Rock scribe Robert Palmer covered music for Rolling Stone and The New York Times and wrote Deep Blues, a cultural history of the blues. His filmmaking daughter Augusta Palmer provides an overview of the late critic’s career in The Hand of Fatima, a documentary which has its local premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 3 at the Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. In a recent phone interview, she spoke about making the film.
It seems like the ability to get lost in music came at the expense of some of his relationships.
I think there’s some truth to that but not always. There’s an obsessive retracing to being lost in the music in the same way that was maybe more damaging. The original impulse wasn’t bad. I had to simplify things a little bit because our relationship was very complicated. I got to know him well from the time I was 15 to when he died when I was 27. I felt really lucky to spend time with him and have him share that ability to get lost in music with me.
One of Robert Palmer’s most famous articles is about his discovery of the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Morocco. He went there a number of times. How significant was that trip for your father?
It’s a little tricky. Sometimes when I write it up I say it’s about a music critic and his favorite band. And then people say, “How do you know it was his favorite band?” One simplifies things to make them graspable. My dad was not afraid to do that, either. It was one of the defining experiences in his life. If he had this fantasy world inside himself feeling that music was at the center of life and was a way to be in touch with the divine and he came to this place and that was the reality. That would be a huge experience for anybody.
How did your visit to the Morocco put things in perspective?
They were so kind and welcoming. I had met [Master Musicians' leader] Bachir Attar before and really liked him. I knew that I could trust him. From the beginning, he was amazing. I hadn’t been in touch with him for quiet awhile and wrote him and said I wanted to visit. He said, “Immediately. I am so happy for you to come to this, your spiritual home.” I was nervous coming to this masculine preserve but they were so welcoming. I had seen glimpses of that when I gone with my dad to see their concerts in New York and I got that these are people who make you feel like family. I think really hearing that music for the first time in the place where it comes from was great. I was able to hear it for many nights in a row and that works on you in a way you’re not aware of and suddenly you feel different. I felt lucky to experience that, but I was skeptical.
The scene in which a sheep is sacrificed is particularly difficult to watch. Why was it important to have that scene in the film?
I think for a few reasons. It was difficult experience for me. It shocked me out of my comfort zone and in a strange way helped me experience the music more than I might have. It’s a ritual and an important thing to have there. I feel like in one way the film is about my dad and in another way it’s about death. In our culture, when we get meat it’s in the supermarket wrapped up in cellophane. We don’t think about the connections of things. There are people thinking about these things now but in the everyday life you don’t get confronted with that fact. It’s also an interesting thing for me. It’s a location of cultural difference and it has a different meaning for Bachir. I wanted there to be things like that in the film. I didn’t want to over-simplify their culture and make it seem like you immediately get their culture. Of course, that’s not true. There’s a part of me that is like the punk rock record collector. When people got put off by that scene, I felt even more attached to it. I say that kind of jokingly but I do think people should be taken out of their comfort zones sometimes.
You say your father smiled right before he died and it was the happiest you ever saw him. Do you think he was really unhappy when he was alive?
I don’t think that. A lot of people react really strongly to that line, and I understand why. It had been a long time since I saw him happy because he had been so sick. There was something very mysterious about the fact that he was smiling broadly. It’s strange because the very no nonsense person would say it was a muscle spasm. It could be but for me, it made me feel like he had gone to where he had needed to go.
I like the way some scenes are illustrated. What made you want to use illustrations?
When I started thinking about making the film, I didn’t know how I would deal with it. I didn’t have much footage of my dad. I couldn’t put the printed word on the screen. I thought animation was the natural way to do that. You can show the mystical experience and it’s totally different than some horrible recreation. It was cool because I started the animation before we went to Morocco. Some was done before and some was done after. I had too much information rather than too little. It was all cobbled together. I could picture certain things but not others. The animation became a natural expression of that. Having real bits of photographs from the past seemed important in showing how I really experienced Joujouka and got out of that cut-out world. In a weird way, too, it was like the visual equivalent of William S. Burroughs and it was right because he was a big influence.
By the time you were done with the film, did you feel like you had a better understanding of your father and your relationship with him?
Yeah, I definitely felt that. There are ways in which we are similar as well as ways in which we’re very different. I lost track of some of those things. In making the movie, I got to reconnect with those things and was able to see what he saw in Jajouka.