Black Mother (Khalik Allah, 2018)

black mother

In Khalik Allah’s debut documentary, Field Niggas, the focus was precise. He returned again and again to a single street corner – the power of the film derived from his commitment to capturing this environment, the specific light, and the people who roamed about. His camera was up close to his subjects, his gaze meeting them head-on. His follow-up, Black Mother, is in every sense a much more expansive, diffuse experience. Instead of a single street corner, he aims to capture an entire country.

The approach is the same – the images and sound are not synchronized, allowing for a certain abstraction, where the viewer can make associations and connections for themselves. But Black Mother is a much more challenging project, and this is because of a crucial difference. In his first film, Allah was able to focus on his gifts for portraiture and his background in photography. His subjects became his organizing principle, and their presence sustained the film’s logic and atmosphere for over its running time. It never felt forced. Its scope felt right. Faced with the whole of Jamaica to try and make sense of, Allah strains in organizing his material. The film is divided into four sections – three trimesters and a birth. Searching, he forces poetic motifs and associations in order to guide him. His subjects hold books to point to the island’s colonized past. School girls are juxtaposed with prostitutes. Water imagery abounds. There is death, and there is birth. Essentially, the design feels less intuitive, a solution to a problem.

But Black Mother does not feel programmatic or calculated, even if Allah’s structure is somewhat labored. This is because his approach remains open, allowing for dissonance. Think of the Chinese store-owners brought up early on in the film. The voiceover speaks to Chinese people buying up hotels and taking over Jamaica, a new colonization. To illustrate this Allah shows us some Chinese store-owners at work, frustrated, tired, reacting to his camera, and finally giving him the peace sign. The montage is conflicted, and it reminds one of his previous film and its treatment of the police. In that film, Allah voiced his opinion of the police, filming them with as much as respect as his other subjects, but his voice became one of many, and all throughout the film his subjects violently disagreed and said so. With the Chinese store-owners, he strives to complicate and elucidate this subjects’ voiceover through the imagery, finally arriving at a point where it simply remains inconclusive – how should one feel about this? There is contradiction and the note is left unresolved.

In Field Niggas, Allah was frequently on the soundtrack, asking questions, his reflection was seen on bodega storefronts; he became a part of the night, a member of the cast, his voice a part of the film’s choral patchwork. While his latest film incorporates footage from his own family, and part of the impetus for filming Jamaica is his own connection to it, aside from a few stray bits of dialogue and an image here or there, he has more or less removed himself from the film’s universe. This allows for an analytical distance toward his subject, submerging the images of his family in a grand design, just another people of the island, allowing him to develop the thematic framework he feels is necessary to do justice to what he feels is important. He no longer needs to be seen or heard for his presence to be felt, letting his camera distance carry the moral weight of his gaze. The montage becomes his tool – the structure allows him to search and understand, maybe even flail about a little bit.

We return to the structure, the trimesters and the birth. In the first three trimesters, he has given us a societal and spiritual context, returning again and again to Jamaican Woman. His metaphor is undoubtedly a male one, he frames himself as Son to Mother, his return to Jamaica an attempt to understand his roots, but it registers as respectful and his gaze is never compromised. Finally, Allah films the mother give birth to a son, images of running water flowing everlasting, while the mother cries in pain, making literal the struggles of all the women he has filmed so far, the prayers heard on the soundtrack earlier signaling a spiritual rebirth, not only for himself but for all of those on the island. It’s in moments like this where the structure pays off and Allah’s desire to capture it all almost feel possible.

Black Mother is currently playing at the Northwest Film Forum

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Love in the Time of Upheaval [ASH IS PUREST WHITE and TRANSIT]

ash is purest white

transit

The release year of 2019 has already been a bountiful one for Seattle theaters, with such important films as The Image Book, Us, and a long-awaited run of Police Story arriving in the first three months. And by one of the quirks that comes with rolling limited releases, two of the best films of the year — and of the last three years — by two of the preeminent directors in world cinema are making their debut this week at SIFF Uptown: Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White and Christian Petzold’s Transit.

The two auteurs make for a fascinating comparison in terms of their relative profile in the arthouse film realm. Jia has created for himself a deserved reputation as the foremost chronicler of the unprecedented change — economically, socially, topographically — that has taken place in 21st-century China, and received consistent play in festivals and U.S. distribution. Petzold, by contrast, is an almost unknown quantity in America; though his films have had distribution from around 2008 and gotten some festival play, they have been little seen…except for his previous film Phoenix (2014), which upon its release in 2015 became the art-house version of a box-office smash, receiving more American viewers than probably any German film this side of The Lives of Others, and, significantly, possibly more than any of Jia’s films.

I should note here that I am far more familiar with Jia’s work than Petzold’s — I’ve seen all of the former’s features and only the latter’s two most recent films — but from my general understanding of their careers, the two share a particular thematic interest that links the two, and proves to be a essential asset to both films (in sometimes oblique ways): that of genre filmmaking. Since A Touch of Sin (2013), Jia has taken a sharp turn towards films explicitly emphasized and built around specific genres, from wuxia and action (Touch) to melodrama (Mountains May Depart, 2015) to the gangster genre that forms the base of Ash Is Purest White. Petzold has had this preoccupation from the beginning of his career: his second feature Cuba Libre (1996) was a remake of the great film noir Detour, and his explorations of genre have only developed since then.

What binds these two directors together even more is their particular methods of deploying these generic conventions; both are heavily invested in exploring their respective national societies, dissecting — in mostly pleasurable and sometimes sensual ways — the various means of oppression, resistance, and living within and outside systems impacts flesh-and-blood people. This is not to say that more traditional genre fare does not accomplish this, but Jia and Petzold are even more direct and acute in these respects. Certain other similarities can be drawn — continuous collaborations with muses (Jia with his wife Zhao Tao, Petzold until this latest film with Nina Hoss), a command of composition and editing stronger than almost any living filmmaker — but what makes them so vital is the particularities of their films.

Continue reading “Love in the Time of Upheaval [ASH IS PUREST WHITE and TRANSIT]”