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Camille Billops is nothing if not a character, from her ultra long hair to her eyes painted with thick Egyptian eyeliner. She spent years making documentaries about some of the most controversial and personal topics imaginable. Her first film, Suzanne, Suzanne, chronicled her niece’s heroin addiction, her follow-up, Older Woman and Love, told the story of her grandmother’s affair with a younger man, and The KKK Boutique Ain't Just Rednecks examined internalized racism in the black community.

And then there was Finding Christa, Billops’ third and most (in)famous film. Winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Best Documentary in 1992, Finding Christa is a memoir of Billops’ decision to give her daughter up for adoption at the age of 4 and what happened when she reunited with her daughter 20 years later. As she explains quite matter-of-factly, “at one point, I decided that I didn’t want to be anyone’s mother.”

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Though this choice of hers may seem abhorrent to many readers, the film, and this BOMB Magazine interview, offer us a compelling look into the psyche of a brilliant woman who was willing to sacrifice her own child in order to live her life as she wanted to live it.

Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 40, Summer 1992.

—Adda Birnir

INTERVIEW:

Ameena Meer: How did you go from making art to making films?

Camille Billops: In 1968, my husband [James Hatch] and I spent five months in India doing excerpts from a play called America Hurrah, a socially-conscious play of the times about the status of America. So Mr. and Mrs. Interracial Couple presented themselves in Calcutta, Bombay, and Bangalore. But Calcutta was the hippest: we used a partially-finished theater, and scenes were done in environments, in mazes, in little tunnelings. For all of us, it was a culture clash. I wanted to have actors walking through the legs of a Superblond. Well, in India, they don’t let you walk through the legs of any women. So we made Superblond a man. The play had sayings like, “And as usual, he said nothing. And as usual, I went away.” About being involved in meaningless situations that you never solve. When the U.S.I.S. people finally saw it, they freaked out that the American government had sponsored an anti-Johnson play with all those Bengali Communists. Oh, it was quite splendid and wonderful. Then, we went on a lecture tour through Thailand and Malaysia. We met a Chinese-Malaysian playwright, Lee Jou For, who “leaked” to the press that Jim was going to do his play on Broadway. Well, now, how was Jim going to get this Buddhist play on Broadway? But it made the Malaysian king and queen come to the performance; it made the United States government give him a travel grant. He really worked that one. So when we came back to New York, we did his play, Son of Zen. All the Buddhists we knew came to our loft on East 11th Street. We continued to do plays, one about the Panthers, one about the city; we did poetry readings, we had exhibitions. It was self-motivated activity and a lot of fun. And then we started the Hatch-Billops collection, a library on Black Americans in the Arts because we thought, Nobody else is going to do it. Film was just another art form, just different material. So, in 1978, we did a film about my niece who had been addicted to heroin.

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AM: Suzanne Suzanne.

CB: I called it that because when she was telling me about her experiences, I kept saying, “Oh Suzanne! Suzanne!” Then we did Older Women and Love, a film about my aunt and her young lover. Finding Christa was our last film. Now we’re saying, “Well, why don’t we do this film about racism?” Because we always talk about racism and the inner dynamics of it. I came up with The KKK Boutique: Ain’t Just Rednecks.

AM: Where did you study?

CB: I went to art school at USC in 1954 after having gone to City College in Los Angeles. At USC, you had the most classical education possible for artists. Along with sculpture, drawing, ceramics, and weaving, I studied anatomy, neurology, physiology, orthopedics, kinesiology. In anatomy, we had six of us on one cadaver. We cut up bodies.

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AM: Like Leonardo.

CB: It was a beautiful thing. Then I got pregnant, or as we say in Finding Christa, “knocked-up.” I had to change majors and go to another school. It threw me back three years, but I worked days, full-time at the bank and went to school at night and finished. But at one point, I decided I didn’t want to be anyone’s mother. I wanted to go back to the place that I considered the crossroads. And in this country, it’s possible to do that because the restrictions on women are slightly different and it’s a little more anonymous.

AM: It would be impossible to lose your past in that way in a less transient society.

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How did you choose such personal subjects? Your niece’s drug addiction, your aunt’s lover, the daughter you gave up for adoption: they’re so close to home that I’d find them impossible to approach as film.

CB: Maybe it’s self-exhibitionism. A lot of people wouldn’t talk about those things. I learn from each audience. Most of the time, people say, “That was brave. We admire that. It was important to say that.” Often, we don’t say things we should. I tried to say those things. In view of a larger picture, that’s how the film should be considered. Not as a personal story, but as an example of the larger ideas about women.

Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 40, Summer 1992.

Used with permission. All rights reserved. Š Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors.

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FURTHER LINKS:

The Hatch-Billops Collection, Inc

Finding Christa