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Afro-Blues Through a Blank Eye

Les Blank doesn't want his MTV

"He was an amazing guy," Blank says with a hint of enthusiasm. "He was sort of like an oracle: infinitely deep and wise. He would come out with these insights into people, their behavior, and human tribulations and strivings that were something you'd think the Buddha would've come up with. He was also sort of a trickster character. We had reached a kind of understanding and got to enjoy each other, but we also learned when he needed to be left alone."

Cuban percussion master Francisco Aguabella proved a similarly difficult subject for Blank, and it took almost a decade for him to complete the lovingly impassioned Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella. "It wasn't easy," Blank says in retrospect of the 1995 film. "He couldn't speak English well, and I couldn't speak Spanish so well. We never got along all that easily. I was always having a hard time penetrating whatever it was he was up to. It was only during the ninth year of filming that he loosened up and started telling stories that made it all hang together."

It's Blank's ceaseless search for a good story that's led him to his current project: following tea importer David Lee Hoffmann in search of the ideal leaf through the remote villages and valleys of the Chinese mountains. ("It's not just a film on China and tea," Blank says of the still-unfinished work. "It's about this character. He's kind of hard to pin down.") He's also working for the first time with digital video, which is far less expensive than film and thus more liberating for the award-winning documentarian. "I got tired of chasing after grants and competing with the ever-increasing hordes of young film students who are out there trying to get grants," he explains. "I got tired of trying to convince a television station that I can make a film that will appeal to a broad audience. Which I don't always do."

The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkinsand Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabellascreen at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 6, at the Alliance Cinema, 927 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach. Les Blank will personally introduce each film and participate in a question-and-answer session afterward. Tickets cost $4. For more information call 305-531-8504. Blank will also participate in the University of Miami's Documentary 2000 program. At 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 4, he will speak as part of a panel discussion alongside filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Terry Sanders, and Barbara Trent. On Saturday, February 5, his documentary portrait of Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams, screens at 9:00 p.m. Both events are free and take place at the University of Miami's Bill Cosford Cinema, off Campo Sano Ave, Coral Gables. For more information call 305-284-5350.

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