There are not many films that destabilize my ignorance, uprooting it from some locked portion of my mind. I am not referring to the kind of ignorance attributed to something I know absolutely nothing about (see the previous review on a film about a Chadian dictatorship). No, this ignorance stems from something I know of: the civil rights movement, the racial and social struggles befallen on African Americans, and the white scare accompanying this conflict. Yet, as I sat in the theatre and Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro proudly shone on the giant screen, I was reminded of this certain ignorance swelling in my mind because one of the biggest question I had going into this screening was: who the hell was James Baldwin?
Peck's film is undoubtedly an essay film, stitched together by the words of the first thirty pages of a book Baldwin was to finish before he passed on, entitled Remember This House. Baldwin traces the evolution of systemic racism in America lens through the deaths of three of his contemporaries and friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. As if Peck has resurrected the soul of the scholar, whose words hover through the air of the theatre embodied by the voice of Samuel L. Jackson in a hushed tone bubbling with a suave courage of spearheading intellectualism. Coupled with the numerous and fortunate interviews of Baldwin, where we regard his wide-eyed and curious complexion, I Am Not Your Negro transcends the basis of an essay film and becomes conversational; Baldwin is talking to us and we are listening. Sitting there, the audience and I are wrapped by confident prose of outcry, unique passados toward white American culture and its fossilizing antiquities.
"History is not the past. History is the present."
So says Baldwin at some point in the film. A riveting statement that, after only a few days, is branded into my mind. Maybe it was branded in Peck's mind to because the visuals, which almost seem to dance in a carefree nature, are indelibly hinged upon the recitation of Baldwin's ideas. Peck distributes footage across many epochs, ignoring the more traditional notion of time that is flows like a river or flies in one direction like an arrow. Rather, the editing celebrates the alternative interpretation of time in that it is an expanding splash in a still pond, rippling out ungoverned. The Watts riots blend into Ferguson, Doris Day morphs into lynchings, and a medium close up of Baldwin cuts to a shot of a living breathing black man staring proudly into the camera. All the while the congealing of Baldwin's thoughts levitate over what we are required to see; what has passed is contemporary and the problem persists. History is not the past. History is the present.
So with Peck grouping the struggles of the past with the struggles of the present, he and Baldwin peel away at a fundamental and cultural irresponsibility that has not soften, that has hid itself in shadow. Sinking into my seat as the film went on, a road wave of disparagement hit me. Was I feeling guilty on behalf of white America? I'm not sure but I knew I felt bad. And to place I Am Not Your Negro into the larger cinematic climate, if this film represents the unveiling or introduction to such irresponsibility then Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America is that irresponsibility put into practice, where a troubled man was seen as a symbol by everyone which, in turn, exposed a serious problem of perception and how huge of a divide we do have in our country (along with, of course, two murdered individuals).
I left the theatre knowing who James Baldwin was. If there is a weakness of this film it’s that I only wished to linger in his timeless presence longer. His early life, organized in a chapter entitled “Heroes,” is brilliant as it is shocking. We moved on from such an episode too soon. Yet, I know him now. History is not past. History is the present. That is no more true than the influence of James Baldwin. His presence in the now comes in the form of the ignorant, like me, to maintain curiosity. I think I will read one of his plays.
Much has already been said about how Jim Jarmusch's most recent film, Paterson, explores the poetry of the mundane and cyclic nature of everyday life. Adam Driver's Paterson, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, drives a bus around the city but is usually fixated on the sights and sounds of his hometown to fuel his quiet formulation of poems. Paterson takes the time to sit, before he drives off to pick up the first passengers of the day, and write as much of a poem as he can possibly usurp. Meanwhile, his wife, Laura, played by Golshifteh Farahani, seems to be exploring her artistic expression with all sorts of mediums: interior design, cupcakes, or country music. While Paterson keeps his poems in a secret notebook, Laura happily parades her new designs in front of her husband. They both love and support each other. After work, and after the daily conversation Laura has with Paterson urging him to publish his poems, Paterson takes his dog, Marvin, for a walk, stopping by a local bar to drink one, and only one, beer and chat with his friends.
That's about it in terms of a general synoptic description, as the film observes one week of their lives, we experience the sense of the gentle banality and repetition we all face in our un-cinematic lives. Viewing the world through Paterson's poetic eyes, we break out of that sameness and into a natural lyricism, visualized by text of written poetry and some lovely superimpositions as Paterson stitches together the things he has witnessed into something profoundly personal.
So go if you like poetry, if you are from Paterson, if you like dogs, or cupcakes, or Method Man. Because each of these things (or person), whether they are important or not, are respected with a joviality of their existence. And that is something most films don't even regard and audiences take for granted.
Yet, I'd like to indulge in some analysis as a way to further celebrate this film, an angle of exploration that ties into the brilliant approach Jarmusch, I think, intended. This begins with the title, itself, Paterson. It is the name of both the protagonist and the city of which he lives in. Sufficient enough, but lets us stretch the significance and promote the idea that Adam Driver's Paterson is the city. Now, let us ask: what is a city? Superficially, it is a collection of buildings and roads. Well, in fact, there are a lot of definitions, but the one definition that aligns quite snuggly with the film is an melding of individual ideas, experiences, and feelings. Due to dense population, where people are in close proximity most of the time, there is a high probability that you will run into someone vastly different from you. Actually, that is no less than a guarantee.
Driver's Paterson as a bus driver is important because his vehicle is, essentially, a vessel for an assemblage of experiences. Paterson drives and he listens. He listens to guys talk about girls, anarchist talking about anarchy, and many other seemingly random topics. Paterson absorbs these experiences and thoughts. He thinks...contemplates. Eventually, he expresses or, in other words, reflects his own experience. And what is a city but a reflection of the mish-mash of individual's living their lives? Cities are filled with anarchists, poets, interior designers, bartenders, rappers, bus drivers...they are filled with people dealing with hard times, people discover new things, people content of their life's direction. And that may change eachand every day! A city is never at a resting state, always dynamic, always at an imperceptible flux.
Many films have a city as a character (see The Third Man, Man With a Movie Camera, Blade Runner, Dark City, Lost in Translation, Truman Show...alright, I'm done) but not many films, if I am remembering correctly, literally have the city be a character. Cities, whether you like them or loathe them, have an erratic nature that is still tied down to some order, no matter the imperceptibility. What Paterson achieves is finding the lyricism within the dynamism, become fully aware of life's, or city life's tendency to produce its own repetition or motifs. The loose mailbox, the one glass of beer, the bus route; there are patterns of which we can extrapolate among the arbitrary. And this arbitrary nature does not settle with the present, no, it has its history, so it also makes sense that Paterson always has an eye on what has already happened, the history of the city, and the influence of figures like Lou Costello and William Carlos Williams.
And because Paterson illustrates the intersection of many forms of humanity in such a mundane way, Jarmusch may have made his most ambitious point: that we cannot escape an overwhelming diversity of people, who may share some notions of life and living but will most certainly hold very different perspectives. And that is the way it is...it is just that, just like the film. Driver's Paterson is a hushed character (not a boring one, mind you) that one could say he is not only a representation of the city he lives in but a tabula rase, a blank slate of which all sorts of experiences latch on to. Once enough things have adhered to his being, he manifests a poem. He understands the many kinds of people that live around him...and that is all he needs to do. And yes, that, my friends, is the end of the lesson.
There are many broken and beaten bodies we come across in famed Chadian filmmaker Mahamet-Saleh Horoun's Hissein Habre, A Chadian Tragedy. Some individuals sport scars around the neck area, some walk with a limp or have lost any stability. Some cannot even walk at all and must be carried. The state of these individuals' bodies is only the beginning of understanding their broken and beaten souls having to endure decades of pain. Souls waiting for any sort of retribution uncertain of arrival. Chad is a country I am substantially ignorant of except for its distinct name that shares its usage with a slightly common English name. Admittedly, I don't peruse the annals of infinite knowledge on the internet or anywhere in between to better understand Chad; it is a nation and culture that has never entered the orbit of my own awareness. Thankfully, the Dryden Theatre is celebrating the art of Horoun all throughout February. If there is a chance for me to grab a fleeting glimpse of something incredibly unfamiliar...it is now. A Chadian Tragedy is Horoun's most recent film, a documentary, which steps outside the director's norm of fiction films. He enters the charred and battered history of the Hissein Habre dictatorship which ran from 1982-1990. During the rule, which was backed by the USA and France in response to Lybia's Gaddafi regime, some 40,000 people were killed for being thought of as ideological opposition.
This sort of story for a documentary is becoming more common. Think carefully, and you may connect this film with another indicting excursion into Cold War hellfire; The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence beat strongly with unthinkable chaos and torment. You can also link it to Nostalgia For the Light and The Pearl Button. Like The Look of Silence, A Chadian Tragedy is all about the victims. Those men and women, crippled with physical and mental abuse so many years ago, are living shells of their former lives as survivors. And through surviving there is this agonizing suspension where they must wait to see if the perpetrator will ever be punished. Clement, himself a survivor, is our surrogate, our conduit of sympathy. Running a program that brings together the people left tarnished by the dictatorship, Clement is also the main character in the film that we follow from one subject to the next. Though I would not know the alternative but it might be the reason why conversations with the victims are so casual yet so revealing. Interviews are barely in traditional format but more constructed conversationally. The camera is a concerned observer but we figure out that even the camera is not the important part.
Incredible stories of survival are woven in anecdotes of permanent damage. One man in particular, who was a hotshot smuggler with five wives, can hardly move and speak now, using a cane to fumble from one place to the next. Whatever the brutalizing police had done to him ignited an earthquake to rip the fabric of his own perception of life. Yet he keeps on living and, even more so, he strives to walk without the use of a cane. What we witness him do in the end of the film, despite his past debauchery, is uplifting, a showcase of how much justice means even twenty-six years later. Another woman talks of her husband who was taken from her and her family one night, never to return. It is a disgusting thing to happen, never to say goodbye, never realizing a sense of finality let alone dignity for someone you love and respect. These people saw death all around them, and some of them contemplate on the nature of the brutal death and the way it severs the souls of the departed from those that want to mourn.
Sometimes it is even tempting to question their resolve through the perception of our privileged state: I don't understand how one can live like this, with such terrible memories...I don't know if I would be strong enough. Yet, their presence, their words and thoughts, their tears and yells, resonate with an affirmation that good things can happen even in the most grueling of situations. One scene seats a victim on one side of a bench and a former policeman who arrested the victim on the other side of the bench; Clement sits in the middle. We watch as an awkward, dramatic, and powerful moment erupts as perpetrator weakly begs for forgiveness.
The first process to help someone is to listen so that we can understand where they come from, where they are now, and where they want to go. You will not learn much on the politics and policies surrounding and embodying Hessein Habre and his regime in this film, but you will learn a lot about specific stories and memories. Testimony is powerful and it is cemented in Horoun's documentation. As mentioned earlier, the camera, though capturing these moments, is not important, what is important are these survivors talking to each other, connecting, and strengthening a bond. Although on the outside, we may still see those broken and beaten bodies as those scars will remain. Nevertheless, we may leave the theatre knowing that some minds may be at ease, some souls reaching a calming posture. We then can carry that hope and reinforce our sense of self...that's the least we could do in our position.