Staff Writer Kate Mekechuk attended Columbia Maison Française’s film screening of The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission), written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles.

I had never been into the infamous Buell Hall, only knowing about its history as being one of Bloomingdale Insane Asylum’s original buildings. Thus, I entered the Hall with caution, unsure of what to expect, and a little bit rushed as I was running late. 

The screening room was filled with three sections of clear plastic chairs and had two beautiful blue and green chandeliers hanging on the sides. The crowd, which filled about half of the chairs, was rather quiet, only producing a general background noise of chit-chat happening here and there. Around 7 pm, the organizer gave a brief synopsis of the film, stating that the story follows Turner (Harry Baird), a Black American soldier who is stationed in France. After receiving a promotion, his commanding officer grants him a three-day pass off the base. He heads to Paris where he meets Miriam (Nicole Berger), a white woman, and they embark on a romantic weekend to the country seaside. 

The film itself, which was about 90 minutes long, had its own short introduction by the writer and director, Melvin Van Peebles. He appeared on-screen, puffing a cigar, looking into the camera. At this moment, he explained that he tried to get his start in Hollywood as a Black man in the ‘60s, but due to Hollywood’s overtly racist climate, he was unable to work in film production. So, he moved to France in hopes of utilizing the French law that states any published French author could become a director. His plan worked, and after writing and publishing multiple French novels, he became a director, creating his first feature: The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission). The screen turned to black, and the film began.

Although I knew that the film was made in the ‘60s, I was still surprised to see that it was completely in black and white. If that didn’t shock me enough, the somewhat strange, avant-garde filming definitely did; during the scene where Turner receives his three-day pass, the commanding officer stares directly into the camera as if it was Turner himself. Every time Turner would have spoken, there was a pause, and the commanding officer responded, insinuating that Turner spoke without the audience’s knowledge. This strange technique was only used in the scenes with the commanding officer and Turner. As soon as Turner went to Paris, the filming was similar to those we see today. Even more so, his outfit in Paris was a statement piece. He wore a black tie with a plaid blazer, a trench coat, and a pair of small sunglasses. His outfit modeled one of a fashionable CIA agent, and he pulled off the small sunglasses in a way Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner never could. Overall, Peebles’s debut feature felt awkward in the most comforting way. Like a cringy 2000s movie if it wasn’t that cringy. It was so strange in the most familiar way. 

It was so enthralling, I almost forgot I was in an old insane asylum building. However, my forgetfulness didn’t last long. Around 7:40 pm, a woman barged into the screening room, screaming, “Columbia University does not have the authorization to share this film! This is illegal!” Terrified by what would happen next, I continued to look at the film. That’s when a man in the far right corner yelled back to her, “Shut up!” I looked around the room, hoping to feel reassured by my fellow audience members. Everyone pretended she wasn’t there. Still not getting any attention, the woman proceeded to speak French, and unable to understand her, I jotted in my notes: maybe I should take French. The man in the corner, while asking the organizer if she had called security, escorted the woman out to the front. The audience remained stolid, focused on the film. About five minutes later, the man reappeared, sat in his chair, relaxed and assertive. Nothing was said about the incident until the end when the organizer simply stated, “Sorry for the unplanned interruption.”

Just as artistic and controversial The Story of a Three-Day Pass (La Permission) was, the circumstances surrounding the event were just as controversial––but maybe a little bit less artistic. That said, the French do put on a good show.

The Haunted Buell Hall via Bwarchives