Monday, 24 April 2017

A Moving Image review

Jeez, it's been a while, hasn't it? What with exam deadlines looming, the last month has been almost a complete dead zone on the site. It'll all be over come May 8th - but until then, here's just a little something to tide you over: a review of Shola Amoo's A Moving Image. Hit the jump for the lowdown...

A Moving Image is, it's got to be said, a cut above millennial hypocrisy; steadfastly refusing to fall into the traps that it sets for itself. Yet, unfortunately, the final product ends up being rather like the cinematic equivalent of a cloud of smoke - neither here nor there.

Political issues aside, there are indeed many holes that Amoo sets himself up to walk into from the get go. On A Moving Image's website, the film is described as 'incorporating fiction, documentary and performance art'. I'm not one to be particularly harsh on conceptual promises (except for Split); but this essentially boils down to a pretty familiar fictional narrative, that at one point blends in footage of 'reclaim' protests a few years back; and at others has its acting leads engage in meaningless 'performance' which is as pretentious as it is vacuous. In multiple street performance scenes, this also gives the impression that what you're witnessing is a genuinely excellent piece of culture; only to find when the credits roll that it was just another artifice - portrayed by an actor. Nevertheless, these aspects are thankfully sidelined to allow the actual plot room to breathe.

Our story concerns protagonist Nina (Tanya Fear), a middle-class artiste, with a Brixton heritage, returning to her neighborhood many years after she left to inhabit a re-purposed industrial space - and make a film about gentrification. However, as a product of the phenomenon herself; she begins to both question and be questioned about her role in the very process that she's aiming to stop. Along the way, she's helped by her childhood friend (played by Hussina Raja), and Aki Omoshaybi (The Riot Club) - an artist who she meets upon exploring the area. There are, of course, a cast of supporting characters - of which Yinka Oyewole's portrayal of a locally famed activist demands special attention.

Despite it's multiple flaws, Amoo plays this plot straight down the line to its direct advantage. He acknowledges the hypocrisy in Nina's ambitions, and indeed in many of the people helping her - even though ultimately he seems to ignore the fact that A Moving Image eventually becomes the sort of 'saviour' movie that La La Land was ultimately questioned for being. Indeed, in the end, from it's fetishistic shots of the abandoned and re-purposed, to the erratic styling of the production, one has to consider that this film - an 'arty', 'indie' film, with the intention of festival screenings and hipster ticket revenue is, in a way, the very thing it appears to be refuting. A very middle class and 'trendy' media project that claims to be tackling the issues of gentrification. How very meta - or perhaps just naieve? 

In any case, the demonstration of some self-awareness in the hypocrisy of the characters does lead to a far more grounded exploration of the situation than what it otherwise could have been. In fact, at points, the plot does become emotionally affecting and engaging - and certainly is never boring. 

Whilst the film is shot with an expert eye, the endeavour lacks a stylistic verve to cling onto - electing instead to swerve with its motifs all over the canvas in a way that feels accidentally and detrimentally amateur. For the bulk of the production, social-realist technique is employed - handheld cameras, diegetic sound and the like; so when Amoo switches to slow-motion, montage, and at one point even magical realism it feels too forced: too 'art student'. I get the feeling A Moving Image has aspirations of inspiration - but every time it pushes into harder hitting territory, it withdraws it all with a glossed-over Hollywood sequence that pushes the 4th wall into plain view. It's a shame because, at heart, with it's rainbow of colours, Amoo has created a truly beautiful tapestry of Brixton on which to impose his characters.

In terms of casting, Amoo has made some interesting and talented choices as well, but also some (perhaps intriguing) mistakes. Tanya Fear is an excellent lead - intelligent, fearsome, and filled with passion and will; a truly commanding screen presence. Similarly, she has great chemistry with sideline characters played by Aki Omoshaybi, Alex Austin, and Yinka Oyewole. Right off the bat, however,  Hussina Raja feels a little forced and wooden - as if reading lines off a teleprompter (although this only appears to be a problem in the first 15 or so minutes). And, despite an excellent performance, the casting of Austin is a peculiarly off-role move. In the movie, he plays an actor who moves to Brixton - but it's unclear whether, in fact, he is a minor celebrity or whether this is a joke between the characters. His working class origins and participation in low-fi films would go to suggest the latter; but then, if so, why is he being constantly harassed about his part in the process of gentrification? I thought the idea was that middle-class, socialite types were the ones diluting the culture - not the people who grew up with it?

Politically, not wishing to get into a fuller discussion of the pros and cons of the gentrification scenario, it suffices to note that A Moving Image is not bringing anything new, particularly compelling, or inspiring to the table in terms of argument -whether or not it had aspirations to do this in the first place remains to be ascertained. Amoo starts from a basis that 'gentrification is bad' a-priori, then continues down this one-track path - which is never a sign of a film that wants to explore tough themes. Minor problems such as, you know, the elimination of crime, economic prosperity, the willful cooperation in the 'destruction' of residents are ignored in favor of a 'we need to stop this' storyline.

There are hard issues to tackle: it's impossible to stop gentrification without being hypocritical and kicking people our of their homes/making it undesirable to live there; and the fact that a location like Brixton is prime real estate mostly because of its central location - rather than it's vibrant culture persay; but none of these questions are even attempted to be discussed here. In fact, at multiple points in the movie, it's suggested that gentrification is a racist act - calculated to expel minorities from their communities. One would believe that any sane person would see this as ridiculous. Yet I've got to give Amoo credit. Perhaps there never was an intention to host any sort of a debate as such, it's just that the marketing of A Moving Image -  and subsequent press coverage - has made this seem like 'the truth'.

In conclusion, A Moving Image is far from a bad film. In fact, it's actually a rather good film. It's just that Amoo has embarked upon a lofty endeavor one wonders if he ever knew how to complete. No wonder, as well, because this film would have been a task and a half for even the most masterful of directors. Indeed, I look forward to seeing what he can come up with next - clearly having a good eye for both visuals and concepts. A fantastically acted and wonderfully grounded story is in here somewhere - but at the edges it's swamped with pseudo-intellectual bullshit and an absence of smart discussion that just threatens to tear the whole piece apart. It's consistently, although at times confusingly, beautiful to look at - and in the large majority, it's a fantastically acted drama. But it suffers from a chronic lack of definition. It's all up in the air - a cloud of smoke: you can inhale it, but you can't feel it.
A Moving Image get's 3 stars!

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