. Post-production choices such as the inclusion of voice over, intertitles, as well as the film's larger narrative structure indicate a system representing past historical events, events consistently interpreted by an autobiographical discursive frame, which speaks from its own unique yet not disconnected historical moment. The structure of the chronological narrative, while clearly imposed on the events, still refers to a structure of experience implicitly referred to in the films. The temporality of the events are in a reciprocal relationship with the structure of the narration of the events.[10]

In the autobiographical documentary film, the profilmic event is always already filtered through discursive systems. The two main systems are visual and aural. The visual is constituted by a camera frame, delimited by the choices available to the cinematographer at the time of filming, including focal length, depth of field, and available light. The aural register includes the dynamic range of the microphone used during the actual shooting and the postproduction sound including voice-over narration and music. IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS and FINDING CHRISTA use all of the above. The profilmic events are already contained by the inherent discourses of the technical recording apparatus, and, by the filmmakers' engagement with this technology. The subsequent structuring of these events into chronological narrative form is another layering of discourse onto an already "framed" event. It is, therefore, more productive from a critical standpoint, to look at the choice of chronological narrative and micro-narratives as one of many possibilities available to the film autobiographer who is always already inscribing a discourse and framing the real.

In literary autobiography studies, Paul John Eakin has argued this point in response to Paul DeMan's article, "Autobiography as De-Facement," in which DeMan insists on the impossibility of reference in autobiography because of language's inability to signify anything beyond language itself.[11] Eakin's response to DeMan deserves a more detailed review. Eakin writes:

"The deconstructive challenge to reference in autobiography turns, then, on the relation between the experience of the individual ('the thing itself') and its representation in language ('the picture'). Underlying my defense of narrative and chronology as structures of reference in autobiography is a distinctly different view of the relation between self and language: If our inscription, indeed our circumscription, in language is truly as total and comprehensive as DeMan suggests, the human experience in language ('the picture') becomes virtually coextensive with 'the thing itself,' all of human experience that we may know. In this sense, autobiography may well be consubstantial to a significant degree with the deeply linguistic nature of reality it presumes to incarnate."[12]

In the case of the autobiographical documentary, therefore, the filmmaker is engaged with the film language that actively interprets profilmic events, "the thing itself." Cinematic self-inscription, like literary self-inscription, is always already "the picture." But the picturing does not necessarily exclude the autobiographer from gaining access to and developing a relationship with the thing itself. In fact, autobiographical documentary provides evidence of the autobiographer's opinions, memories, and thoughts in struggle with historical events. This struggle comprises the very dynamic of the autobiographical act, which always engages in a tension between the presentation and interpretation of personal life events. Presentation and interpretation remain inseparable.

In the case of IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS and FINDING CHRISTA, the passage of time becomes centrally important at both the level of history and interpretation, "the thing itself' and "the picture." In the case of IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS, the film's events cover some ten years. On the surface, the organization of these events seems very simple, especially when compared to to the seemingly more complicated structure of FINDING CHRISTA.[13] However, even this seemingly straightforward presentation involves a highly complicated interpretation which is linked to the filmmaker's personal reactions. Williams' film evokes Paul Ricouer's observation that even "..the humblest of narratives is always more than a chronological series of events" ("Narrative Time," p. 174).

In the figures of Marco Williams and Camille Billops, the films present transformations that occur through time because of certain sequential events that take place in the filmmakers' personal histories. This sequence of events is reconstructed by the films' narratives and testimonies. The narrative structure is, therefore, true to the past. Echoing Eakin's comments on chronological autobiographical narrative, each film "is justified by its roots in the experience" (Touching the World, p. 197). However, these narrative structures go far beyond a simple attempt to represent personal history as made up of uncomplicated events that can easily be filmed and edited to create a seamless mimesis of the events and their time relations. Reference to specific moments in these documentaries will bear out my observations.


The opening sequence of IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS shows Marco Wiliams in Cambridge, Massachusetts 1981 sitting, phone in hand, as he and the audience listen to the sound of a phone ringing through the receiver.[14] In voice-over, Williams states,

"I was twenty-four years old the first time I ever learned my father's name. Six months before this call, we'd spoken briefly. 'Do you consider yourself a man,' he said. 'If you do, we can meet and we can see.'"

There was no meeting. The ensuing phone conversation depicts Williams attempting to schedule a time that he and his father, James Berry, might meet. In the course of the conversation, Williams mentions the idea of filming this meeting. Berry resists, saying, 'I don't think it's the proper thing to do." When Williams says he doesn't understand, Berry responds, 'They'll probably be a lot of things you don't understand in your young life.'"

The opening sequence initiates many of the problems which the film will play out, especially Berry's continued resistance to seeing the filmmaker. The resistance emerges not only in Berry's refusal to see Williams but also in Berry's challenge to the filmmaker's man/adulthood ("Do you consider yourself a man?") as well as Berry's rejection of the film idea ("They'll probably be lots of things you don't understand in your young life.") Berry implies that Williams is not mature enough to meet him on the father's terms. The resistance is marked further into the film when Williams, many years later, pursues his father while in Columbus, Ohio. His father once again staves off a meeting by refusing to accept the filmmaker's calls and refusing to return his messages.

The opening sequence also initiates a self-conscious critique of the filmmaking process and the degree to which the camera's presence influences the filmmaker's ability to make sense of his inquiry. The film accepts the difficulties of filming the world in an autobiographical fashion and acknowledges the limits of such a project as well as the hindering nature of the filming apparatus.[15] However, the filmmaker's persistence testifies to the viability of such a project despite certain obstacles born out of people's resistance in the film.

Moreover, the voice-over narration complicates the category of time and implicitly critiques the film image's ability to represent fully the events germane to Williams' pursuit. Specifically, the opening voice-over refers to a time six months prior to the events depicted on the screen, exposing the limited status of the image and opening up a complicated relation between narration and image. This is one of many examples which extend the film beyond simple chronological narrative. Time's potential intractability is further underscored by the film's systematic use of black frames that appear between cuts. These mark moments of postproduction decisions, which offer later interpretations of depicted events.

Some fifty minutes into the film and many years later, we finally see James Berry. As the meeting sequence opens, we see Berry nervously sitting on a couch in his Springfield, Ohio business office. Williams, behind the camera, states in voice over, "I could sense this wasn't going to be easy." Further into the scene, Berry states, "How do I know, Marco, that I'm your dad?" and firmly asserts that there is "...no reason for a woman to get pregnant, even in the fifties. I do not accept it and will not." As the meeting scene concludes, Marco states in voiceover, "This was my father? He wasn't at all what I had expected. It caused a pang in my heart."

This sequence shows no change in Berry. No grand reunion, as perhaps fantasized the filmmaker had fantasized, indicated by his observation that Berry wasn't what he expected. Berry's denial of responsibility extends to both Williams and the filmmaker's mother as Berry voices his disbelief that a woman might become pregnant "even in the fifties," reaffirming the father's years-long rejection, a fact referred to throughout the film. What is unique in this sequence is that the father is now represented through the image: he is seen.

This sequence also indicates the difference between film time and that of experience, made explicit in the commentary, which speaks in the past tense. Williams' spoken phrase, "pang in his heart," over the image of the father provides a clear example of this difference, placing a posterior commentary over an image of the past. The image becomes something contained within a larger observation — something beyond the chronological representation of events, yet founded on such a structure.

These concluding realizations, stated in voice over, emerge through Williams' personal transformation as it is represented in the film. His understandings revolve around a range of desires, including finding his father, not letting the father "off the hook" as he feels the women in his family have, and confronting his mother about the past. His mother's initial recalcitrance and outright hostility toward her son's wish to find his father serves to fuel the filmmaker's resolve to do just that. Moreover, Winnie's objections and Williams' persistence form an additional nexus for conflict which is worked out by the narrative. This working out on the part of the narrative is as much to do with the filmmaker's historical observations, however, as it does with the ideological constraints of narrative itself.

When Williams finally confronts his father, the experience turns out to be conclusive but conclusive in an unexpected way. Meeting James Berry does not bring Williams closer to his father. Instead, the filmmaker's meeting with Berry enables Williams to understand his mother's resistance and experience. Williams understands why his mother wanted to keep her relationship with James Berry in the past. This is confirmed in the final scene with Williams' mother.

In this final scene, Williams tells Winnie that he really did not enjoy the experience of meeting his father: "He just didn't seem open minded." Winnie responds, "How could I be involved with someone like that!" Williams accepts the disappointment saying that what he thought was "going to change my life or make me whole" had little effect. Williams observes, "My life keeps on going." Winnie adds, "At one point in my life I wanted to find my father and with time that dissipated." The scene ends as the film roll runs out and the image changes from light-struck ends to black. Williams states,

"I don't feel love for somebody I don't really know. I don't feel a bond with this man but I do feel like I can be a man. I could be a father. I know my father. I feel like that's what came from it."

Sitting on a couch in Los Angeles, 1991, ten years after the shooting of the film began, Williams and Winnie have arrived at a deep, mutual understanding of who they are as people, mother and son. Winnie, now gray in her hair, acknowledges her son's resolve and his need to figure out these nagging questions. Williams acknowledges a now shared experience of James Berry and can understand his mother in a profoundly new way. This final trans-subjective turn depends on the passage of time. The chronological narrative structure, a choice determined by the filmmaker, works in the service of the representation of this transformation.

The autobiographical narrative is indeed a posterior intervention on these personal events. Yet the film's referential capacity lingers because it provides evidence of a present point of view which is attempting to represent or tell itself — an autobiographical act. Moreover, it clearly adds to the possibilities of what film autobiography can be. By establishing a shared subjectivity between filmmaker and mother, the film opens up the boundaries of individual autobiography onto a collective one. Also, the film's promise of autobiography is implicitly one which is still open for revision, still incomplete. The film magazine is running out just as Williams is attempting to summarize the film project and its value. This visual detail underscores the film's implicit dialectic, which resists complete autobiography and summary. Williams' life goes on. However, despite the film's acknowledgment of incompletion, partial autobiography is still autobiography.[16]

IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS leaves us with a mother and son arriving at a positive place in their relationship. The film's dedication, "In honor and in memory of the strong black women of my family and throughout the Diaspora," marks this transformation on the part of the filmmaker. FINDING CHRISTA's dedication reads in a somewhat similar fashion: "This film is dedicated to the memory of my parents, Alma Billops (Dotson) and Lucious 'Bill' Billops, my sister Josie May Dotson, our friend Melvyn Helstein and to all who search for children or parents." Such a dedication indicates a change in the filmmaker's perspective toward her daughter's attempts to reunite them. Like IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS, a shared autobiography emerges in FINDING CHRISTA between a parent and child. Yet, in this case, the shared autobiography is indicated from the beginning.

The opening coda of the film begins with stills and home movies of Christa as a child. In voice over we hear an adult Christa state,

"My last memory of you is when you drove off and left me at the children's home society. I didn't understand why you left me. I felt so alone. Why did you leave me?"

Over home movies of Camille washing Christa as a baby, Camille responds, "I was trying to give her something else because I felt she needed a mother and a father. I'm sorry about the pain it caused Christa as a young child...But I'm not sorry for the act." This sound/ image montage summarizes the daughter's and mother's positions in the film vis à vis their past. Moreover, by constructing a dual subjectivity, the opening immediately establishes a reading of the film as a family portrait presented through the perspective and commentative voice of two people. This trans-subjective pattern appears more clearly at the end of IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS in the final scene between Williams and his mother.

FINDING CHRISTA presents a markedly different approach to the representation of time by relying less on an overall chronological narrative structure. While both films suggest a journey or quest in their titles, only IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS withholds the actual meeting of the absent family member to the latter part of the film. In FINDING CHRISTA, the reuniting of Camille and Christa is so muted at the dramatic level that a viewer may not readily notice that the two women in the airport terminal sequence, occurring at the halfway point in the film, are Camille and Christa seeing each other after many years. Billops does not withhold her reuniting with her daughter until some moment toward the end of the film as a payoff to raised audience expectations, as is the case in Williams' film. Yet, upon closer analysis, the film yields micro-chronological narratives which function not only in the various thematic sections mentioned earlier but also overlap across sections as the story of Christa and Camille's reuniting develops.

FINDING CHRISTA utilizes the family portrait trope of the interview as its formal underpinning. The ontological status, the actual time and place, of these interviews matters less than what people are saying and to what points in the family history they are referring. The various interviews are intercut throughout, and the film does not suggest any chronological sequencing. This is most plainly seen in Billops' interview of her sister, Josie, which appears at the beginning of the film and at the end. Nonetheless, the film appropriates a complex weaving of oral testimonies by family members, friends, and the filmmaker (the social agents of the film) to construct a chronology of events that leads up to Christa's adoption, Christa's life with her adoptive family, and her bringing together both biological and adoptive mothers. What the film reveals is that the social agents in the film understand the answers they'll give to Billops' inquiry about family history as deriving from a result of a series of events which they can represent in an oral chronological narrative. The film thematically organizes portions of testimonies as a way of reconstituting historical personal narrative.

The film also interrogates the validity of remembrances and testimonies, especially in the opening section which describes the events immediately preceding and succeeding Camille's relinquishing her daughter. This first section of the film — entitled "Why did you leave me?" — reconstructs this narrative mainly through oral testimonies. Over home movies of Billops' family, Camille states in voice over,

"There I was, nine months later with Tina and Beverly at my baby shower and no husband. What I wanted was the nuclear family. I'd wanted a little Hollywood thing...And when the third party wasn't there, then I didn't want to do it. If you are a single parent then you are just an unwed mother, which is close to...being a whore."

These observations are told to her sister, Josie, the first interviewee and clearly sympathetic to Camille's circumstances. Other family members appear less sympathetic.

This is especially the case for Camille's cousin, Alma, who is introduced as someone who was partially responsible for raising Christa. Alma feels that Camille had no good reason for giving up Christa. Alma suggests that Camille left Christa behind out for selfish reasons — that Camille had found her husband-to-be, James Hatch, and had an opportunity to start a new life. Camille's cousin, Marjorie, remembers that Camille's married sister, Billie, was willing to adopt Christa and that the family was ready and willing to share in the child's upbringing.

Subsequent to these scenes, Camille faces the camera and suggests an alternative narrative. She states that the family situation was far less congenial than people remember and that at age twenty-seven and unmarried, she was not able to be a good mother. Some thirty years later, Camille acknowledges a certain hypocrisy in the fact that men are not chastised for leaving and women are.[17] She now sees her response to her past predicament as an inchoate feminism which developed from that critical point. Moreover, from this entanglement of narratives emerges a chronological series of events about which actual participants have differing perspectives. Through these contradictory narratives, the film offers a variety of answers to the question, "Why did you leave me?" There is no doubt that the filmmaker's perspective holds more weight in this exchange, yet competing interpretations are voiced.

The second section of the film — "Christa where were you?" — attempts to answer this question by interviewing Christa's adoptive family in Oakland. In these interviews, Margaret, Christa's adoptive mother, gives a detailed account about the how, when and where of Christa's adoption.[18] Subsequent interviews of the siblings, consisting of anecdotal remembrances of their drive home from the orphanage, reveal the unknown parts of a life that continued after Camille left Christa. Christa, herself, appears in "staged" sequences of her singing performances, which she characterizes as "life songs." These staged sequences, consisting of both performances and re-enactments, run throughout the film and constitute another major filmic trope which comments on and serves as fantasies revolving around the weaving narrative.[19] Placed in such a relation, these scenes add another filmic strategy to comment on Christa and Camille's complicated life narratives.

As the second section concludes, Margaret explains how Christa got married, began a career in the performing arts, yet was still unhappy. Margaret discloses that she told Christa to find her "mother." With the conclusion of this section, a portrait of Christa and her adoptive family emerges through oral testimonies, describing Christa's development into adulthood and marriage. At this juncture, the past family histories have been textually installed through a composite narrative derived from a variety of sources put in place by the filmmakers. Moreover, the film sets in place a potential problem, the balancing of two mothers and one daughter,which the rest of the film attempts to work out.

With Camille and Christa reunited, a problem is posed. Specifically, the emotional cost to those involved in the adoption, namely the two mothers and daughter, comes to the fore. At the conclusion, the film presents images of Margaret and Camille with a voice over by Christa stating,

"You know it's a blessing having two mothers. But at times it's also very difficult especially when both are very strong-willed people. Sometimes I feel as if I'm being pulled apart..I'm very fortunate to have a mother who has raised me and loved me unconditionally. I'm very blessed to have a mother who bore me and accepted me back into her life so that I could grow and learn more about myself."

Such a realization forces all parties to alter radically their concepts of who they thought they were in relation to each other. Indeed, Margaret, in what amounts to an extraordinary act of good will, tells Christa that she wants Christa to live in New York not only to pursue her career but also to get to know Camille better.

These familial rearrangements subtend how FINDING CHRISTA presents an African American matriarchal world. Devoid of any patriarchal forces, the new arrangements achieved at the conclusion of the film are markedly nonhierarchical. As Marco Williams arrives at a new-found understanding of who his mother is through their shared experience of James Berry, Margaret, Christa, and Camille reside in an alternative family only arrived at through a process represented through a narrative highly dependent upon the passage of time. Each filmmaker has, in Sitney's words, "invented forms" for the autobiographical impulse to tell a life story and refer to history.

In I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, Maya Angelou writes,

"The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance."[20]

IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS and FINDING CHRISTA concludes with a discovery and acceptance of mothers, self, and past. The discovery of these mothers acknowledges them as "formidable characters who have managed a life outside the over-determined boundaries established for African American mothers. This process of discovery, inextricably bound to the passage of time, is another example of the cultural and political potential of the autobiographical documentary now strategically invoked by African American documentarists.


1. P. Adams Sitney, "Autobiography in the Avant-Garde," Millennium Film Journal 1:1, 1977-78, pp. 104-105. My italics.

2. Paul John Eakin, Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 180.

3. With the advancement of film studies, defining "documentary" has rightfully become a complicated challenge. Frequently, other film traditions such as the avant-garde or even fiction film obfuscate the boundaries that distinguish documentary from other forms of film and video. Bill Nichols' seminal work on documentary has, however, established a framework to which current definitions and discussions of documentary remain indebted. For the purposes of my essay, I will rely on Nichols' emphasis on documentary's use of sound and image as evidence presented in the service of an argument that emanates from social or historical registers. See, Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 12-31. For a broader examination of the historical development of the notion of documentary and photographic media, see John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

4. John Stuart Katz, Judith Milstein Katz and Jay Ruby have laid out the most detailed account of the movement of autobiography and documentary film. Katz and Katz have defined the autobiographical documentary in terms of content, films which focus on the self, i.e., the filmmaker, and form, which is linked to a level of intimacy that is reflected in the cinematic style, distinguishing autobiographical documentaries from other films. For a further discussion of how ethics are inscribed in these films see John Stuart Katz and Judith Milstein Katz, "Ethics and the Perception of Ethics in Autobiographical Film," in Larry Gross, John Katz and Jay Ruby, eds., Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film and Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 119-133. For an overview of the historical development of the autobiographical documentary, see articles by Jay Ruby, "The Celluloid Self," pp. 7-9 and John Stuart Katz, "Autobiographical Film," pp. 10-15 in John Stuart Katz, ed., Autobiography: Film / Video /Photography (Toronto: Media Programmes division of the Education Branch, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1978). For a discussion of autobiographical theory and documentary, see Michael Renov, 'The Subject in History: The New Autobiography in Film and Video." Afterimage, 17:1, Summer, 1989, pp. 4-7. and Jim Lane, "Notes on Theory and the Autobiographical Documentary Film," Wide Angle 15:3, 1993. pp. 21-32.

5. Marlon Riggs's TONGUES UNTIED (1989) and his posthumously produced BLACK IS...BLACK AIN'T (1995) are other recent examples of African American autobiographical documentaries.

6. I am referring to attitudes initiated by historians such as Stanley Elkins in Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, 2d. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968) and public policy makers such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan in The Negro Family: The Case of National Action (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Labor, March, 1965) and Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: Free Press, 1969). These studies focused on the "problem" of black male disenfranchisement from society and specifically the family. They viewed the black male as an impotent figure in need of revitalization. Attitudes arose in mainstream United States suggesting that the "problem" could be solved by buttressing the black male. The matriarchal, black U.S. family was considered a failure or breakdown. African American female positions were effectively denied their history. Since Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," the African American family has been the focus of liberal points of view, which often patronize, and of neo-conservative views, which demonize the African American family as the cause of the "welfare state." For a more detailed discussion of the cultural attitudes engendered by historians and policy makers, see Deborah Gray White, Ain't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985). Rose M. Brewer reminds us that exclusively emphasizing the cultural traditions of black families in the United States as a way to explain their situation in advanced capitalism is to ignore vital economic and social factors which already put black Americans at a distinct disadvantage to whites in the market place. See Rose M. Brewer, "Black Women in Poverty: Some Comments on Female-Headed Families," Signs: Journal of Women and Culture (13:2, 1988), pp. 331-339.

7. Hayden White, The Content of Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.) Regarding this argument see, especially, "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," pp. 125.

8. In literary autobiographical studies, this debate has been ongoing since the seventies. For a more detailed account, see Christine Downing, "Re-Visioning Autobiography: The Bequest of Freud and Jung," Soundings 60 (1977), pp. 210-28, and John Sturrock, "The New Model Autobiographer," New Literary History 9(1977), pp. 51-63. These authors assert the inadequacy of narrative and chronology to address autobiography and claim that new autobiography, based on the structures of Freudian and Lacanian concepts of the unconscious, is in order. The new autobiographical language is based on a poetic or anti-narrative strategy. Michael Renov asserts a similar call for film and video autobiography in his essay, "The Subject in History: The New Autobiography in Film and Video."

9. In literary autobiographical studies, critics have noted this as being a frequently used structure in the tradition of written autobiography. Authors often rid a negative, past self in favor a present, more positive, image of the self. Autobiography serves a purging function in this case. See, for example, James Olney, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972). Because of the conventional aspects of this narrative trajectory, some critics question the validity of such autobiographies. See, for instance, Jeffrey Melhman, A Structural Study of Autobiograpity: Proust, Leiris, Sartre, Lévi-Strauss. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974).

10. Considering this issue,I am indebted to work of Paul Ricouer. Ricouer insists on the "reciprocity between narrativity and temporality." See "Narrative Time," in On Narrative, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 165-186.

11. See Paul DeMan, "Autobiography as Defacement," MLA, 94, 1979, pp. 919-30.

12. Paul John Eakin, "Narrative and Chronology as Structures of Reference and the New Model Autobiographer," in Studies in Autobiography, ed. James Olney (New York: Oxford University Press. 1988), p. 32.

13. In choosing this representational strategy, Williams joins other autobiographical documentarists who have utilized chronological narrative as their principal organizing structure. I am thinking of Ed Pincus and DIARIES (1971-1976) (1981) which covers five years, Mark Rance and DEATH AND THE SINGING TELEGRAM (1983) which covers five years, and Ross McElwee's SHERMAN'S MARCH (1986) which covers two and one half years. Like McElwee, Williams had many edited versions of his film through the ten-year period of time he was shooting. He saw his footage, knew what he had, and planned shoots based on this material. This point should not be underestimated in terms of its influence on the design of the film. Ed Pincus, who initiated the practice of shooting autobiographical sync-sound documentary over long periods, opted not to look at his shot footage until after the shooting was completed. He did not want any reactions he might have to the footage to influence how he would live and film his life. To date, only Jerome Hill's groundbreaking FILM PORTRAIT (1972) covers the majority of the lifetime of the film autobiographer. Because of its extensive intercutting of interviews around thematic topics and the use of home movies and family snap shots, FINDING CHRISTA is more aligned with the family portrait tradition within the autobiographical documentary. FINDING CHRISTA shares affinities with documentaries like Martha Coolidge's DAVID OFF AND ON (1972), Alfred Guzzetti's FAMILY PORTRAIT SITTINGS (1975), Martin Scorsese ITALIAN-AMERICAN (1975), and more recent examples such as Abraham Ravett's EVERYTHING'S FOR YOU (1989), Richard Fung's MY MOTHER'S PLACE (1990), Rea Tajiri's HISTORY AND MEMORY (1991), and Mindy Faber's DELIRIUM (1993). For more on the family portrait documentary see Elisabeth Weiss, "Family Portraits," American Film, 1:2(1975): 54-59. Also, see the special issue on the cultural and aesthetic significance of home movies in The Journal of Film and Video, 38:3-4, 1986. I draw amore detailed distinction between these types of autobiographies in my book, The Autobiographical Documentary in America: An Analysis of Self-Inscription in Film and Video, forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press.

14. Sound for this particular sequence was recorded by a microphone directed toward the listening component of an off-screen telephone extension.

15. For a discussion of how film might alter autobiography; see Elizabeth Bruss, "Eye for I: Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film" in James Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 298-320. Bruss suggests that film might be the most significant medium for modem autobiography. According to Bruss, film autobiography differs from classical written autobiography because film autobiography "can take identity beyond what one consciousness can grasp, beyond even what the unaided human consciousness can encompass." (p. 319) This observation addresses the shift to a collective subjectivity suggested at the end of IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS. Although her article raises many critical points about autobiography in film, Bruss curiously ignores the significance of the convergence of documentary and autobiography choosing to focus on the personal cinema of modernist filmmakers like Truffaut and Fellini.

16. Jerome Bruner emphasizes the constructed aspects of autobiography and analyzes the conventions of life narrative as a way to discuss the culture from which they emerge and concludes that the conventions of narrative and the course of life coincide. See Jerome Bruner, "Life as Narrative," Social Research 54:1(1987), pp. 11-32. Related to this argument is Karl J. Weintraub, "Autobiography and Historical Consciousness," Critical Inquiry 1(1975), pp. 821-48 and Paul Ricouer, "Narrative Time."

17. Clearly, IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS is a response to this observation. The reader should note that IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS was released one year later.

18. The whereabouts of Christa's adoptive father is unclear.

19. Such staged sequences and re-enact LIGHTNING OVER WATER: NICK'S FILM (1982), Tony Buba's LIGHTNING OVER BRADDOCK: A RUSTBOWL FANTASY (1989), Jan Oxenberg's THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT (1991) and Mindy Faber's DELIRIUM (1993).

20. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York; Bantam Books, 1980). p. 231.


IN SEARCH OF OUR FATHERS (1992). Filmmaker's Library, 124 E. 40 St., Suite 901, New York, New York 10016

FINDING CHRISTA (1991). Hatch-Billops Productions, 491 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, New York 10012. 212-966-3231