Review: The Giverny Document (Single Channel)
Directed, edited, and animated by Ja’Tovia Gary. U.S./France, 2019, 42 min.
Seen at the Camden International Film Festival. Playing other festivals currently ahead of gallery exhibition and further distribution. For information on upcoming screenings, see jatovia.com.
Earlier this year Ja’Tovia Gary presented two of her short films, An Ecstatic Experience (2015) and Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (2017), at the Harvard Film Archive. Writing about them both in April, I described the structure of Giverny I; and that’s a pretext worth repeating here, I think, given that Gary’s newest film, The Giverny Document (Single Channel), contains the prior short in something resembling its entirety—albeit not continuously.
“Five distinct sources of imagery comprise Giverny I: First there are meticulously composed landscape shots of the historic Giverny gardens, usually with Gary either posed in the center of the frame or barely visible somewhere in the background; second, there are animated images made using flowers, leaves, and other plants from that location, which flicker in and out momentarily, or are sometimes superimposed over the other moving frames; third, there is archival footage from a film of Claude Monet painting in that same garden circa 1915; fourth, there is a clip of a Fred Hampton speech, which I believe is sourced from The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971); and lastly, there are excerpts of the video shot by Diamond Reynolds immediately after her boyfriend Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota on July 6, 2016. The audio track on the film includes a Norvis Jr. piece that remixes a Louis Armstrong recording from 1950 (“La vie en rose”)… these various sources are introduced in a relatively delineated manner, but then cinematic rhythm brings them into (and out of, and into…) a sort of chaotic alignment.”
For the Document there are many new strands added to those already present in Giverny I, including, for example, two exhilarating, semi-animated movements at the opening and closing sections, a number of new music cues, and footage depicting Obama-era drone strikes. But perhaps most notable among the many new inclusions are two other distinct passages both parceled out from start to finish of The Giverny Document; one pulled from a pre-existing source, and the other newly shot for this project. In the new footage, Gary, wearing a wig and affecting a much different persona than she does in the garden segments, is on a street in Harlem interviewing passerby. And meanwhile, often bisecting those scenes on the street, there is footage from Nina Simone — Live in Montreux 1976 (1976), a transcendent document itself, including Simone’s masterful, inventive, provocative, and just fucking radical performance of “Feelings”.
The individuals who Gary interviews in Harlem are mostly if not all black women, specifying the focus of her study. Further specifying things is her line of questioning, which remains constant throughout—she asks each person, “do you feel safe?”—as well as her own explanation of The Giverny Document’s purpose—spoken aloud when she’s asking one participant to sign a release, and tells them “this is about autonomy, [and] agency”. Part of the film’s astonishing power is just how freely, and yet purposefully, it finds new ideas and reflections of that exact subject within its dense and unusually multifaceted array of formal citations and juxtapositions. Take, for instance, the brief inclusion on the soundtrack of an excerpt from singer Shirley Ann Lee’s recording of “How Can I Lose”, originally included on the album “Songs of Light” released in 2012 by specialty distributor Numerophon. “It wasn’t until [Shirley Ann Lee’s] return to Toledo after a disastrous marriage in Los Angeles that, for the first time in almost two decades of public performances, she found the urge to praise God with her own words,” according to Numerophon’s album notes for “Songs of Life”, which goes on to reveal an even deeper line between this seemingly obscure needle-drop and the larger interest that Gary’s film takes in the links between the safety of black women in western nations and the art which they create to represent or express themselves—and then, the extent to which that art, by the fact of its very being, is often faced with threats against its existence; threats which are in some cases, including this one, quite literal.
“As the Revival label’s lone ‘star’, Shirley Ann Lee was afforded dozens of opportunities to record her songs, but only six sides managed to trickle out on 45 between 1967 and 1969. Using Revival’s aborted Shirley Ann Lee Radio Hour program as our guide, we’ve taken the best of her proper studio recordings, in-the-moment sketches, out-of-tune piano demos, and rehearsals with young kids talking in the background and created the Shirley Ann Lee album that never was.”
This reference to gospel music and, with it, the church, reflects certain recurring answers seen in those “woman on the street” segments, which on that note require some consideration of their own. Lasting for minutes at a time, but edited down to give us brief segments with numerous different interviewees one by one or group by group, these passages see Gary speaking with black women representing a wide array of demographics, both in terms of their age and their relation to Harlem (the latter is a question which comes up in nearly every conversation, given that it’s essential context for however they might have answered the preceding one, “do you feel safe?”). One of the more common answers, heard among young and older respondents alike, is that whatever safety they do feel is of a spiritual nature, or even more simply, just “thanks to God”. On that point, one comment heard in an excerpt of The Giverny Document that Gary posted on Vimeo a few months ago connects both themes in just a few seconds, and so I’ll quote it directly: “[What makes me feel safe] is the Lord, Jesus Christ, yes,” the person says, before quickly adding “and also being very familiar with my neighborhood”. By activating a traditionally artless format (the TV news-style on-the-street interview) and then positioning that against such a carefully modulated selection of juxtapositions, The Giverny Document suggests vital sociological information within a personalized cinematic perspective; in this single instance, for example, drawing an insightful line between one’s relationship to the church and the larger connection it has with the life they’re living in the region they’ve settled.
Even when removed from the various other passages surrounding them within the film’s structure, the Gary-on-the-street segments are rich with regional specificity, legitimately memorable human moments, and carefully presented signifiers. Right away you notice that the frame has been sculpted to suggest the texture of photochemical film—we see overhang from the “next frames” at the very top and bottom of the composition, and a “border” surrounding the image which suggests a perforated strip of film—which seems to age the footage even as we remain expressly aware that it has been produced in something close to the present tense. Additionally, these scenes are often shot from relatively far off, sometimes even from the other side of the street, thus capturing foot traffic and other passerby quite clearly—which of course only adds to their general texture. Action, noise, and information is everywhere in the frame: The exact physical location, for example, is contained within on multiple occasions, for instance when we see the signage for 116th Street Station, which places the interviews at the intersection of 116th and Malcolm X Boulevard (“One thing James Baldwin said about Malcolm X is that he corroborates our reality,” Gary said during an interview with Hyperallergic published earlier this year. “I want to corroborate Black women’s reality. Some of us feel safe and some of us do not, but within that spectrum, there’s grief, there’s relief, there’s whimsy. There are feelings of anxiety and apprehension, but also faith and trust.”)
Sometimes during these segments, the camera-eye breaks the spell of its own false objectivity, zooming in on a key gesture, like a woman depositing her fingers into the safety of her own pocket. And throughout it all, the sounds of the street obviously intrude on the process, emerging from both the road and the sidewalks—at one point Gary even admonishes some camera-mugging youths, saying “Your elder is here, what is wrong with you?!” with a notably southern inflection (establishing the fact that while this film is situated on just a single block, the makeup of its cast has origins far and wide). Sometimes the process leads to an image so telling or indicative as to encapsulate the entire project in a matter of seconds: At one point, you hear police sirens wailing by offscreen while a very young girl speaks to Gary about the disdain she feels about getting up for school. It’s a momentary instance where everything in the film seems to coalesce—the behavior of the participants, the sights and sounds of the setting, and the relation of this single image to the stated themes of the larger project and film—as if perfectly staged to confirm the validity of its most troubling suggestions and implications.
Speaking after the screening of the film at the Camden International Film Festival, Gary cited Chronicle of a Summer (1961) as a key influence on these segments, and I was also reminded of Inquiring Nuns (1968), just preserved in 2018, which sees two young Sisters asking various people in Chicago, “Are you happy?” Those reference points, along with the antiquated photographic texture of the “street scenes”, are just two details among many in The Giverny Document which suggest legacies of the past, specifically the 20th century, which remain here with us in the present (others examples would include the Montreaux footage, the Hampton speech, and the invocations of Monet), even as the film takes an immediate and direct interest in life as it is experienced during the 21st (represented not only by the responses in Harlem, but also by the Reynolds video and the drone strike footage, among other inclusions).
“This layering of the old and the new… gives the image an immense depth”, I wrote in April, and I’ll repeat myself, once again, only because I hold that the following all remains true, and even more emphatically so, of The Giverny Document:
“Incorporating standards of collage art, flicker movies, structural cinema, animation, glitch art, and various other experimental traditions, Gary once again sculpts a shape for her film that seems open at all ends, producing innumerable associations within the disparate materials at play, up to and including the material of film itself… [drawing] connections between politically urgent aspects of contemporary life that are all too often considered entirely separately—and raising similarly urgent questions, about the relation of state violence to the state of the arts, or about the relation between images that are made for the sake of art and images that are made for the sake of survival, to name but two examples among many.”
By opening up the parameters even further, expanding the reference points, and inviting the collaboration of so many passerby slash participants on 116th Street, The Giverny Document (Single Channel) develops this complex rhythm even further, adding new modes and methods of filmmaking into the mix until it reaches an unprecedented synthesis. Even just by its expertly crafted movements between image formats, color palettes, and soundscapes, the film is a heady and vitalizing experience. Defiantly abstract yet perpetually guided by purposes direct and concrete, Gary’s film routes new pathways with nearly every image and edit.