Toby Smith as Pica in Cauleen Smith’s “Drylongso.” Photo courtesy of Janus Films

The movies are so central to our lives that it’s hard to imagine that some films can just disappear. Working as I did at various video stores for decades only reinforced the idea that a movie was a movie forever – after all, you could pick it up and touch it.

Even then, though, that illusion of permanence was just that. Movies went out of print, either due to tangled financial considerations or general apathy, and the galloping progress from one home format to another saw untold numbers of films becoming ghosts because distribution companies decided it wasn’t worth the money to carry them along.

The grim reaper of capitalist indifference can strike anywhere, with movies as disparate and once-successful as Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” “Pink Floyd’s The Wall,” and even current king of the box office James Cameron’s “The Abyss,” currently available to watch … no place. (Unless you’re one of us smarties who hung onto our physical media.) But, unsurprisingly, it’s the fringes that suffer the most casualties.

Exploitation and other low-budget flicks have it tough, although certain outstanding DVD/Blu-ray companies like Severin Films, Vinegar Syndrome and others have made it their literal business to reclaim some lurid obscurities from the scrap heap. The fine folks at the Criterion Collection do the same, but with generally higher-brow stuff otherwise consigned to oblivion. Same goes for Janus Films, which has done us all the great service of giving the full 4k restoration treatment, alongside a limited theatrical release, to Cauleen Smith’s 1998 film “Drylongso,” which is playing on Wednesday, April 19, at Space in Portland.

Never heard of “Drylongso?” Well, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t either. A long-forgotten entry in the 1990s wave of independent Black cinema, “Drylongso” (the title taken from a Gullah word meaning “ordinary”) is a remarkably assured feat of micro-budget, DIY filmmaking from then-UCLA student Cauleen Smith. Shot in West Oakland in the summer of 1995, the film follows Pica (Toby Smith), a rebellious young college student who takes rough Polaroid snapshots of young Black men in her working class neighborhood. As Pica explains to her understanding but irritated photography professor (“Drylongso” co-writer Salim Akil), the project stems from the perilous fate of Black men in America, where, as she recites, “70 percent wind up dead, on drugs, in jail or unemployed.” As Pica explains further, she takes these unassuming pictures of the young Black men around her, “because they’re becoming an endangered species.”

“Drylongso” follows Pica as she struggles to balance her art, schooling and personal life with an unstable home where she pays rent to her hard-drinking mother, padlocking her room to keep out the constant stream of partiers. One night, a fight on the street sees a young woman (April Barnett as Tobi) beaten and abandoned by her boyfriend. The two very different Black women warily become friends, with the normally glamorous Tobi eventually donning boys’ clothes in order to achieve some respite from the constant harassment and disrespect. “Now when I walk down the street, white folks move out the way,” she explains. Finding out about Pica’s photographic project, Tobi tags along as the two young women take a moment to recognize just how many funerals they’ve attended that year alone.


The 80-minute “Drylongso” emerges as a remarkably ambitious first film, with Pica and Tobi’s intersecting lives further troubled by everything from domestic violence to absent parents, to even a serial killer plot, as news reports of the “West Side Slasher” creep around the periphery. (The serial killer angle, while shockingly intruding on Pica’s artistic quest at various points, is the one aspect of “Drylongso” that seems extraneous.) The film, made for no money by a young Black college student, is remarkably affecting and naturalistic in performance, the non-professional cast suiting Smith’s slice-of-life tale of artistic awakening and social critique. Indeed, Smith’s film comes to resemble Pica’s art more and more, with Pica’s rough assemblages of photographs and found objects ultimately forming a shrine to the lost young men of West Oakland.

Thanks to Janus Films’ loving restoration, Space’s choice to screen it and co-presenter Indigo Arts Alliance, “Drylongso” is finally getting seen here in Maine. The film, after gaining some acclaim at indie film festivals Sundance and SXSW at the time of its release, fell through the cracks, eventually receiving a minor VHS release before disappearing entirely. (I don’t recall even the late, great Portland institution Videoport having a copy.) Smith herself got her MFA from UCLA and became an acclaimed multimedia artist (she even did a residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2007), before returning to UCLA to become a professor of art.

With all that accomplishment in mind, it’s tough to decry the fact that the promising and resonant “Dylongso” didn’t catapult Smith into the filmmaking mainstream – but I’ll do it anyway. If the march of time and movie distribution shaves off all but the most profitable, then a young Black female filmmaker was always in the most peril.

The all-too-brief initial flowering of Black indie films saw a lot of talented moviemakers get lost in the shuffle. Smith’s “Drylongso” came up with the likes of John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” (see it on Starz), Matty Rich’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn” (unavailable), the Hughes Brothers’ “Menace II Society” (HBO Max), Wendell B. Harris’ “Chameleon Street” (on the Criterion Channel), Christopher Cherot’s “Hav Plenty” (unavailable), Leslie Harris’ “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” (on Fubo) and others. And now, thanks to Janus and Space, Cauleen Smith’s compelling debut is finally getting its time.

The newly restored “Drylongso” is playing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 19at Space, 538 Congress St., Portland. Tickets are $9 for the public, or $7 for Space members. The film runs 80 minutes and is rated R.

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