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

Advertisements

What is Democracy? (Astra Taylor, 2018)

5f4b45f1cc187712e9cddea41ad33745.jpg

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That Time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA

Astra Taylor’s new documentary, What is Democracy? is significantly more conventional that her last one, Examined Life, made a decade ago. It’s still made up of long interviews with fascinating thinkers, but where that film featured a number of philosophers expounding on their beliefs for about ten minutes each, captured with a cheap handheld camera while walking (or riding, or rowing) through typical urban settings, What is Democracy? features a wider range of speakers and locations, captured in crisp digital images. But the fundamental emphasis on ideas remains, with scholars and thinkers joining with activists and regular people to toss around the eponymous question. Some of them are more compelling than others: Cornel West, one of the highlights of Examined Life, makes a welcome return; Silvia Federici, discussing a massive mural in Sienna called “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government”, is delightful; and Eleni Perdikouri takes us on a fascinating tour of Athenian ruins and political practices.

Taylor links the more theoretical discussions with practical realities of the failures of democracy to be realized in the United States and Greece, with heart-breaking interviews with public school students and Syrian refugees, with an ex-con barber, with infuriatingly ignorant white kids at a Florida beach, and more. The whole thing seems hopeless, the disconnect between the theory and practice of democracy, of the corruption of the ideal by systems of oppression (economic, racial, patriarchal). And Taylor doesn’t flinch from that hopelessness, nor does she offer easy solutions to the enormity of the problems that beset those people striving for justice and freedom. Too many social problem documentaries would be content to touch on all these issues, financial crises and civil wars and apartheid states, and then offer an example or two of a worker co-op or a volunteer worker as a balm for our outraged consciences. But the co-op Taylor gives us is full of people tearfully terrified of America’s racist immigration policies, and the volunteers trying to teach English to refugee kids are instead begged by their students to tell them their own stories of trauma. There’s no easy route to democracy, the powers that stand against it are too vast and mighty. The struggle has been on-going for 2,500 years and it can only continue.

Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, 2018)

monrovia-740x400

Alienation from the Land: The Movie.

The new Frederick Wiseman film is always one of the film events of the year, and this week his new one opens exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum. Wiseman, despite his advanced years, has been one of the most productive American directors of the last decade, with a string of documentary masterpieces (La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, National Gallery and In Jackson Heights are my personal favorites from among his post-2008 work) that would be enough to mark him as one of the finest ever to work in that form even if he hadn’t been making films just as often and just as high-quality since the late 1960s.

Monrovia, Indiana starts with and continually returns to the rich farmland and livestock of the Midwest, worked almost completely by machines. Every turn in the editing shows a population disconnected from their past, from their environment. The landscapes, gorgeous skies and verdant croplands alike, are almost completely devoid of human life. The fascinating and weird diversity of Wiseman’s 1999 look at a small American town, Belfast, Maine, is almost nowhere to be seen, as is the vibrant chaos and struggle of Jackson Heights.

Instead bored students listen to a history lecture about the high school basketball stars of the 1930s. City council meetings vainly negotiate against the totalizing onslaught of cookie-cutter development, development literally severed from the land in that it cannot get proper water service to protect its residents from fire. People eat cheap pizza and drink Budweiser and get tattoos and guns and dock their dog’s tails for no apparent reason (in one of the most disturbing film scenes of the year). President Obama’s assertion about clinging to guns and religion is never far from one’s mind as the film continually circles back to the church, but the solace found there, however real (and that shaft of light shining in the penultimate funeral scene has a beauty the minister’s sermon can’t touch) seems hollow. The young are just as bored with God as they are old white guy basketball. The final shot is as perfect a capper as we’ll see this year.

Looking forward to the sequel, Monrovia, Liberia.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018)

Brody-Hale-County-This-Morning-This-Evening

Shot over several years while he lived in Hale County, Alabama working as a teacher in the area, RaMell Ross’s debut film Hale County This Morning, This Evening is without a doubt one of the essential documentaries of 2018, and it plays this week exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum. It’s an interesting companion to What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, one of the highlights of this year’s Vancouver Film Festival (Seattle release date unfortunately unknown). Both are portraits of Southern, African-American communities, but from vastly different perspectives. As much as Roberto Minervini did to embed himself with his subjects and befriend them, he is necessarily an outsider, an Italian immigrant in America. And his film is more focused on rhetoric and event than on individual moments or the environments of the communities he’s depicting.

RaMell Ross, on the other hand, is documenting people he lived among for years. He’s filming from inside the room, and Hale County is made up of the kind of off-hand, minor moments that make up life, often devoid of any kind of narrative context (though there is a spine of a story about two young men, one of whom goes to college while the other stays home after high school). His tendency is toward the impressionistic (unlike, say, a Frederick Wiseman film), structured as much by image as theme. Ross even gives Apichatpong Weerasethakul a “creative advisor” credit, to give a hint of what the film’s rhythms are like. Though it’s world is far from dreamlike, it does have a certain potent magic. The presence of landscape (and its absence in the film’s interior spaces) is as deeply felt as any film of the year. Still, Hale County is no less political than Minervini’s film, of course, in its expressed intent to reconfigure stereotypical images of African-Americans, and in reclaiming the land they live in (the white residents of which were documented in the 30s by Walker Evans). Simply showing the way people live, in all their joy, wonder, tragedy and fear, is a revolutionary act.

In the Intense Now (João Moreira Salles, 2017)

In-the-Intense-Now-featured-image

One of the better documentaries of the year plays this weekend only at the Northwest Film Forum. In the Intense Now is built out of archival images, some shot by director João Moreira Salles’s mother, when she visited China in 1966, but mostly from amateur and independent film footage of France and Czechoslovakia and Brazil in the revolutionary summer of 1968. It’s one of the centerpiece presentations of the Film Forum’s fall series 1968: Expressions of a Flame, which is presenting a wide variety of films, fiction and non-, well-known and obscure, from that year. It would also have been a fine addition to their Home Movies series, which began this spring and continues this weekend with Andy Warhol’s Mrs. Warhol, with its focus on filmmakers documenting and exploring their own families (which we highlighted here when they played Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II and Chantal Akerman’s News from Home). In the Intense Now is built around this tension, between the personal and the political, as much as it is about the disconnect between the hopes of the past and the failures of the present.

Reminiscent of the films of Chris Marker, the film is entirely composed of archival images, over which the director narrates his thoughts in a soft, unassuming voice. His mother’s trip to China, where she appears not to notice the Cultural Revolution going on around her in favor of the sheer beauty of the country and its landscape, forms the apolitical counterpoint to the footage of the May protests in France two years later, where students march in the streets in support of striking workers (who seem generally bemused by the students, whom the refer to as “their future bosses”). Moreira Salles focuses less on the ideology of the protestors or their opponents, exemplified by young firebrand Daniel Cohn-Bendit on the one side and aged General DeGaulle on the other, than on the small moments captured almost accidentally by the filmmakers: minute gestures; expressions of unself-conscious joy and happiness; the fact that there are hardly any black people in the movement, and that they always are wearing suits; and so on. This fine eye for detail gives us a new way of looking at old footage, and a new angle on well-worn territory.

As does the film’s second half, the aftermath of the events of May, not just in Czechoslovakia, where Soviet tanks bring an end to the flowering Prague Spring, but in France, where the youth movement fizzles out and is co-opted by commercial interests. In fact, those interests were there from the start, fueling some of the most enduring memories of ’68, the slogans, bite-sized sentiments more surreal than Marxist that were not the organic output of youth rebellion they seemed to be at the time. For all the expressions of optimism and joy captured in the early days of the movement, In the Intense Now is ultimately a tragedy, a story of how movements fade away, how people, left and right, become grist for the content mills. In the face of all this inevitability, the film becomes a call to focus instead on experience, the individualized moment, the textures of existence, as a break from systemic thought or dreams of collective action. That it was made by the heir of one of Brazil’s most powerful banking families, a man worth close to 4 billion dollars, is probably important.

Cielo (Alison McAlpine, 2017)

lnginnewbannr

The images in Alison McAlpine’s Cielo are the primary draw and are probably themselves worth the price of admission. Not just the starscapes, captured in the pristine thin air of the Atacama desert, gorgeous sweeping vistas of galaxies and nebulae, planets and stars, shot in crisp digital images, time-lapsed over sunsets and dawns, but the images of the land as well: a slo-motion cloud of dust, a man descending into a hole in the earth, his sky several tons of rock, his only light a single bulb worn loosely around his neck. McAlpine breathlessly muses upon the meaning of the sky, the stars, and she interviews many of the denizens of the desert, all of whom have their unique relationship to the world above. Planet hunters, astronomers who use machines and high-tech imaging to scour the universe for other worlds, are contrasted with more ancient occupations: shepherds and storytellers, and the aforementioned miner, who writes poetry in his spare time.

The transitions are deftly made, and slowly the film’s main idea comes into focus: that of the interconnection between sky and land, mirroring the fluidity of past and future. The night sky is both. Light from stars that traveled through the void for hundreds, thousands, millions of years only to become visible to us in the present, representing our hopes for a future, which are then reflected back into the sky. The machines of the scientists, overwhelming, massive constructions that distort the space around them, McAlpine films in the style of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, or something like Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead, imposing impositions upon the natural world. The locals though are filmed in the desert itself, in run-down shacks, rickety tents, or the open air itself. The film comes dangerously close to ethnographic condescension in some of these scenes, with a poor couple and a UFO hunter. But the miner/poet is charming and the film’s ultimate star is the folklorist who recites old stories, examines petroglyphs, and comes closest to unifying the film’s disparate elements.

One thing McApline does not cover is what became the ultimate subject of Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 film Nostalgia for the Light: the fact that the Atacama, while an ideal site for star-gazing, is also home to countless bodies of people disappeared and murdered under Chile’s military dictatorship. It was probably wise to avoid repeating Guzmán, of course, but the total absence of the subject from Cielo is unusual. In focusing so much on the people who actually live and work in the desert, she seems to be prioritizing the specificity of this single place. But in cutting it off from one of the most tragic and telling passages in its history, she leaves a black hole. The desert becomes a no-place, a mere place-holder for a general concept of “land” and its subjects in turn merely “people”, relevant only for their relation to an impassive, distant, omnivorous sky.

SIFF 2018: People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

maxresdefault

Evan is right that there’s nothing in the aesthetic (PBS plus CGI) to match the radical transformations of a life spent online, but I think that’s kind of the point. That despite the newness of the technology and of this form of celebrity, of an economy built solely on loneliness and “prestige”, all the same old principles of exploitation and alienation apply. The virus of capitalism replicating itself anew. Pair it with All About Lily Chou-chou and The Human Surge and then go into the woods and read some Thoreau.

SIFF 2018: Matangi/Maya/MIA (Stephen Loveridge, 2018)

null

Documentary portrait of the Sri Lankan/British pop star and activist MIA, compiled largely out of footage she shot herself over the past twenty years. Telling her own story about her family (radical Tamil separatists) and her art (though how she dropped filmmaking for dance music is tantalizingly untold), she explores but ultimately cannot resolve the inherent contradiction in being a politically-committed pop artist in a culture that simply doesn’t care about meaning, especially when the voice speaking out is female and non-white. Funny, poignant, frustrating, but with some sick dancing.

SIFF 2018: Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary (Brent Hodge, 2018)

AB-Film-Freaks-and-Geeks

Not much more than a DVD extra, this story of the seminal 1999-2000 TV series is fun but doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. The show had a remarkable collection of talent, almost all of whom were unknown at the time it was made. Director Brent Hodge mixes some great archival material and clips with talking heads of the cast, creators, and executives. The latter interviews are the most heart-breaking, both from the producers who championed the show and the still-clueless executives who buried and then cancelled it.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, 2017)

wonder_6_wide-e42933213d9127a10d236896657450cdd53dd0a3-s900-c85

Opening Thursday and playing through the weekend at the Northwest Film Forum is Travis Wilkerson’s first-person documentary about the murder of a black man in Alabama. The victim, Bill Spann, was killed in a grocery store in Dothan by Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, who was initially charged with murder for the crime but the charges quickly disappeared. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Wilkerson heads home for the first time in a long while to investigate his ancestor, his victim, the town, and the history and mechanics of white supremacy and its persistence into the present day.

At just about every stop in his investigation, Wilkerson is stymied. The environment of Dothan, along with neighboring towns that may have some connection to the events, has changed over the past 70 years, although not as much one might expect (at least where I’m from, in the West, change is a constant: the parts of Spokane I grew up in are unrecognizable today, let alone how the city would have looked to my grandparents in the 1940s). The physical persistence of the past is captured in black and white static images: old houses, ominous streets, blossoming yet menacing trees, a strip mall city hall, a fateful store counter. These constitute tangible evidence of more spectral ideological hauntings: a great aunt who has become a Southern Nationalist, creepy teens in cars following nosy outsiders, and a conspiracy of silence over a long-forgotten crime: witnesses who refuse to speak, government documents disappeared, the town hospital gone to ruin, a cemetery of unmarked graves. What Wilkerson does find is disturbing in its banality: old home movies of his great-grandfather, looking no more sinister than anyone else and a death certificate horrifying in its stark, uninquisitive language.

Wilkerson narrates with a deep voice hinting at contained rage and only occasionally do any other voices enter the film. His mother and aunts write him letters about his great-granfather, revealing new, undiscovered crimes, but he reads them himself. The current neighbor of the family’s old store (since sold and resold and now a kind of speakeasy) speaks on camera for a bit, and Wilkerson gives over ten minutes or so to a rambling, fascinating monologue by Ed Vaughn, a civil rights leader and resident of Dothan, who nonetheless can provide few details on the crime itself. Instead Vaughn helps bring to life a period of American history the feeling of which we have willfully forgotten in favor of belief in our own (that is to say, White America’s) heroic progress, while the terror of racism, along with the identities of its victims and the activists who worked to upend it, are conveniently shuttered away (there’s an interesting side story about Rosa Parks and her activism long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott with victims of racist and sexual violence in Alabama, work which is usually left out of the standard narrative about Parks). The story is framed by a discussion of Atticus Finch, with clips from To Kill a Mockingbird, standard images int he beginning, describing Harper Lee’s character for what he has become, a “secular saint”. The film ends with red-tinged negatives of that same footage, as Wilkerson describes Lee’s revision of her character in Go Tell a Watchman, the private, racist face of Finch (of America) exposed underneath the public virtue. Punctuating the narrative are names of victims of white brutality: Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Bill Spann, accompanied by Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout”. It isn’t as effective as Raoul Peck’s insertion of modern protest footage into his James Baldwin doc I Am Not You Negro, but it makes the point. What Wilkerson discovers, what we probably have always known, but rarely have acknowledged, is that that past hasn’t passed, that the legacy of white supremacy lives on and its effects are still being felt. That the very fact that S.E. Branch has a great grandson and Bill Spann does not is proof.