When Jere Michael's wife asked him to clean out the garage a couple years ago, he never dreamed that the chore would lead to the world premiere of a film he had made nearly 50 years earlier. But that's how the story unfolded.
Michael, 83, knew exactly where in the garage of his Tucson home to find the heavy box filled with film reels. He had made the short documentary, "Off the Street," in 1968, but it never saw the light of day.
"I didn't know how to promote it or promote myself," said Michael, who was working in theater on the East Coast in 1968 when he produced the film. "I didn't have the knowledge, self-promotional abilities or energy to troupe it around town and sell it myself."
The short film documents a summer camp created by teachers from the Art Students League in New York in response to the civil unrest in the wake of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The piece follows a group of artistically talented and ethnically diverse high school students from inner-city New York, who traveled to Vermont Academy — a boarding and day school in southern Vermont — to participate in the eight-week art camp.
Although the film never was screened publicly, Michael thought it had enough historic and cultural significance that it would be worth preserving, so he contacted the University of Arizona to inquire about archiving opportunities.
That's when he was put in touch with Vicky Westover, director of the UA's Hanson Film Institute.
Westover recognized Michael's 26-minute film as a work that continues to be relevant today, so instead of just archiving it, the Hanson Film Institute digitized it and will host its world-premiere screening at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17, at the UA Center for Creative Photography.
"Jere called me and described the film, looking to archive it. While it is nearly 50 years old, I was struck by how timely the subject matter is," Westover said. "The parallels to race relations in the current political era are undeniable. So we decided to digitize the 16-millimeter film and make it available to the community for viewing, and have a dialogue about the role of art education in race relations and self-identity. And it was exciting to learn about how the camp made a lasting positive impact on the participants."
Michael will attend the film screening, along with Jamaican-born artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes, who participated in the summer camp in 1968 and went on to become an internationally renowned painter. After the screening, the two of them will participate in a Q&A discussion, moderated by Bryan Carter, UA associate professor of Africana studies and director of the Digital Center for Humanities.
"The art camp changed my life and the lives of many of the student participants," said Hoyes, who now lives in California. "I am delighted to travel to Tucson to finally share this story with the public."
In 1968, Michael was 34 and living in New York, and he directed a summer playhouse in Vermont. That's where he befriended John Torres, a sculptor who had come to see one of his productions. Torres told him about the idea to launch an art camp in response to racial tensions in the U.S.
The project resonated with Michael, who five years earlier, in 1963, had attended and been inspired by King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial — even wading into the water on the National Mall to hear better.
Michael agreed to be a counselor at the camp and to document the project on film.
"I was a one-man gang with a camera," he recalls. "It took four months to put together 26 minutes."
Although Michael previously had worked as a dancer, musical theater actor and director, this was his first foray into filmmaking. And while he later went on to edit nature footage for Time Life Films, "Off the Street" was the first and only film he produced himself, which makes its world premiere at the UA all the more special.
"It feels fantastic," said Michael, who has been living in Tucson since 1999. "I'm very flattered and very pleased and totally indebted to Vicky Westover. She is the driving force behind all of this."
"The film captures a moment in time," he added. "It had great relevance to our society then, and it's just as relevant to the societal problems we have in this country today."