Last night I attended Black Radical Imagination, an experimental shorts presentation, at MOCA here in LA. Black Radical Imagination tours internationally, and has been doing so for a number of years now. It features works by filmmakers from the African Diaspora, and this year’s selection was very diverse not only in terms of who was making the films but also what sort of films were being made.
I enjoyed a number of the six shorts, but the one that truly blew me away was called Everybody Dies!, a blackly comic piece by Ghanian filmmaker Frances Bodomo. If you’re a festival person you may have seen Bodomo’s other work – she’s played at Sundance and SXSW. Everybody Dies! takes the form of a VHS recording of a children’s show about Ripa the Reaper, a being who attends to the antechamber of death. From what we can tell in the short, it seems as if Ripa’s role is to usher black children from life to death… and events on Earth have truly been getting to her. What happens when even an aspect of death finds the carnage visited upon black communities to be too much?
Everybody Dies! debuted in 2016 as part of a longer anthology called collective: unconscious. You can watch it below – just skip to 45:37 in the video (if anyone can help grandpa figure out how to embed a Vimeo link that starts at a timestamp, I’d love the assistance).
I have to admit to being a bit of a philistine. Experimental film isn’t my bag, and it was interesting to experience these six pieces as someone who doesn’t have a history of watching experimental film. Some of them felt like… well, what you might make if you were doing a Simpsons episode about Lisa making an experimental film. But some of them were exceptionally striking, at least to someone whose biases are strongly in favor of narrative art. And I had a very interesting experience with one of the pieces.
Called Fluid Frontiers, the short was the fifth in a series by filmmaker Ephraim Asili. It was the longest piece of the night, and when I was watching it I had essentially no clue what I was watching. There were people reading poetry directly from old small press poetry books, and there was footage of places – homes, fields, churches – and interspersed was Margaret Walker reading her poem, Harriet Tubman – which is so striking I need to include it here:
Oh, and there was an extended shot of the sun setting across a river that had a bridge over it. I had no clue what was happening.
Then Alisi participated in a Q&A and discussed the meaning of his piece and all of a sudden the whole thing opened up to me completely and I loved it. The poems were pieces published by Broadside Press, a pioneering and groundbreaking black-owned small press started in 1965. The people reading the poems were regular folks that Alisi found on the streets of Detroit (where Broadside was founded) and Windsor, Ontario. The concept: Broadside was created to bring poetry to the people, but do the people embrace the poetry? Alisi literally brought the poetry to the people and had them read the poems aloud, all seeing the work for the first time, and examining how they read the poems and how they reacted when finished.
And that shot of the river? Alisi was on the Canada side of the river, and the presidential election was happening back home. His view was of Detroit, a centerpiece of presidential debate, and he was standing at the spot where many escaped slaves crossed over into Canada with the aid of Harriet Tubman. Alisi was looking back home, meditating on the freedom some had found from America, and thinking about the freedom others would soon need to find.
None of which I got from the film. In a narrative atmosphere this would have certainly marked the work as a failure – I’ve been to a lot of Q&As where the filmmaker needs to explain basic parts of their movies and we, the critical cognoscenti, always tut-tutted such stuff. It should have been clear on its own! But Alisi isn’t interested in it being clear, and so I experienced Fluid Frontiers twice – once as a series of images and poems that came at me on their own terms, and then again within the context of his intentions.
This is probably stuff you’re not supposed to admit – even as a disgraced film critic I still have years of experience and any schtick of mine should be predicated on expertise, right? – but I think it’s so wonderful to throw off the shackles of perceptions and walk into a space with an honest, open mind and admit you don’t know shit. I don’t know shit about experimental film, but I found it invigorating to experience and to process.
Will I become an experimental film guy? I don’t know, I like narrative. Even the short that I liked the best is pretty narrative. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to watch film in a different way, and I’m grateful to the artists who vulnerably shared their specific – and often traumatic – black lives.