Kent Mackenzie discovered Bunker Hill, the low-rent residential neighborhood on the west edge of downtown Los Angeles, in the mid-1950s when he was a film student at USC and it was first threatened with demolition. He also became fascinated with a subculture of Arizona Indians living there, and made them the subject of a semi-documentary short feature he called The Exiles. Filming in 35mm, Mackenzie wasn't able to record dialogue on location, so he relied on post-synchronized dialogue and meditative voiceovers to tell his story of a long Friday night, from dusk to dawn. It is a night full of loneliness and yearning, petty betrayals and disappointments, and little flashes of happiness, ending with an attempt to revive old ceremonies and solidarities on a hilltop above the city. The Exiles is a wrenching document of cultural dislocation and a remarkable record of a city that has vanished. In the late 1950s, it was still possible to think that all elements of society could share downtown Los Angeles. Since then, Los Angeles has become more segregated, and its downtown has been remolded over and over in efforts at gentrification that have never quite taken hold. The unassimilated, although pushed more and more to the margins, have continued to uphold their claims to its space. – Thom Andersen
Growing up between London and New York, Kent Mackenzie (1930 - 1980) first explored urban dislocation on film in his graduate project Bunker Hill—1956, featuring a cast of pensioners in danger of being dislocated by Los Angeles’ dramatic reconstruction plans. Through this introduction to a culturally rich neighborhood on the verge of annihilation, Mackenzie came to know and befriend many members of Bunker Hill’s Native American community. His conversations with the young exiles developed into a collaborative, immersive, poetic document reenacting scenes from their lives and compressing their experiences into one black-and-white night. Made with the help of volunteering friends and discarded film stock, The Exiles embodies the exhilarating urgency of a new kind of independent filmmaking still in its infancy, speaking its truth with no obfuscating veils. He joined the ranks of filmmakers like John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, Charles Burnett and the diverse group of filmmakers within the “L.A. Rebellion.” The wandering stars of Mackenzie’s film were playing themselves, exposing a complex existence always on the verge of disappearance from the physical and social edges of a distracted, amnesic city. Cruelly realizing the critical exigency of Mackenzie’s mission, much of the area was completely razed shortly after the film’s completion and replaced with high-rises. Mackenzie himself disappeared from this realm much too early; he would make only a few more films before his death in 1980.
Inadvertently resurrected when Thom Andersen included clips in his exhaustive compilation Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), The Exiles—even in a few quick glimpses—reverberates with a strikingly sincere, raw luminosity which stands in stark contrast to most of the documentary’s glossier depictions of Los Angeles. When Andersen contacted Mackenzie’s daughters for permission, they discovered a single 35mm print in existence—one in dire need of preservation before it could return to the cinema.
With the additional support of the film’s producers Sherman Alexie and Charles Burnett, Milestone Films and film archivist Valarie Schwan brought the film to preservationist Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the restored version was released in 2008 to audiences awestruck by the power of Mackenzie’s vision, a precious record of a time and place long lost, with a social and emotional resonance that continues to ring throughout cultural hollows created in the name of assimilation or renewal.
We are excited to welcome film archivist and filmmaker Ross Lipman to the HFA to introduce and discuss The Exiles, its restoration and everlasting impact. – Brittany Gravely
The Exiles was completed with the support of USC Moving Image Archive, UCLA Film & Television Archive, The National Film Preservation Foundation, and Milestone. Originally shot in 35mm, restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive. Sound restoration in collaboration with Audio Mechanics and NT Audio.
Introduction by Ross Lipman
Monday January 25 at 7pm
Directed by Kent Mackenzie. With Homer Nish, Tom Reynolds, Yvonne Williams
US 1961, 35mm, b/w, 72 min
Print courtesy Milestone Films