Killer of Sheep

The story of how the best new 30-year-old movie of 2007, written and directed by celebrated Bruin writer-director Charles Burnett, finally hit the big screen.


Published Apr 5, 2007 11:31 AM

By David Chute


He never even intended for his movie to be shown in theatres. In fact, Killer of Sheep was a thesis film for UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television alumnus Charles Burnett '68, MFA. Yet the award-winning writer and director's celebrated take on working class African-American life in Los Angeles' Watts ghetto has finally reached the big screen.

Killer of Sheep bowed at the IFC Center in New York on March 30 and is screening in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre April 6-12.

How did it happen? Well, this is what it takes sometimes: a distributor who is willing to spend six years laboriously clearing music rights, in order to bring into public view a legendary American movie that hasn't been exhibited commercially, even once, since it was completed more than 30 years ago. The distributor is Dennis Doros, founding co-owner, with his wife Amy Heller, of the adventurous New Jersey-based company Milestone Film & Video, which is devoted to nurturing the most neglected of genres, from silent films and high-art animation to silent high-art animation — silent German high-art animation.

Killer of Sheep has always been one of those movies considered impossible to release," Doros told The Village Voice, and a film that Doros and Heller "have always loved." Filmed on weekends over a twelve-month period that spanned the winter 1972-73, in the LA ghetto of Watts, in 16mm and on a budget of less than $10,000, this "neo-realistic" portrait of a working class African American family has been described in terms that suggest the second coming of The Bicycle Thief's Vittorio De Sica.

The movie is an almost plotless series of vignettes that add up to a powerful portrait of a morose slaughterhouse employee (Henry Gayle Sanders), who is so beaten down by the relentless drabness of his life that he can't even respond lovingly to his fervent, affectionate wife. Burnett juxtaposes these sequences with some almost visionary images of children at play, making a world of fantasy out of back alleys and vacant lots, affording us a glimpse of the joy in life that the grown up characters have lost.

Burnett envisioned the work that became his thesis film in 1977 as a realist response to the wave of violent "Blaxploitation" crime films flooding the nation's grindhouses. Killer of Sheep was such a personal work that it simply never occurred to Burnett that clearing the rights to the wide variety of jazz and blues and pop music he used on the soundtrack would be worthwhile.

"It was shown in the community and to people interested in social problems, but there wasn't the sort of distribution and marketing then that there is now," the writer-director has said. "The idea of it being in theaters back then would be like going to the moon!"

But Milestone's Doros was inspired to attempt to release the film when he learned that Ross Lipman, the preservationist specializing in independent and avant garde film at the UCLA Film & Television Archive had restored Killer of Sheep and transferred it from 16 to 35 millimeter stock. Doros admits that even with a generous targeted donation from director Steven Soderburgh, a long-time admirer of the film, the six-year task of tracking down the rights to almost two dozen jazz, blues and soul classics has left his small company in the red.

And the film's acclaim hasn't diminished over the decades. In a review in The Nation, Stuart Klawan observes: "I feel safe in calling it one of the best new films of 2007." More than one reviewer has compared Sheep's journey to that of Jean-Pierre Melville's French espionage movie Army of Shadows, which was released abroad in 1969 but finally opened here only in 2006, turning up at year's end on several Ten Best lists and on the short lists for several awards.

Stranger things have happened. If audiences are as fed up as most critics with the thin film fare they're being served these days, Killer of Sheep could seem bracingly fresh, in spite of its age.



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