Specialised Technique (2018) is the concluding short of Onyeka Igwe’s video trilogy No Dance, No Palaver, which also includes Her Name in My Mouth (2017) and Sitting on a Man (2018). Each film within the trilogy relates to the 1929 Aba Women’s War in Eastern Nigeria, where the Aba women protested British taxation for two years straight through the tactic of “sitting on a man”, an act of public shaming through dance that calls attention to injustice. This involves performing dances and songs that dramatise grievances against a specific figure, inhibiting him from conducting his daily affairs. The Women’s War was fomented by the colonial government’s misunderstanding of women’s power in Igbo society, resulting in what the British government called a riot. Yet, at the heart of the problem was the colonial imposition of Victorian gender ideas, which pushed a form of patriarchy onto a social system that had a more complicated relation to the entanglements of gender and power. [1]

The trilogy’s title, “no palaver”, suggests that without dancing, conflict resolution will not be permitted. Here, the director signposts to her audience that a focal shift is needed to interpret and encounter her filmic work: one that holds onto the bodily integrity of the individuals onscreen, including her own. Igwe’s trilogy is a critical tool for examining alternative modes of resistance needed by Black individuals in the UK (and globally) as they continue to face a government that is rewriting its history of colonial violence. [2] In this sense, No Dance, No Palaver is emblematic of Afro-Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter's idea— found in her 1992 essay on film criticism, “Re-thinking ‘Aesthetics’: Notes Towards a Deciphering Practice”—that aesthetics, and not representation, are the visual onerous of power. [3] Igwe directs audiences’ attention towards how colonial aesthetics have written the Black body into moving image history through a global structure of anti-Blackness. I read Specialised Technique specifically for how Igwe reanimates (and remixes) resistance of the Aba women from the fixed colonial gaze of the original archive footage, restoring the embodiment that had previously been stifled.

No Dance, No Palaver works through Igwe’s experience with the British Archives on Nigerian culture. The primary footage of Specialised Technique (as with the larger trilogy too) is taken from archival film of the Igbo women in Nigeria produced by British colonial officer William Sellers in the 1930s that Igwe acquired from the BFI National Archive, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum Collection, and British Pathé. [4] In Her Name in My Mouth (2018) we see Igwe’s hands in these archives, digging through the stately packaged official history of the Igbo women as produced by the British Empire.

It is Specialised Technique that most thoroughly calls attention to the apparatuses of the camera and how to “shoot” a body in its aesthetics. Igwe works through the official discourse on shooting ethnographic footage that appears in the framing of the Nigerian women as shot by William Sellers. From what to focus on, to what to ignore, Seller’s camera “techniques” brutally defined the movement of Nigerian bodies to the world on-screen. [5] What Igwe seeks to recuperate in this archival remix, then, is a method of restoring embodiment and lived experience—by foregrounding the body’s power to act—that shows the lives within these archives. The body’s power to act, via Baruch Spinoza, refers to how bodily movements, from dancing to crying, carry power to affect others no matter how big or small.

Igwe’s artistic practice centres the ownership of archives and what we inherit from them in the present. In my interview with the artist, Igwe foregrounded two archives that were instrumental in the development of her filmic technique. The first lies with her family archive, which she started to examine following the death of her grandmother in 2014—feeling a need to rediscover this woman’s life, her Nigerian origins, and how Igwe might find herself in that narrative. Archives for Igwe, then, became a critical way for her to collapse the gulf between the ‘historical’ and her personal archive of what is missing in that space. In pursuit of this practice, Igwe volunteered at the June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive, a critical archive of Black diasporic filmmaking made available in London by film scholar, archivist, critic, and curator June Givanni. [6] Igwe also has received her Master’s Degree in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths College and recently was a PhD researcher at the University of the Arts London. Through this intense archival research and practice, Igwe became interested in using experimental aesthetics to capture and shed light on the contradictions that emerge in the archives housed in colonial spaces. Many archives on racialised life are troubling and exist in troubling spaces, and thus, a radical affective response is needed to do the research and work with these images. This can pull out a similar radical affective response to these bodies that moves beyond injury and toward emancipation.

In writing about her research and artistic praxis, Igwe describes her aesthetics as attempting to shake the stereotypes out of the images: “I tried in as many ways as possible to change how the audience saw various people on camera. Converting the film to individual frames and then reanimating them, or digitally drawing on them, slowing them down or tripling them and re-projecting, were all techniques utilised in order to create a pensive spectator.” [7] What Igwe demonstrates here is how aesthetics, as produced by camera and filmic techniques, frame the body. Through the colonial aesthetics marshalled by Sellers, a Euro-American ‘eye’ received technical training on how to captivate ‘captive’ lives onscreen. By returning to the archives of the origin of technique, Igwe presents an alternative approach to this way of seeing that immerses audiences. Her approach reorients the perspective from the ocularfocus gaze of fixating and observing these women to one that restores animacy to their movements, drawing out cinema’s innate ability to generate affect.

Specialised Technique opens with a woman steadfastly dancing with deep movements in her bent arms and legs. Igwe then uses animated stick figures to mirror the intensity and formal patterns of the gestures the woman completes to draw out its force as an otherness to the film itself: an opposition to the act of colonial recording that produced the original footage. We then move to a series of clips that are presumably taken from the same batch of footage on the Aba women. What Igwe does to intervene on this archive is provide a series of questions that call our attention to the frame. These include: “Do you want your whole body in the shot?,” “What happened when you looked down the lens?,” “Do you not want me to see your face?,” and “What do I want to focus on?”, to name a few. This questioning continues throughout the short, set to Seller’s archival footage of a dancing Igbo tribe. Four minutes into the six-minute short, Igwe then appears onscreen, disrupting the pattern by standing in between the beam of the projector light and the image.

Igwe literally mediates the archival images through the presence of her body: her hips as a screen. We then begin to shift our engagement from what is happening to what the film/video is doing, and more critically, what the on-screen bodies are doing, here. Igwe’s aesthetics bring to mind Sylvia Wynter’s call for experimental aesthetics to show us the illocutionary acts of cinema. [8] In “Re-thinking ‘Aesthetics’,” Wynter attends to how aesthetics, not representation, frame our perception of Blackness on a biological and social level. [9] Aesthetics shape our affective engagement of reality in equal measure to our cognitive awareness of it.

Sellers recognised this power in film when he was tasked with using cinema as an educational tool to train Nigerians during his colonial intrusion in Nigeria. [10] Sellers was a colonial British officer of sanitation, working in Nigeria from the 1930s to the 1940s. He was tasked with creating a mobile cinema, screening 16mm films on sheets in open fields to “educate” Nigerians on health and hygiene. His shorts were successful enough to develop the Colonial Film Unit (CFU), where he developed a number of observational and educational shorts for Nigerians. Sellers’ cinema techniques disavowed speciality “tricks” like whip-pan, flashbacks, reverse speed, stop motion, etc., for he felt that Nigerians would be confused by the sophistication of these filmic techniques. [11] Ultimately, Sellers’ styles had an impact in shaping the style of images coming out of Nigeria and on Nigerian people. In some ways, Sellers’ limited “observational” gaze shaped how other filmmakers approached African and Afrodiasporic bodies on film in the UK, a vision that is informed by anti-Blackness. [12]

Sellers’ cinema techniques shaped the direction of the CFU through the 1950s and held an onerous power over Nigerian filmmaking for years after. As Wynter describes, aesthetics biocentrically write out behavioural response of culture in reality. Biocentrically—which is Wynter’s neologism, and what I believe to be one of her most profound contributions to film and arts criticism—refers to the way in which we corporeally respond to images: how aesthetics determine our kin relations in society. It is a framework which enables us to see how Sellers could, in his images, collapse both the Igbo women and their cultural production. Using what Michel Foucault describes as the imperialistic eye of medicine and study, he adopts a clinical gaze on people such that it aesthetically fixates them into sequences of repetition of movement and performance for his camera. [13] This is what Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks as seeing colonial images of himself as a petrification of his body akin to photochemical fixer that solidifies an image in place. For Fanon, the colonial gaze is both the oppressor and liberator for it takes racialized subjects out of the world—that is removes us from kin relations with others— through image-making but also possesses the power to restore our place in the world, what Fanon describes as “[our] lightness of being.” [14]

Through the aesthetic manipulations in Specialised Technique, Igwe subverts Sellers’ style. By applying repeated or reversed frames, making marks atop the imagery, or by using stop-motion animation, Igwe uses aesthetic interventions to challenge Sellers’ “techniques”, diverting our attention to the bodies such that they are not static observational studies but affective lives with the power to act and compel us to feel. Igwe’s evocative disruption to Sellers’ intent comes through the very system that enabled his gaze: the institution and its archives. As a Black Briton of Nigerian descent, entering the British Pathé archives situates her presence as a “marked woman.” [15] Acutely aware of this mark, Igwe describes how she draws out her embodiment to honour those passages that she describes as “blood memories” of colonial collision of the UK in West Africa as “being close to, with or amongst.” [16] Paying attention to her embodiment in the archives is not only a disruption to how the archive comes to know itself as a pristine place of order, but also something that provides her with the toolkit to make kin with the women of the past. In doing so, she can bring their embodiment to the fore of the images.

Specialised Technique and the larger trilogy of No Dance, No Palaver give evidence to the way in which performance ignites affective assemblages. Elena del Rio writes about the critical, ontological properties of performance as affection onscreen; we might want to recognise the same attributes at play in Igwe’s work. Her experimental aesthetics “accommodate certain moments of pure kinetic and gestural situations where movements and gesture are given in and for themselves […] thus unfold[ing] as a series of random piercings of the narrative fabric.” [17] Igwe’s aesthetic experimentation with archival footage enables her to go against the totalising structure of fixation that lies in Seller’s original material, instead foregrounding the performances onscreen and their ability to move us and restore life into the bodies.

I consider Igwe’s approach to the cinema’s archives as an emancipatory release of Euro-American aesthetics of anti-Blackness through a more corporeal-focused engagement through her body and the lives that are housed in the British Pathé and made available for ‘study.’ This approach operates not unlike a remix, where Igwe scrambles the colonial routes and rites of passages that constitute its archival holdings and field of vision. Specialised Technique demonstrates that not only are interventions possible to the past that restore movement to those subjects, but that the past is not a petrified concept and rather one in which many avenues of approach are available. The archives (as they are represented to us) are not the only way, but rather a constructed reality made possible by a system of power. Igwe’s archival remix works expansively and experimentally across footage to aesthetically release Black women’s bodies in time.


Ayanna Dozier is an artist, lecturer, curator, and scholar. Her dissertation, Mnemonic Aberrations, examines the formal and narrative aesthetics in Black feminist experimental short films in the United Kingdom and the United States from 1968-present. She the author of the 33 1/3 book on Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope from Bloomsbury Academic Press. Her artistic practice is located in film (both still and Super 8 and 16mm motion picture) and performance, paying close attention to experimentation in those mediums. She is currently a Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow at the Whiney Museum of American Art, a lecturer in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, and was a 2018-2019 Helena Rubinstein Critical Studies Fellow in the Whitney Independent Studies Program. She resides in Brooklyn, NY. https://dozierayanna.com/

Republished from Issue 02: Network of Open City Documentary Film Festival’s Non-Fiction Journal. You may order a printed copy here. Stills courtesy of the artist and LUX.


[1] Andrew Hibbard, “Okwui Okpokwasili and What it Means to Sit on a Man” Frieze June 3rd, 2019, https://www.frieze.com/article/okwui-okpokwasili-and-what-it-means-sit-man.
[2] These are forms of violence that are still felt by Black Britons as they combat injustice against the Windrush generation, police brutality, discrimination and the limitations of travel, low wages, and rampant housing inequality.
[3] Sylvia Wynter, “Re-thinking ‘Aesthetics’: Notes Towards a Deciphering Practice” in Ex-iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, eds. Mbye B. Cham (New Jersey: Africa World Press, Inc., 1992), 239.
[4] Onyeka Igwe, “Being Close to, With or Amongst” Feminist Review no. 125(2020): 44-53.
[5] Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
[6] Interview with the artist in 2018.
[7] Igwe, “Being Close to, With or Amongst” 51.
[8] Wynter, “Re-thinking ‘Aesthetics’,” 267.
[9] Ibid, 254.
[10] It is perhaps important to note that what most would now consider an ‘intrusion’ is still defined as a ‘stay’ by many institutions.
[11] Larkin, Signal and Noise, 108-109.
[12] Anti-Blackness here refers to global material and immaterial acts forged through the transatlantic slave trade that ontologically positions all fields of thought and production on the belief that Black people exist outside of the field of the human. Sylvia Wynter, “No Humans Involved: A Letter to My Colleagues,” Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century no. 1, 1(1994): 1-17.
[13] Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, [1973] 1994).
[14] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks translated by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 89.
[15] Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics no. 17, 2(1987): 65.
[16] Igwe, “Being Close to, With or Amongst” 47.
[17] Elena del Rio, Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers of Affection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 29.

There is an irony to the fact that the most well-known film by the American director William Greaves (1926-2014) also happens to be his most atypically out-there, experimental piece of work. In the unclassifiable Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), we see Greaves filming a movie scene in Central Park that depicts a repetitive argument between a couple. Simultaneously, a documentary crew films the crew filming the fictional movie. Meanwhile, a third crew documents the filming of the two films. Throughout, Greaves, sporting a natty green mesh T-shirt, convincingly plays the role of an aloof, clueless artist, while on-set conditions deteriorate and nerves start to fray. His increasingly furious (and mostly white) collaborators, feeling abandoned, begin to mutiny.

How much of all this is “real”? How much is “staged”? Does it matter? Concrete resolutions are jettisoned in favor of purposefully provocative ambiguity, and the end result is a discomfiting study of intersecting racial and power dynamics within the context of low-budget filmmaking. As critic Michael Koresky has observed, “although it is never spoken about in the film, the fact that Symbiopsychotaxiplasm was made by an African-American man in the 1960s cannot be ignored: Greaves’s race is unavoidable and ever-present.”

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One becomes even more compelling when one considers what else was happening in Greaves’s professional life around the time the film was made. Greaves, who had trained as a filmmaker at the National Board of Canada owing to a paucity of opportunities for Black filmmakers on home turf, returned to America to cover the civil rights movement. In August 1968, months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the sustained rioting that followed, Greaves was appointed executive producer of the landmark public affairs program Black Journal, the first nationally televised, regularly scheduled show of its type to focus on African-American life. Black Journal was publicly funded in response to the Kerner Commission report into the previous year’s civil unrest (or, as Black Journal contributor Madeline Anderson once put it to me in an interview: “They decided, ‘Hey, maybe one of the ways of controlling them is to give them some programming. Let them look at TV and maybe they won’t go out and burn down things.’”)

Greaves was only promoted from co-host to executive producer when his Black colleagues insisted that the incumbent, a white man, was unsuited for the job, and went on strike. A year later, Greaves won an Emmy for his work on the program. To me, viewed in this context, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One—and Greaves’s borderline baroque performance of ineptitude within—has always read as a particularly acidic parody: a projection of the worst fears that white creatives have about handing over control to those whom, deep down, they consider to be inferior.

After languishing in obscurity for decades, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm was released theatrically for the first time in 2005 and on DVD the following year, alongside a newly filmed sequel (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1⁄2). Retroactively subtitled Take One, the original has attained a cult following of late among art-house film fans and a new generation of contemporary nonfiction practitioners who take cues from its exploration of formal hybridity, and its complication of conventional notions of documentary “objectivity.”

Yet Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and Greaves’s contributions to Black Journal are only two pieces of the vast jigsaw puzzle that is the filmmaker’s body of work. According to a filmography assembled by the scholar Aurore Spiers for Scott McDonald and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart’s forthcoming book William Greaves: Filmmaking as Mission, Greaves was director, producer, writer, cinematographer, and/or editor on no less than 79 films in a period spanning 1953-2005. (Prior to 1953, the Harlem-born Greaves enjoyed stints as a recording artist and an actor.) These credits are listed on williamgreaves.com, a new website created and launched this year by documentary filmmaker Su Friedrich alongside Louise Greaves, William’s collaborator and spouse of 55 years. Rich in biographical detail, the site offers an invaluable window onto the life and work of a pioneering artist who deserves to be known and appreciated far more broadly.

The launch of the website coincides with the emergence this year of another key piece of the Greaves puzzle: the full-length, 80-minute version of his 1972 documentary Nationtime, hitherto only circulated in a 58-minute cut intended for television, and previously known as Nationtime—Gary. It’s something of a miracle that we’re able to see it at all: in 2018, Carnegie Mellon archivist Emily Davis identified the film’s 10 original color reversal A&B rolls among 70,000 picture and sound elements in a Pittsburgh warehouse. The film was subsequently restored by conservation company IndieCollect, and distributed in North America by Kino Lorber.

Financed, produced, directed, and chiefly shot and edited by Greaves himself, Nationtime is a pulsating record of the National Black Political Convention that took place in Gary, Indiana in March 1972. As observed by scholar Leonard N. Moore, a key aim of this three-day event was to end the intense feud that had effectively divided black activists into two broadly defined camps—integrationists and Black nationalists—in the four years following King’s assassination. The NBPC brought together around 8,000 people, including 4,327 official delegates, Black elected officials from multiple states, veterans of the civil rights movement, and Black Power advocates. They sought to find consensus on a political strategy that would mobilize Black political power at all levels nationwide, and guide them through the looming 1972 election season.

Despite a minimal budget and myriad lighting and audio challenges, Greaves and his small crew—including his son David on second camera and brother Donald on sound—captured the excitement and vast emotional vacillations of the conference with sensitivity and a keen sense of detail. Thronging crowd scenes within the conference hall are punctuated by heart-stopping close-ups of attendees and participants, revealing every emotion from joy to hope to anxiety. There are rousing speeches by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Amiri Baraka, Betty Shabazz, Bobby Seale, comedian Dick Gregory, and Gary’s mayor Richard Hatcher, whose fiery opening remarks are freighted with sentiments that feel especially resonant in 2020. “The 1968 National Party Conventions made a mockery of the democratic process,” he rails. “They were drunken carnivals run for the exclusive few … they debauched the electoral process, and shattered the idealistic hopes of youth … [we must] liberate America from its current decadence!” Outside the conference hall, attendees mingle and give interviews to the press. Legendary civil rights activist Queen Mother Moore passes out leaflets and loudly calls for the introduction of reparations for slavery—a subject that continues to be debated today, especially after Ta-Nehisi Coates’ watershed 2014 essay “The Case For Reparations” brought it back to the forefront of the political conscious. It’s just another moment in this 48-year-old film that feels strikingly contemporary. Drawing upon years of experience in making punchy content for public television, Greaves cuts it all together with an expert flow.

Nationtime’s first half is one big upswing, culminating in Jackson’s long, electrifying speech, which features the call-and-response chant from which the film takes its title (“What time is it?” “Nation Time!”) The wheels come off somewhat in the second half, which begins with Baraka—one of the originators of the conference—imploring attendees to behave themselves because the eyes of the world are upon them, and press reports from the first day had not been positive. Disaster strikes when a large section of the Michigan delegation exits the conference in high dudgeon, while an increasingly frazzled-looking Baraka pleads for unity and calm. The close-ups of Baraka’s pain-etched face offer a window on the sheer weight of responsibility on his shoulders and lend the film considerable emotional weight.

Greaves neither shies away from depicting nor attempts to smooth over the tensions of the conference. Instead, in an editorial masterstroke of great poignancy, he intersperses throughout the film a dual set of voiceovers: a Greaves-penned narration voiced with grand dignity by Sidney Poitier (“Out of the long winter night of our oppression in America we are witnessing the birth of a new golden age for our people”); and poetry by Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka read by Harry Belafonte. Both speakers are recorded to sound as echoey and stentorian—if not positively godlike—as possible, adding a celestial dimension to this bustling, boots-on-the-ground documentary. The voiceovers, taken in tandem with the exhilarating onstage musical performances by the likes of Isaac Hayes, render political expression indivisible from artistic creativity, and contribute to the film’s hypnotic power.

William Greaves’s passion for his work on Nationtime is encapsulated by a beautiful anecdote told by his son David in the pages of Filmmaking as Mission:

“[After Jesse Jackson’s speech] the music was up, and everybody was dancing. In my camera I could see my father panning, focusing, zooming, but later I could not find those shots anywhere in the footage … When we were viewing the footage and came to the overhead shot where we see him shooting, I told Dad I’d looked at every roll of film we had but couldn’t find that one. Dad said I wouldn’t find it: ‘There was no film in the camera.’ ‘Then what were you doing?’ He responded wistfully, ‘It was such a great shot, I didn’t want to miss it.’”

In this moment, as in Symbiopsychotaxism, Greaves was “playing” the role of a filmmaker. Here, though, there was no irony, no provocation. Just a man on a mission blissfully lost inside a moment. Now, thankfully, that moment is ours to share.


Nationtime is available to stream in virtual cinemas nationwide and Symbiopsychotaxism: Take One and Take 2 1⁄2 are out on Blu-ray this month via the Criterion Collection.


Ashley Clark is the curatorial director at the Criterion Collection. Previously, he worked as director of film programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and he has curated film series at BFI Southbank, the Museum of Modern Art, TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, among other venues. He has contributed writing to publications including Film Comment, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, and the Guardian. His first book is Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2015).

Stills courtesy of Janus Films and Kino Lorber / Indie Collect.

“Is it possible to think in public?” asks Jemma Desai in her desktop documentary What do we want from each other after we have told our stories? Desai is a researcher, teacher, and reluctant artist born and raised in London. She is also a former film programmer and my dear friend.

In June 2020, Desai released This Work Isn’t For Us into the public domain. A vast Google Doc, it recounts her firsthand experiences of institutional racism in the UK film industry, and includes testimonies from other cultural workers of color who also, in her words, “navigate toxic white supremacy every day.”

She writes with staggering clarity about the culture of racist malpractice disguised as “diversity” and “inclusion” and peddled by her former employers. Technically speaking, This Work Isn’t For Us is a research paper, written over an 18-month period and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, with additional support from a Clore Fellowship Desai received in 2018. Still, “research paper” feels like an inadequate way to describe the grace, poetry, and fierce critique the document contains.

Neither does the term account for the array of crossmedia reckonings and offshoots the project has sparked. Six months before releasing the document, in January 2020, Desai wove readings related to and excerpted from the research into a performance (a kind of illustrated lecture) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts as part of the London Short Film Festival. Desai shared and reflected on her experiences of dissonance and alienation as a brown person working in predominantly white and supposedly liberal arts organisations. Audience members were given notepads and invited to use the space to reflect, too.

The performance was followed by three generative online conversations hosted by international arts agency LUX as part of the dissemination of This Work Isn’t For Us. These put her in dialogue with people who had shaped the research: art critic Zarina Muhammad; educator and activist Aditi Jaganathan; and filmmaker, curator, and DJ Rabz Lansiquot.

The desktop documentary What do we want from each other after we have told our stories? is a kind of contemplative companion piece to these talks—a conversation between Desai and herself in the form of a 50-minute video piece set against the backdrop of her computer screen. Premiered online via LUX in August this year, the documentary ruminates on the difference between making her work public and having a public conversation. The piece comprises AirDropped voice memos containing Desai’s narration, a Reddit thread on the storied history of her house in East London, and video clips, such as an excerpt from Alnoor Dewshi's 1992 short film Latifah and Himli's Nomadic Uncle. One sequence features a Google Doc called “Letters to White People,” containing emails to her white therapist, an all-white mutual aid group, and her white employers. “The Google Doc has given up,” she says wryly of a notification that reads “pages unresponsive.”

In the following conversation, recorded over Zoom on a Friday night in November 2020, Desai returns to the piece, and together we think through the value of sharing in public, documentary practice as a strategy of refusal, and film as a portal into a new way of being.

You describe this piece of work as “about anger and healing and taking up space, in words, in buildings, in private, in public.” That’s what it’s about, but what is it, in your mind? Is it a performance, a curation, a piece of criticism?

I think what you call something, or what you think something is, is so situated on what you think you are. If I had decided I was an artist, I would call it a performance, or if I’d decided that I was a video essay–maker, then I would say it was a video essay, or if I thought I was a filmmaker, then I would say it was a film.

Before making the piece, I went away and took mushrooms, which were grown in our house, in our kitchen. A lot of the aesthetic of that piece came from what happened on that trip. This piece of work became a way to process that trip, but the trip was a way to process all of the stuff that had happened in the last few years [of doing the research]. The trip was like six months of therapy in six hours.

Someone got in touch with me and was like, “It’s a desktop documentary,” and I was like, “Oh, I suppose it is,” but I’d never even heard of that term. I’d never seen one; I hadn’t seen Zia Anger’s performance [My First Film].

My First Film also sits somewhere between performance and “desktop documentary”: there are definitely commonalities in how you both process the harm that has been done to you in order to protect others. Your original performance was called Autoethnography as Refusal, which I think is interesting given the documentary form’s roots in ethnography, and the decolonial nature of your project.

As a concept, [autoethnography] is about looking at the self in order to understand the world, but I feel like it’s someone else’s word. Still, the concept of using the self to refuse that objectification, or that disembodiment, is 100% the driving energy behind the written research, and also this piece. In nonfiction filmmaking, there’s also a real denigration of the voiceover, a real denigration of the self, a denigration of the “I” of the personal documentary. As a programmer, I have heard so much that autoethnographic filmmaking is not serious filmmaking—that it’s like “diary” filmmaking, which is so often [associated with] white women. There’s so few diary films from Black women and more broadly from women of color.

The recording was a strategy: it was a way of me not having to do it live. I recorded it so I could get it right. It wasn’t supposed to be a piece of work.

To me it feels so complete and full that to hear you describe it as an accident of circumstance is, like, wow!

I think there’s something about this which really reflects what happened accidentally with This Work Isn’t For Us. I didn’t know it would be shared on a Google Doc, but now it means something that it was shared on a Google Doc. In the same way, I didn’t know this would be a recording of my screen, but because of the constraints of the time and my capacity and everything, now it means something that it was. If I had gone to a publisher and asked for permission to write a book, I wouldn't have been able to refuse certain things, whereas now [that] it’s a Google Doc, no one can change it or make me change it [and] I have all this autonomy. There’s this refusal within that. It’s the same with this desktop documentary.

I’m interested in the ways in which you protect yourself in the work. Your use of first-person narration, not to mention the personal nature of the things you talk about, makes it feel so vulnerable, yet we never see your face. We see your hands and your torso and we see your arm. The critic Tara Judah wrote that we see your arm having a rest after writing 54,540 words. Was that a strategy of refusal as well?

In a way, disembodying my visual image allowed me to be more embodied and liberated in my voice. Voice was a really important theme of the research and I found my voice—not just in the writing, but I found my physical voice.

The live performance at the ICA was partly to do with that. Like, wow, I’m gonna actually say this stuff in public and I’m gonna try and deliver it in a voice that holds some power and doesn’t trail off at the end. So many things had been said to me: that I didn’t make sense, or I wasn’t speaking up. What are the conditions in which your voice can be steady and articulate and clear? At the time [of making the desktop documentary], the conditions in which my voice could be strong required a level of obscuring.

Your strategies of refusal in the piece connect with a line from the research that you quote: “Everyone says it was generous and it makes me wonder if I gave away more than I know.” Maybe it’s your way of reflecting on that idea of generosity, and maybe this time you’re more aware of what you’re giving.

There’s a line between oversharing and making a piece of art, and I don’t know where that line is, but it should come from you—it shouldn’t be imposed on you from the outside. I think I’m just really coming to know that the openness with which I’d shared [the research] hadn’t been cared for by everybody.

And so I think there’s two things about this piece. One is opacity, and the ways that it does and doesn’t explain. The other thing is, this piece doesn’t live on the internet forever. The research does, and all of these talks do, but with this piece, I can choose. I can choose when it goes up or down.

Towards the last third of the piece, you start layering all of these different things on the screen, among them a looped 10-second video of waves lapping and a voice memo where you talk about going for a walk with your mum. You also scroll through Merle Woo’s “Letter to Ma,” from the feminist anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, at your own pace. All of these thoughts and feelings crescendo with Aditi’s healing song, which you play on top of everything. How did you go about structuring that climax?

I think it was definitely intuitive and instinctive, but I think there’s something about… something about having an untidy desktop that I want to talk about! I really believe in the idea of the body as an archive—you trust that the things that are meaningful to you stay in your body. All of the things you describe were the things that were living in my body at that time, and they were really alive.

I’ve also been doing loads of Zoom teaching, and it’s kind of how I teach: the mess behind whatever screen I have decided to display looks like that! I didn’t necessarily have a structure of where I wanted the piece to go, but I would move with the energy of the space. It’s about liveness. The other layer to it is this song, “Siyabulela” by Asher Gamedze. He’s a jazz musician, and this incredible scholar and thinker and activist who came and talked to a class that I was part of last year. In the liner notes for that song, he talks about it as a song of mourning, about grief and letting go. But it’s also about healing and joy. I didn’t know that when I put the song in the piece; Aditi [Jaganathan] had sent it to me. I think what you described is like a constellation of ideas that connect but could say different things at a different time, and I really like trying to teach like that.

I think that goes back to refusal as well—there isn’t one way to make different connections, to tell the story, to watch that piece, to understand that piece, and there isn’t one way of me making it. If I were to make it again, there would be a totally different set of references and maybe a different order, or a different mess on the desktop, I guess.

One of the other artworks you reference is a short film called MEDICATED SUMMERS / BENEFITS TRAP / ENDS PORTALS by free.yard aka Adam Farah, which you first played as part of the ICA performance. You describe it as a portal.

There’s a lot of stuff that got evoked by watching free.yard’s piece, which is this really beautiful slow walk down a high street in Wood Green [in North London]. It’s a London that isn’t pretending to be anything; it’s just the London that I’ve grown up around. The experience of watching that was really important. The first time I saw it was at The Experimenta Debate that Rabz Lansiquot curated [as part of the 2019 edition of the London Film Festival, where Jemma used to work]. Rabz had brought together only Black and brown artists, and most of them were from London, so there was this sense of locality. Something switched in my brain at that moment, like, I can be who I am here.

It also features a kind of music that I love. “Stronger” by Sugababes is this really emotional pop song.

And it’s the live, acoustic version of that song, from a performance on [British chart show] Top of the Pops. It’s a more vulnerable version of this very moving song. That free.yard piece makes me cry.

There’s so much emotion in it, and so all of that got connected in my head, like, “I’m feeling so much in this place, at the ICA, in this cinema where I’ve done work for years, and I’ve made myself feel nothing here.” There was this moment where I thought, “Oh my God, I’m remembering who I am and I’m feeling a lot.”

In terms of the portals, going back to the mushroom trip, a lot of that trip was in this room with a window that [looked out onto] a massive tree. That square of green with the tree would change, and I would get pulled into different parts of the trip. There’s also a window in my study in my house which also has a massive tree in its view.

You can see that tree in the background of this video piece.

Exactly. That’s kind of in reference to the portal. That piece was a portal into a different way of being. Being a programmer for all those years didn’t account for me, didn’t account for my body, didn’t account for my lived experience. Watching it was like Oh, this is why you do it. So you can feel this.

What else have you learned in making the piece?

That I can’t force people to hear or understand or to listen. I can’t speed up the change. All I can do is continue to try and understand myself and others more, and potentially create spaces for others to do the same.

There’s one more thing I want to talk about and it’s the title, which quotes “There Are No Honest Poems About Dead Women” by Audre Lorde. You both ask, “What do we want from each other after we have told our stories?” Lorde’s tone is cautionary—she delivers it like a warning. When you titled the piece after that question, did you mean it as an earnest provocation? Or were you asking with a raised eyebrow?

The reason I know about that poem is because I was doing all this research on motherhood and I made a podcast about revolutionary mothering. I read Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich, who was a radical feminist in the ’70s and a contemporary of Audre Lorde, except she was white. She talks about lived experience—what is lived experience if we are not thinking about the wider connotations of lived experience? It’s a bit like what we’ve been talking about: when is it just sharing trauma in public, and when is it something that is important to share? Why am I sharing this in public, and what is required of me now?

Using her voice and not my interpretation of her voice is also a reminder to me that it’s not just about me. The personal is only political if it’s collective, and it’s a collective concern. Otherwise, just keep it to yourself. The real use of this work being out there in public is that it could potentially break a cycle and dismantle something harmful. That’s what you do after you’ve told your story.


Simran Hans is a writer and film critic for The Observer in London.

Stills courtesy of artist Jemma Desai and Lux.

“What’s it matter if the truth is that their favoring breeze has the stink of nickel whiskey on its breath, and their sea is a growler of lager and ale, and their ships are long since looted and scuttled and sunk on the bottom? To hell with the truth! … The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober.”

So sermonizes Larry Slade, the most clear-eyed denizen of Harry Hope’s Saloon in Eugene O’Neill’s besotted stage epic The Iceman Cometh. A fatalistic philosopher with no audience but the self-deluded barflies who call the Greenwich dive their home, Larry deems the place “Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Café … the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no farther they can go.” The dive bar is a stock locale in popular culture, ubiquitous in the pages of Charles Bukowski, the lyrics of Tom Waits, and films like Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge (1996). It turns up in nonfiction film too, on occasion, and always in ways that reveal the porous nature of the form. What we’re shown is never entirely free of artifice, which seems only right for sodden hideaways whose stale air is thick with fabulism, and whose frequenters, as eager to impress as they are to escape reality, “would rather go without food and water than tell you the truth.”

That observation issues from Cowboy, the would-be Gary Cooper clone at the center of Eagle Pennell’s landmark independent feature Last Night at the Alamo (1983). Though it’s scripted by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Kim Henkel and cast with professional actors (“Cowboy” is played by Sonny Carl Davis, whose seven dozen credits include Bernie by Pennell acolyte Richard Linklater), to watch the film is to undergo a sort of hypnosis. The setting (the titular locals’ bar on the eve of its demolition) feels so real, the aesthetic so grab-and-go unvarnished, the line of bull so familiar to the ear of anyone who’s passed blurry hours at watering holes like this one, that learning of the film’s production—it was shot over three and a half weeks in the Old Barn, a real East Houston tavern that required the crew to wrap by 4pm each day so it could open for business—only adds to its authenticity. It never purports to be a documentary, but despite its dramatic architecture, it strives to capture with sincerity what is unique and endemic to these peculiar spaces.

The great appeal of dive bars (as opposed to cocktail bars) is that within their walls patrons can be italicized versions of themselves: more irascible, more sentimental, or simply more. As patrons grow into regulars, familial bonds develop, along with an unspoken compact that every day is a reset with past aberrant behavior disregarded (or literally forgotten). The blatant theatricality engendered by the laxness and comfort of the surroundings may suddenly turn on itself, with gregarious barflies retreating inward as night falls on their day drinking. These moments are difficult to stage in film because they are just moments—unheralded, unpredictable. Yet a passive spectator or fly-on-the-wall filmmaker might likewise miss out, their vow of non-interference costing them precious on-camera discoveries. Thus, effective nonfiction studies of bars must be cocktails of a sort—one part manufactured scenario, two parts observation, shaken and served with a twist.

Pennell, whose own alcoholism cut short a promising career and cost him his life at 49, knew his milieu all too well. The much-admired Cowboy’s fall from grace—a failed seduction leads to a humiliating scuffle in the parking lot, and later rejection by the woman who tends his wounds—feels less like a narrative arc than a nightly ritual. Were there to be a next night at the Alamo, the bald-pated, anachronistic braggart would still be everyone’s hero, because he talks a better show than anyone else, and one day he swears he’ll be in the movies (“the lie of a pipe dream”). Swirling around him are streams of self-pity from his comrades-in-booze, by turns vernacular (“He’s wound up tighter’n a two-dollar wristwatch”) and profane, always circling back to the same anxieties: irrelevance, emasculation, and changing societal norms. Cowboy decries the encroachment of fast-food restaurants and condominiums; the replacement of John Wayne with Robert Redford and John Travolta; and the fact that even if the Alamo bar is saved, it won’t be Walter Cronkite covering the rescue effort on the nightly news but some younger heir. As Pennell understood, the truth on display derives not from whether an oil-rig worker known as Cowboy ever stood in a crumbling pub called the Alamo and held forth on the dire appearance of “Yankee bars” with tacky mechanical bulls, but from the fact that you can walk into any such pub in any part of the country and hear drunken, angst-ridden men projecting their diminished self-worth onto cultural phenomena that they fail to comprehend.

The prototype of this hybrid genre of bar films is likely to be Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 skid row exposé, On the Bowery. Called “[i]n a very real sense the ultimate New York movie” by a Village Voice reappraisal in 2010, Rogosin’s film attempted to wrest the blame for alcoholism away from the moral failings of the individual. As the director claimed, he and his collaborators viewed “the alienation generally at work in American society” as the culprit, blaming a callous capitalist system for perpetuating “loneliness, ignorance, and futility.” Uncredited screenwriter Mark Sufrin told Sight and Sound that the film’s “actors were taken from the street and would speak in their own argot, with guides of what to say only for story purposes. Direction on our part would try to define the action, but not gesture or inflection.”

In viewing On the Bowery—which was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar—over six decades after its release, the guiding hands of Rogosin and Sufrin are visible in how loose interactions are sculpted into a story in which railroad worker and former GI Ray Salyer befriends older ex-newspaperman Gorman Hendricks. Both are alcoholic vagrants, and though Hendricks steals Salyer’s suitcase while the younger man is passed out, he ultimately pays him back, hoping that Salyer will leave the Bowery and begin anew. Despite Sufrin’s claims, some less than naturalistic dialogue (“Probably some of your drinking companions hauled you in there by your pockets”), overly decorous performances (which led to the the craggily handsome Salyer being offered a $40,000 Hollywood contract that he turned down), and Charles Mills’s Chaplinesque score lend the film an unmistakable docufiction vibe common to nominal docs of the period. On the other hand, sequences of indigents asleep in seedy barrooms or crowded into a Bowery mission—forced to listen to a patronizing sermon before they are fed, and told they will have to stay sober and fumigate their clothes if they want a place to sleep—paint a more vivid picture. Many of them choose saloons or makeshift shelters of upturned pushcarts over the constant scrutiny of sanctimonious guardians. Cinematographer Richard Bagley (himself an alcoholic who died five years later at 41) captured these incidents with a 35mm camera hidden in a bundle or in the back seat of a car. Private moments writ large for public empathy.

The aims and techniques that animate Alamo and Bowery are consolidated in this year’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, co-directed by Bill and Turner Ross. Another valedictory to a beloved local hangout—the reassuringly dingy “Roaring 20s” bar in Las Vegas—on the day before its closure, Bloody Nose is something mellower and less despairing than its stark, black-and-white predecessors: an ode to voluntary families, despite the eloquent insistence of Michael, a failed actor and the establishment’s elder statesman, that the people you hang out with in a bar are not your kin. Each new arrival is greeted like Norm on Cheers, with the bartenders (a dry-witted guitar player with a ZZ Top beard in the daytime and a no-nonsense single mom at night) keeping discourtesy at bay and unobtrusively picking up cab fare for sedated regulars. The cinematography by the Ross brothers is warm and glistening, attuned to the browns of wood-paneled walls strewn with holiday lights, giving off an indistinct glow that simulates the effects of a long, woozy day spent in one spot.

The customers’ tearful farewells could only spring, it would seem, from long-standing friendships brought to a hasty, unsought end. But in point of fact the Roaring 20s bar is located in New Orleans, the city where the filmmakers shot their 2012 documentary Tchoupitoulas, and which they now call home. The habitués are all actors—some professional, like Michael Martin (who’s still working, unlike his onscreen counterpart), and others selected by the Ross brothers out of personal acquaintance or instinct. Local news and traffic reports are shoehorned in, while the Vegas exteriors (overlaid by filters turning the air the color of Mountain Dew, inducing an urgent desire to retreat indoors) were shot in some cases a decade earlier. But whatever liberties were taken with the cast, the drinks poured into them and the improvisatory feelings poured out of them are devoid of fabrication.

The gradual erosion of clarity is an essential component of the dive bar experience, too often neglected in fictional accounts. (Ever notice how Norm and Cliff are just as witty at Cheers’s last call as when they ambled in 17 hours prior?) But Bloody Nose is minutely cognizant of this reality: Michael, who is so chipper in the morning, hanging party favors on the walls and waxing theoretical, is by nightfall semi-conscious on a couch, barely able to croak out a warning to a younger patron not to throw away his future to hold court in a bar. His is the poignant, rueful voice of experience. Bill Ross’s editing reinforces the sense that taverns are Bermuda Triangles for time: as the numerals of a digital clock periodically flash onscreen, the three-hour lapses make viewers wonder how long they’ve been sitting there, watching these people banter and drink.

It seems hardly relevant that the figures in the bar have in actuality only known each other a short while; the space is real, the booze is real, the debates spurred by drink (sometimes political, frequently profound) are real, and in the end, the tears are real—particularly those of Bruce, a veteran whom the Rosses found in a bar at 2am and chose for his emotional transparency. At one point, Michael, discussing his stint as an actor, recalls that he used to seek the truth of every scene; upon discovering he could never find it entirely, he shifted his focus to the pursuit of beauty, “what pleases the eye.” This he soon recalibrates to “what pleases the spine, you know what I mean? When something goes up the back of your spine.” Emotional truth, in other words. It’s what the Rosses are after, and what Pennell and Rogosin were after, too. And it gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober.


Steven Mears is the copy editor for Field Notes and for Film Comment magazine, as well as a frequent contributor to Film Comment’s print and web editions, Metrograph’s Journal, and other publications. He received his MA in film from Columbia University, where he wrote a thesis on depictions of old age in American cinema.

Stills courtesy of The Ross Brothers, On The Bowery (1956) and Last Night at the Alamo (1983).

In the little-screened documentary Babilée 91 (1992), about enfant terrible dancer Jean Babilée, the New York–born, France-based director William Klein pulls out all the stops to quickly introduce his audience to a titan of French ballet. By this point in his career, Klein had been an abstract artist, a world-famous fashion photographer for Vogue (considered by some as one of the most influential photographers of all time), as well as an acclaimed fiction and documentary filmmaker with more than a dozen works under his belt. Used to spending years with his subjects, he knew what time does to a body and a body of work. For the documentary Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1974), he filmed the boxer over a decade. He sent up the French fashion industry twice, 20 years apart: once in 1966’s Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? and then again in 1984’s Mode in France.

He begins his late-career film on Babilée with a montage of the dancer’s daring feats of modernist choreography in movies and in front of live audiences, the man seeming to become lightning while thrusting through the black space of the stage. But the most electric moment in this documentary occurs offstage, in a few quiet minutes of domestic repose, as Babilée prepares for his next performance. Captured intimately by Klein’s wide-angle lenses (the filmmaker’s signature device from his days as a fashion photographer), Babilée and his wife, Zapo, talk, smoke, and make dinner in their cramped Paris apartment, living like students. They watch TV together on their bed and eat in a tiny kitchen. Babilée does pull-ups on whatever surfaces the apartment provides, while Klein zooms in on his aged flesh and tensing muscles.

In a body of work replete with firebrands performing the art of activism for rapt crowds, athletes packing each punch with the full weight of their political lives, and people fighting like (and indeed because) their lives depended on it, Klein’s true gift was for finding people at their quietest and most human. Whether by being in the right place at the right time or not giving up on filming until he’d found what he wanted, Klein shot heroes and turned them into people like us—without ever forgetting that the average person couldn’t really relate to superstars like Ali, or John McEnroe, who appears in Klein’s 1982 documentary, The French.

Born in New York City in 1928, Klein joined the U.S. Army in the ’40s, and after being stationed in France, decided to stay there. He would revisit the States frequently for work (as when he made his debut short film, 1958’s Broadway by Light, a proto–pop art collage dispassionately displaying neon marquees and advertisements in Manhattan), but France would remain his home. In an interview with The Guardian in 2012 he complained of the U.S. that “the place is so reactionary it just makes me angry. If I lived there, you wouldn't be interviewing me, I'd be dead from a heart attack by now." There’s plenty in his 1968 dark comedy Mr. Freedom about his negative feelings towards his homeland: the film shows a murderous blowhard American superhero in France who thinks nothing of destroying the entire country for revenge. The only thing Mr. Freedom can relate to in France is the country’s parallel desire to remain an imperial power.

Klein was famous for keeping an ironic remove from his subjects as a photographer. In a 1997 interview, he said, “When I go back and look at my old photographs, I see that black humor was very strong. I've always seen things from a certain distance...” And yet Klein managed to get close to the often guarded subjects of his documentaries. Ali famously played the press like a fiddle, but he seemed to let his guard down in Muhammad Ali: The Greatest—probably because Klein wasn’t interested in the machinery of stardom. He wanted to capture the man without his gloves on; there’s almost no real boxing in the two-hour movie. He just filmed Ali just being himself for years, which must have convinced the boxer that Klein was serious about his humanity, and not just interested in his prowess as an athlete or his magnetism as a polemical figure. Speaking to Forbes Magazine in 2012, Klein said he was hooked when the boxer said of beating Sonny Liston in the boxing world championships, “It feels so good to be able to be bad. Tonight, I was bad.” Ali loses a big match halfway through Klein’s film, which gives its final hour a great hook: can he recover? Klein’s camera, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care if he wins or loses. It wants to know what the pressures of the upcoming fight are doing to Ali and his entourage. Klein chases a similar intimacy in Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970), where he got the party leader to open up to him at a time of justifiable paranoia, when Black radicals were under attack from both the American government and the white press. And whether his subjects knew it or not while being filmed, Klein never trimmed or cut short their words; he let everyone have their say. After all, the rambling statements were all part of a performance of the self, and that was Klein’s career-long subject: who we are in front of other people and cameras, and who we are away from it all. He follows backroom meetings in May Days (1978), his portrait of the May ’68 civil unrest in France, and backstage conversations in his films on Ali and Cleaver, trying to unveil the people about whom the whole world had its own ideas.

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest—which had a moment this year thanks to the New York Film Festival’s premiere of a gleaming new restoration—is perhaps the most important film in Klein’s catalog, charting his awakening as a film artist in tandem with Ali’s own spiritual rebirth between 1964 and 1974. It starts with an impressionistic flurry of images and sounds, and indeed the whole first half is an impressive display of Klein’s acuity as a stylist. Rock music plays as Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay, fights his challenger with a million-dollar smile. Klein and his editors, Francine Grubert and Eva Zora, turn Ali’s bout into little bursts of light and sound, as if the movie itself were recoiling from blows to the face. Then the music starts to warp and skip, and just like that, the fight is over. Klein is in the parking lot interviewing the white owners of the Brown-Forman Distilling Company, which sponsored Ali early on, and comprised the “11 Men Behind Cassius Clay,” per a 1963 Sports Illustrated feature on the boxer’s rise to stardom. Klein’s camera woozily considers their faces, distorted again by his wide-angle lens, and looking like grotesques right out of a Fellini film. Klein frames Ali as a live wire surrounded by concerned hands trying to ground him. We see both the white men who claim responsibility for his rise to stardom and the Black men and women who look at him adoringly from the crowd. Ali belonged to everyone, but his biggest fight was to only belong to himself. As the film progresses, Klein stops deploying the editing tricks and starts trying to hone in on Ali’s private behavior. Klein saw someone smarter than everyone around him, itching to prove it, and looking for a world that deserved a man like him.

Klein was nobody else’s idea of a filmmaker, which is why his body of work remains so tantalizingly underseen and undigested. His fiction films, with their bitter mockery of politics and pop culture, are better-known: Mr. Freedom is something of a cult film. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? lampoons the world of fashion photography through the story of an American model in Paris who’s hounded by the press and courted by a prince; 1977’s The Model Couple, about a pair of lovers who agree to be filmed night and day by the government, takes apart the idea of showing yourself off for a living. Those films alone guarantee him a spot in the pantheon of iconoclasts, combining as they do Godardian insouciance and Joe Dante–style pop nihilism.

But Klein’s documentaries remain fairly obscure. They’re hard to categorize and haphazardly screened; some films are out of print, while others were never released. They’re also starkly different from his narrative works: How could the same man be so vehement and vicious in his fiction, and so nonjudgmental and patient in his nonfiction? You watch films named for some of the most famous men of the 20th century and discover that those works aren’t about them at all. They’re about the heroes created by movements, and the movements created by people. At the end of Mode in France, a hybrid nonfiction survey of the fashions of the day through the work of famous French designers, Klein explores the voyeuristic and deeply commercial relationship between celebrity and its consumers with a funny segment in which people throw change into coin-operated televisions that play videos of models talking about their lives. It’s as if they’re trapped inside little boxes, waiting in the dark for an audience.

A brief survey of Klein’s subjects reveals a sort of omnivorousness that repels an easy thematic bead. On the one hand: Ali, Cleaver, anti-colonial struggles in Africa (The Pan-African Festival of Algiers, 1969), May ’68. On the other: Babilée, the 1981 French Open, Parisian high fashion, Little Richard (The Little Richard Story, 1980). But what unites them is Klein’s approach. Like an epidemiologist with a centrifuge, he watches masses of people and waits to see who separates themselves from the rest. In The French, he observes days of matches to see who will emerge victorious, but also who can hold the attention of the camera and the audience. In May Days, he captures perhaps better than any French filmmaker the spirit of that turbulent time and place by flitting from one tense and voluminous meeting of radicals to another, and juxtaposing their debates with footage of the childcare efforts happening in the next room. Klein never picks a hero; instead, in the streets and in backrooms, the throng demands to have its say.

May Days finds its counterpoint in Klein’s best work of nonfiction (and his last film to date), the Ken Russell–esque Messiah (1999), which may be even more despairing than Mr. Freedom. The film captures the various manifestations of religion in America through images of mass baptisms, Christian pro-gun paraphernalia, and T-shirts sporting cheesy religious slogans, all set to Handel’s eponymous composition. Just a few seconds of the homeless going through the trash and a quick drive-by of what was then the Trump Taj Mahal would have made his point, but he maintains a furious hull speed for two hours, piling images of Christians and the people who might benefit from Christian charity on top of each other, underlining that they’re never in the same room. In May Days the fight is over before it starts, by virtue of the film being released 10 years after the events it captures. In Messiah, it’s over because by now there’s too much to fix (gun violence, homelessness, hunger), and too little impetus to fix it.

Klein was always aware that his movies had to be about the hungry public as much as their idols, because a couple of losses too many and those legends become part of the masses once again. In The French, Klein spends several days on the court, getting to know individual players and their styles but not favoring anyone in particular—despite having access to superstars like McEnroe and Björn Borg. What interests him more is how everyone plays and everyone loses. Klein cuts together their defeats back-to-back in a 130-minute marathon. Players lose the most important competitions of their lives every couple of minutes—the repetitive nature of it reveals the highs and lows with which they live. Yes, it’s crushing and agonizing. But this is just life. Ultimately the lynchpin of the whole movie is a scene in which champions Jimmy Connors and Ilie Năstase square off at a charity match, stealing each other’s soft drinks and play-fighting like Laurel and Hardy for an adoring crowd. The Open is just one more rodeo, and the players there are only too happy to be clowns. Like Ali, they can get a laugh out of a crowd as easily as they can stun it speechless with their sporting prowess.

“Don’t tell me I ain’t a perfect specimen of a man!” Ali yells in Muhammad Ali: The Greatest at the journalists assembled to watch him train. He needed to be loved to truly win—to be able to lose to George Foreman and still be “the greatest.” Klein made movies about people who seemed like superheroes, lassoing the times and riding them, but he found their beating hearts. Anyone could have shot Jean Babilée defying gravity onstage. William Klein filmed him eating breakfast.


Scout Tafoya is a writer, filmmaker, and video essayist, creator of RogerEbert.com’s long-running series The Unloved. His movies include Beata Virgo Viscera, Eyam, and House of Little Deaths, and his book on the films of director Tobe Hooper is due to be released by Miniver Press in 2021.

Stills courtesy of the Criterion Collection, William Klein's Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1969), The Model Couple (1977) and Babilee 91 (1992).


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