A duo of Poetic Portraits

Double Feature: 'Black Mother' and 'Closer to God'

By Young Film Critic Innas Tsuroiya

From this side of the world, an old man psalms in glee, while from the other side another man traces a countrywide desert on foot and meets a religious musician. At heart, two documentaries from otherwise different programmes — Black Mother from Bright Future Main Programme and Closer to God from Scopitone — screened at IFFR 2019 present a poetic portrait alike: an account of spirituality with regard to the country’s nuanced history and current-day living.

Shot in Jamaica and Pakistan, respectively, Black Mother and Closer to God examine their subject through distinct manners. The former employs various styles of camerawork to, among other purposes, showcase the range of director Khalik Allah as a photographer, as told in an interview, and to build its arc alongside minimal sound or unseen people's recitation. The latter film, directed by Annette Berger and Grete Jentzen, positions music as a foreground in storytelling, especially in relations to a community guarding traditional music. Both aforementioned manners are a vessel to chronicle even the subtlest of ways spirituality gets practiced like a living law among society.

As betokened by the title, Black Mother sets forth its narrative on Jamaican culture and people using the imagery of black mother; pregnancy that spans in three trimesters corresponding to the various ideas Allah wants to convey. The first trimester recounts the nation’s past grapple with colonialism, hinting at how as plantation workers work to liberate themselves from enslavement, they also free themselves from white missionaries, thus arrives a conversation on Revivalism and Rastafarianism onscreen.

However, Black Mother’s stronger and more spiritual signature in showing Jamaica’s spirituality lies not on explicit talk about religions, but on perceptive visual courtesy.

Shots of colorful fruit stalls go side by side with a voice describing nature's generosity in giving abundant food. One describes the kind of good energy fruits and vegetables give to people so they can 'reach the higher dimension". Higher dimension, as the graceful body of water — riverbed, rainfall, ocean — and flora is used as an allegory for a continuous flow of blessing, as people sing in the background being grateful. "Thank Jesus, without Christ we're nothing. Black Jesus!" a woman screeches halfway through the first trimester. Black mother reaches the second trimester, coconuts next to her.

The second trimester dives deeper into womanhood and labor, insinuating that even in the harshest line of work, faith has never left one’s being. When asked who protects her if she gets harmed, by disease or awful authority body, a sex worker believes God will. In other image-sound juxtapositions, young girls meditate on hair bleach, breasts, dark skin, and going to school; one man says we have to treat women respectfully, "no abuse" like the way we preserve the earth. Furthermore, during the third trimester that touches natality and mortality, motherhood and beingness are interlaced in a hard-nosed fashion. If I were to structure a syllabus for ecofeminism, I would require watching this piece of work for the assignment.

If Black Mother is maternal and implicit, inducing intimate values held dear from various conversations with random people, Closer to God takes the opposite approach. Candid and reflective of its title, Annette Berger and Grete Jentzen extrapolate the practice of Islam and Sufism in Karachi and other Pakistani regions through the story of mystic guru Gogha Sain and music guru Ustad Naseeruddin Saami. These men devote their life for public service by ways Islam has been spread around the world for centuries: travel (pilgrimage) and art.

For years, Gogha Sain walks with a stack of metal rings that weigh several kilograms on both feet to visit holy sites and shrines all over the country. He recalls a childhood anecdote that his parents prayed to God for his being born, thus when he already is, he should be sacrificed for worshipping Him (interestingly, Black Mother also has a similar bit about "baby offering"). Meanwhile, Ustad Saami teaches religious music as a sacred tradition, a method of reverence, to young people. He believes artistic endeavor and spiritual pursuit are not to be separated; he is convinced that someone who doesn’t understand the Quran will be interested in it if recited melodiously.

  • Closer to God film still.

  • Closer to God film still.

Regardless of how communal it sounds to broadcast a belief system and transfer knowledge, Sain’s and Saami’s practice has rarely been made public. There is tension among different mazhab (Islamic school of thought) reflected in Sain’s story. As a Shiite, Wahhabi people look at him like he is under influence, an infidel unworthy of trust. Concerning Saami’s work: in a country where gathering mass for concert is prohibited, music is mostly felt through everyday humming and religious chants. Closer to God makes a case for sensory choice: who listens to what, who/what gets to be heard. In hindsight the words Closer to God can mean in order to encounter, you have to diminish your distance. Outrage and censorship, for instance.

  • Scopitone Café

  • Scopitone Café

  • Khalik Allah 

If spirituality is primarily understood as an archaic concept, then what both documentaries do is propose a portrait of timelessness. The anachronistic tendency — in Black Mother, people eat homegrown harvest instead of meals with manufactured chemical compound because pharmacy product is "messing with the brain"; in Closer to God, Ustad Saami believes "that perhaps the music of today causes high blood pressure" and Gogha Sain is shoeless his whole life — depicted here then serves as a thesis on how spirituality operates on its own logic. Even when place-related matter factors in, such as colonialism and (im)migration, time still solidifies its practice. Perhaps that is why it keeps getting passed on as a legacy for generations.

Perhaps also what both documentaries do is underlining the figment that spirituality, too, is about paying attention: looking and listening thoughtfully. Be it an event of childbirth followed by baptism, be it a group of men in black dancing on the street commemorating the death of Muhammad’s grandson. Allah, Berger, and Jentzen understand that a great deal.

Photo in header: Khalik Allah at IFFR 2019