New Classic, Newly Restored: An Interview On Cane River

Cane River Movie
Richard Romain in the 1982 film “Cane River.”

It isn’t every day that one comes across a found film classic. Netflix did, however, unearth and complete Orson Welles’ final full production The Other Side of the Wind to much fanfare and acclaim from cinephiles alike. That was a case of a high profile project coming to light.

What of the near-unknowns?

Cane River was screened once or twice before director Horace Jenkins’ death, which in turn threw the possibility of distribution into a quagmire. For decades, it sat unnoticed by most and remembered by a few, until a breakthrough came about that allowed restoration and archive experts IndieCollect to clean it up and establish a New Orleans Film Festival screening this year.

Now, the locally set and shot movie about black and Creole culture is on the cusp of more showings and further audience reach. For fans of independent cinema, this is a treasure to behold.

I reached out to Horace Jenkins’ filmmaker son Sacha Jenkins and IndieCollect’s Sandra Schulberg to discuss the importance of this film, of restoring movies of the past, and what we can all look forward to in Cane River’s future.

Don’t be surprised to find us assisting in promoting new showtimes of this new classic:

Bill Arceneaux: Horace Jenkins’ love letter to Creole Louisiana and to black identity was such a joy to watch, making me smile many times throughout. If it’s one thing, it’s romantic. What kind of man was Horace and what attracted him to this deep south story?

Sacha Jenkins: My parents split up when I was young and my father passed away not long after, so my understanding of my father wasn’t always the most sophisticated. Cane River – I saw it for the first time a year ago – and by seeing the film, I developed a better understanding of who he was. Black identity – both in America and abroad – was of great interest to my father and Cane River shines a light on this truth.   

BA: How challenging was it to clean up and restore Cane River?

Sandra Schulberg: The first stage of our restoration was relatively easy because our source material was a new 35mm positive print, on polyester stock, created by the Academy Film Archive. Using our 5K Kinetta Archival Scanner, we digitized the print and then proceeded to do some digital color correction. When a print is used as the source material, certain color-grading decisions have been “baked-in.” That makes the digital color-grading a little bit simpler. On the other hand, because certain decisions are “baked-in,” it limits how many adjustments we can make in the digital restoration suite.

BA: From youth to now, what has the personal journey been like to bring Cane River back to the screen? What has your father’s film being lost for so long meant to you?

SJ: Growing up, my dad being a filmmaker was something that I would tell people but because there wasn’t anything tangible to show – including the man himself – no one believed me. Cane River seeing the light of day is such a miracle, and I’m happy that I’ve got something to show and something the people seem to really enjoy.

BA: Is there any more work to be done on the film?

SS: Film restoration involves not only picture, but also sound. We were not satisfied with the quality of the sound captured from the film print. So we sent the original optical sound negative to our colleagues at Colorlab in Rockville, MD. Sound engineer Vincent Terlizzi converted the optical track to digital audio files and then did some additional audio restoration. This audio “sweetening” resulted in a far superior soundtrack which we substituted after Cane River was showcased at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival.

Assuming we can raise the necessary funds, our long-term plan is to create two additional restorations – one from the original 16mm picture negative, which runs 120 minutes, and one from the original 35mm Interpositive, which runs 90 minutes and conforms to the version we showed in October 2018 at the New Orleans Film Festival. The original elements are generally the optimal source for obtaining the best, most detailed, picture restoration. Those restorations could cost $40,000 each.

BA: In terms of legacy and genre, few films have been made about this region of the state, and fewer that focus on African Americans. Where does Cane River rank for you in movie history, and why? How about in Southern movie history?

SJ: I’m no scholar on a subject as broad as Southern movie history. I’m just proud of the fact that my father made a film that honestly portrays black folks in a habitat that is natural and pure, and that the film accurately conveys their thoughts, hopes, and dreams.

BA: Had you heard of Cane River prior to finding the source materials?

SS: When we found Cane River in the vault of the Duart film laboratory, I did not remember the film. But our research revealed that, after Horace’s death, co-producer Carol Balthazar showed Cane River at the 1983 IFP Film Market or IFFM (Independent Feature Film Market). I had founded the IFP and the IFFM in 1979; it is therefore likely that I was present for its New York screening. In 2016, Ard Hesselink, our 1983 Market Director, scanned the Cane River page from our program book and sent it to me. That’s how we confirmed this information.  It was eerie, like a time warp.

BA: You’re currently working on a documentary about Cane River. What do you plan on covering and uncovering?

SJ: I’m currently finishing a film about the Wu-Tang Clan; I’ve been doing research relative to Cane River along the way. As the film comes back to life more material will be gathered for the documentary. I’m discovering so much.

BA: Part of IndieCollect’s mission is to save films from extinction and preserve them for generations to come. You also try to index the heritage and culture around these movies, too. In the case of Cane River, just how important is it to the various communities it represents?

SS: I believe Cane River represents a huge milestone in the history of American Independent Cinema, let alone in the context of African America Cinema. This film was way ahead of its time. It deals in a sensitive way with color prejudice within the black community, which was highly unusual, and it does so in a smart and entertaining way, through fiction rather than documentary. It’s also a proto-feminist film – the portrait of a woman who is not about to let her love for a man get in the way of her educational and career ambitions, despite his cajoling to marry him first. I am very eager to see how the film fares with audiences today as we attempt to get it released around the country.

BA: What are your hopes for modern audiences to get from this rarely seen classic?

SJ: Again, I’m just thankful that folks will finally have the opportunity to see Cane River. I think it still resonates today because much of what is covered in the film still plagues us today. In the end, what remains true is that love is the answer. Cane River delivers this jewel.

BA: When can we expect more showings?

SS: Sacha Jenkins and I are meeting with several distributors who have expressed interest in Cane River, so I hope the answer to your question about when there will be future showings is “Very soon!”

Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Be sure to check out his film reviews and other articles here.

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