Wednesday 24 February 2021

Jesus walks: "IWOW: I Walk on Water"

Well, this seems ominous. Lauded for his contribution to Beyoncé's Lemonade project and 2018's Black Mother, Khalik Allah has now compiled a three-hour, 20-minute non-fiction film in which - to quote the IMDb synopsis - "inspired by psychedelic mushrooms, [he] sees himself as a reincarnation of Jesus, with his mission of charity among Harlem's poor". (My first response was to recall the old Lee and Herring running gag: "It's not for me to say whether I'm like Jesus. But...") I'm still advising nothing but caution here, but there's an extent to which IWOW: I Walk on Water could be approached as a film-diary in the tradition of the late, great Jonas Mekas. It's composed of arbitrary shots Allah snatched on his travels; these have been layered up with snippets of conversation the director had with his collaborators, loved ones, and those he encountered on the street, some of whom - addicts, beggars, itinerants - are in a state of physical disrepair rarely put on screen. (Another way of approaching I Walk on Water: as a riposte to the moneyed whiteness of the New York Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz hymned in Pretend It's A City.) Allah never goes full Redeemer and dons the flowing robes, but the tone of early interactions is unmistakably religiose; you can see why he was sought out by the openly Christian Beyoncé. After prayers to initiate the new production, the film starts to assert some equivalence between the street people Allah's camera alights on and those upon which Christ is reported to have gazed so benevolently. A deft study of a dragonfly at play in the fields of the Lord, tucked into the opening minutes, underlines this filmmaker's capacity for harvesting sheeny beauty from the world around him; once he comes inland, the task he assumes is to find a similar grace amid the bustle-and-sirens of the Harlem everyday.

Does he succeed? Only sporadically, and - if I'm being completely honest - even that success rate nosedives rapidly as the film meanders onwards. This is a work of two halves (it had its genesis in Allah's 2017 project Souls Against the Concrete), and the effort to stitch it into a coherent whole comprehensively fails: it is, in the end, the kind of mess only a creative who's received the personal benediction of Beyoncé gets to release. Yet the first half works in flickers and flashes, and some of those flickers and flashes retain a potency beyond the reach of more consistent endeavours. These highlights come about as a result of Allah's patient, empathetic street-corner portraiture, for the most part pulled off - near-miraculously - in phosphorescent shopfront light. Allah approaches his subjects on the level, doesn't deign to subtitle or otherwise speak for them (which shores up the project's authenticity, even as it leads to occasional issues of clarity), and looks forgivingly upon their variably weathered, wayward humanity. Perhaps most surprisingly of all - given the current social climate in America - Allah extends the fondness of his gaze to the police officers of Harlem, and they appear more than happy to appear on camera: he makes them look good, too. On the soundtrack, we hear the filmmaker making a distinction between the uniform and the men and women wearing it; be you junkie, cop or hipster, the rationale seems to be, we're all the same underneath. Is that Christ-like? It's not for me to say. 

That's the rational, outward-looking half of the film, and - like I say - it's not without interest. If the other half (there's a clear formal break around the midpoint) constitutes any kind of artistic statement whatsoever, it boils down to this: fuck it. Suddenly, we find Allah in his parents' home, announcing his plan to complete the film while taking shrooms, and waving off his mother's cautions with a very unironic-sounding "I'm a genius!" For an hour thereafter, I Walk on Water becomes every bit as tedious as any film made under the influence of the wrong kind of drugs. The question posed by this stretch - and it is a stretch, easily the dullest spell of cinema I've had to sit through for several years - is this: did Allah really lose it mid-production, either through the proximity of narcotics or a misplaced sense of his own greatness, or is the second half a sorry kind of put-on? Either way, it has a familiar air: Khalid doing a Kanye. Initially, the rupture intrigues, because it shifts I Walk on Water out of the poetic-observational mode into which it had seemed to settle. The trouble is that it shifts the film closer to the gross indulgence that IMDb synopsis suggested. Streetlife gives way to a portrait of Allah's lovelife: Camilla, the Italian waif with whom we hear the director sharing pillow talk early on, recedes from view, then returns to occupy the space previously occupied by less privileged Black subjects. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is just becoming unbearable, clogged with the director's nocturnal teeth-grinding. The engaged, alert Allah of Souls Against the Concrete - someone you might actually want as your own personal Jesus - vanishes, replaced by a mopey, self-absorbed dullard, surrounded by awful, awful sycophants. He's passed beyond street people and into the realm of the true untouchables - those prematurely idolised imagemakers (note how often Allah rolls out the poster for Black Mother here) whom nobody is going to redirect when their project strays this badly from the path. Cults have gathered around lesser talents, but I struggled to believe after a while, let's put it like that.

IWOW: I Walk on Water will be available to stream from Friday via selected independent cinemas, Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and Dogwoof on Demand.

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