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James Erskine: “Who owns Billie’s truth?”

British documentary filmmaker James Erskine on his new documentary, Billie.

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James Erskine’s new documentary Billie delves into the life of iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday. Photo: Prokino Filmverleih

Emmy-nominated British filmmaker James Erskine’s fascinating new documentary Billie delves into the life of iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday, via the lost tapes of late journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who died under mysterious circumstances.

Our film editor talked to Erskine about the timely resonance he establishes between past and present-day institutional racism, the competition of Lipnack’s journey, almost half a century since it began, and how Billie pays tribute to two women who were oppressed by male structures.

Your documentary is based on the rediscovery of 125 tapes a journalist named Linda Lipnack Kuehl had recorded about the jazz singer, before her mysterious death in 1978. How did you get access to the tapes?

I’d been developing some music films and told my producer that I’d always loved Billie Holiday. I’d heard that there was this journalist and biographer called Linda Lipnack who had tried to write her book in the 1970s and died under mysterious circumstances before she managed to finish it. I’d also heard that she tape-recorded everything.

I didn’t know where those tapes were, but I thought that if we could get access to those tapes, maybe there’s something worthwhile there for a film. My producer went off and tracked down the tapes – the family had sold them to a collector, so we negotiated a deal before we even knew if there was anything on them!

That must have been one hell of an excavation process to go through them all…

Yeah! There was about 200 hours of material on these 125 tapes that were 50 years old. Many of them were not well preserved and hadn’t been recorded for broadcast. Some were recorded in nightclubs, one was recorded in the back of a Cadillac at 3 o’clock in the morning… But there was so much material.

The first tape we put on was Charles Mingus, which was incredibly evocative, and the feeling we got was the atmosphere the voices gave – it wasn’t just what they had said that had been lost to time, but also the way that they said it. The way they communicate helps portray Billie’s world.

Billie is traditionally portrayed as a victim and my take was that she was actually an incredible survivor

How did you go about selecting what to use and what to discard?

We divided it between four of us, put the headphones on, and listened. We didn’t know what we were going to find – many of them were mislabelled and we went in blind. We decided to make a rule that what we wanted to do was find eye-witnesses. We would only select information when the person in question was relating an incident that they had personally been present at or they could relate a conversation that they’d had with Billie. We wanted to have everything from the horse’s mouth. We also wanted to highlight contradictions, uneasy truths and untruths.

You don’t shy away from those uneasy truths and untruths – was there ever any reticence from Billie Holiday’s estate?

Actually, you would have expected the estate to be a real pain in the arse… But what we found was that they were up for the truth. Particularly Michelle Smith, who runs the estate – she wanted us to show Billie on Billie’s own terms. So, at no point did we encounter a “You can’t say this, you can’t use that”. The only push we got was to be as truthful as possible, because what happened to Billie was brutal.

Billie is traditionally portrayed as a victim and my take was that she was actually an incredible survivor. She came from absolutely nothing – her mum’s a brothel keeper, she doesn’t grow up in the church like Aretha Franklin and she’s suppressed. She’s suppressed because she’s a woman and because she’s a black woman living in the South at those times. She learns to sing in whore houses and she understands singing as a transaction, a way of survival. That’s one of the most extraordinary things about Billie Holiday – she uses her voice to survive.

One aspect that’s striking about this documentary is the film noir feel. Billie works as an intimate testimony but also as this mystery unfolding through these tapes.

I’m glad you caught onto that, because the essence of film noir is that the truth should always be slightly out of reach. One of the great things about film noir is that it really reflects reality – the detective never quite solves the problem. With Billie, there are two bodies at the beginning: Billie’s and Linda’s. If you think about The Third Man, it opens in the cemetery and Orson Welles is dead. That film is about excavating the truth of this person and holding up what other people say about them to their own statements. That’s what I wanted to capture: a sense of uneasiness and something unresolved.

“Billie was suppressed by power structures, and Linda was asking the questions, revealing these power structures

It makes for a more realistic portrait…

I hope so! I wanted to use that detective trope and run with it – we meet a person, find out who they are, ask whether they are a reliable witness and narrator, and whose version of the truth are we hearing? That’s what I wanted to play with, as well as ask the question: who owns Billie’s truth? Because Billie was suppressed by power structures, and Linda was asking the questions, revealing these power structures: a woman asking questions here shows a sense of violence and a fear of men.

This is interesting, because Billie was oppressed by male structures, from the FBI to the men in her love life, and a lot of the testimonies on Linda’s tapes are male.

Yes, and you have to remember that Linda was a female journalist who was also suppressed. You’ve also got to bear in mind that any study of the arts is so heavily skewed to men, so I love the fact that many of Linda’s questions were informed by her gender and her relationship with the interviewees. It was important for me to keep the way she asked questions, because that’s a part of the answer.

The film is a time-specific portrait of segregation in the US but you do include some contemporary nods to today’s world. Was alluding to the present always in the back of your head while you were filming?

I always knew that I wanted to have a contemporary resonance, and towards the end of the film, I wanted a visual nod to that. The film happens on these two timelines, both Billie’s and Linda’s, and I felt that this structure helped to restate some important truths.

Was it tricky getting the balance right between Billie’s and Linda’s lives, doing justice to the two narrative tracks and not losing sight of Linda’s role?

It was important that you got the impression that Linda was always present. The film is called Billie but we wanted to complete Linda’s journey. Billie’s story is a tragedy on a national scale, while Linda’s is a smaller, more intimate one. It was just a question of not letting one story overpower the other, and while we did plenty of investigating into Linda’s life, the fact is that there’s no evidence. There’s just a body. The truth is that Linda died because she began to tell Billie’s story. There may not be a smoking gun, but the story was so hot to handle that it can destroy you, by your own hand or by somebody else’s… We wanted to complete Linda’s journey, which was to create a truthful portrait of Billie.

You include Linda’s sister in the film and her exact line is: “Somebody pushed her”. But you don’t take a definitive stance as to the nature of Linda’s death at the age of 38…

I felt that it was important to show that, because that’s what Linda’s family truly believe. There are plenty of reasons to believe that Linda wasn’t suicidal. They may have been wrong and she may have been hiding it from her family… The film was a bit of a catharsis for them, because they hadn’t really talked about it for about 40 years. When we started to engage at the beginning, they didn’t want to speak to us, because it is such a private matter. But when they did agree to talk to us, it felt like they were grappling with their grief for the first time.

How did Linda’s family react when they saw the film?

They were really happy with the film. I was a bit nervous, to be honest, but the feedback I got from them was that they felt that the film completed Linda’s journey. Her work was there, she’d been recognised, and her contribution was finally respected.