In the film and media awards firmament, the Leos go largely unregarded by the mainstream media. Actually that includes most independent media outlets, as well. The Leo Awards are named in honor of Leo Dratfield, (1918 - 1986), a pioneer of independent and non-theatrical film distribution, an individual who sought out the most outstanding and innovative international film and video work, encouraging their use in libraries, cultural centers and universities, providing artists doing groundbreaking noncommercial projects significant outlets for their stellar work. The awards are presented annually in the categories of "Filmmaker or Producer" and "Exhibitor, Distributor, or Programmer," celebrating those who exemplify the commitment and spirit it takes to sustain a career of innovative approaches in the media arts.
The honorees of this year's awards, presented in a ceremony at Symphony Space on the upper west side of Manhattan last night, were filmmaker Barbara Hammer (pictured above with her longtime partner, Florrie Burke, from her piece, Tender Fictions); distributors Sue Oscar and Linda Gottesman of Filmakers Library; and (deceased) filmmaker Helen Hill (pictured right with her husband and son).
Flaherty Seminar executive director, Mary Kerr, opened the ceremony with Leo's son Jim Dratfield, a widely-published animal photographer. It was a warm and intimate evening filled with personal storytelling and anecdotes of these incredible talents who have quietly been going about the business of creating an amazing legacy of creative, and deeply personal, work.
The Samu Award was presented to the late animator and teacher, Helen Hill, by Dan Streible, organizer of the Orphan Film Symposium. We saw her 8 minute film from 1999, Mouseholes, where she pays tribute to her grandfather, Pop. "Since I could not stop my grandfather's death, I tried to understand through recordings of his voice, home movies and animated scenes of heaven." Hill's own funeral (she was murdered in her home in New Orleans in 2007) was modeled on Pop's, whom she is now buried next to.
The first Leo was presented to the incredible Barbara Hammer, an enchanting and exhilarating presence, a prolific artist who has produced an astounding body of work, over 80 pieces in a career that spans four decades. (She shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.) Her experimental films from the 70s dealt with subjects like menstruation, female orgasm and lesbian sexuality; in the 80s, she used optical printing to explore perception and the fragility of human life, juxtaposed with explorations of the fragility of 16mm film. Her documentaries tell stories of marginalized people, hidden from history, giving them a voice and encouraging them to make social change in their communities. She is currently writing a memoir called HAMMER to be published by the Feminist Press, CUNY in 2010. We saw her 9 minute Vital Signs from 1991 and Sanctus, a 20-minute piece from 1990, an astonishing, deeply moving (and quite humorous) re-composition of found footage, a series of X-ray films shot in the 50s by doctor and film director, James Sibley Watson.
Sue Oscar and Linda Gottesman received a Leo, as well, for their creation of the Filmakers Library, a documentary distribution company begun in Gottesman's kitchen in 1969. The contributions these women have made, modestly and quietly over the course of several decades, cannot be overestimated. Starting with the cinema vérité documentary, Birth and Death, they soon added more life cycle films, eventually growing their library to include a wide array of issue-oriented fare. Dratfield was their mentor, guiding and encouraging them to become a significant resource for the educational and non-theatrical markets. Their catalog is now 200 pages long and their web site has over a thousand documentaries of social significance.
Congratulations to these extraordinary women and their vital and invaluable contributions to the modern nonfiction and experimental canon. It was a privilege to be in their company.