Matt Cummins is an ex-academic, and some time director, actor, writer and inveterate critic. I’ve got opinions on most things, and I’m rarely scared to voice them. I’m quite cuddly really, but you probably wouldn’t want to eat a whole one. I’m pretty sure the world is going to hell in a hand cart, so we might as well try to make good theatre while we’re here. Or anything really. But maybe not ballet. We could probably function ok without ballet.
On Saturday 22nd November, Live Theatre hosted an event as part of the tour of “Architects of Our Republic” a series of events in theatres and libraries around the country to “mark [the] iconic moment in history” of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. The first part of this event, billed by Live Theatre as “a collision of words, music and film”, was the screening of five films “showcasing the works of talented individuals”. The films (all no more that 6 or 7 minutes long) were very different, reflecting the variety inherent in contemporary poetry, and thereby offering an interesting spectrum for the audience. The celebration they offered was a measured, and sometimes dark one – no misty-eyed romanticism here. Instead they reflected our collective and growing sense of unease, as the world seems to move further and further away from the optimism of “one of the greatest moments in modern history”, and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson brings into sharp focus concerns about the racial discrimination inherent in the US judicial system.
AJ McKenna’s “Letter to a Minnesota Prison” was indeed a “collision of words, music and film” as the story of the brutal social injustice that has been meted out to African American trans woman and LGBTQ activist, CeCe McDonald. It begins with the words of Dr. King and recounts the shocking details of CeCe’s case. The “letter” played out over images of a violent attack and the continued veneration and literal “whitening” of the American flag, forcing us to ask what Dr. King would make of us today. But it did so at an hypnotic, slow motion pace and in addition to the violent images there were images of sparklers and the film’s “victim” dancing in an act of apparent “calm and reasoned defiance”, and the voiceover, delivered by the poet herself, telling of her horror at this unspeakable act (but also celebrating the strength and courage of McDonald), was delivered in a delicate and almost tender way. It collided with its parts and forced you to take them apart, making the message more effective, and it did so very beautifully. As a piece of political film it was very strong and I found the experience to be very moving.
Conrad Kira’s “Gotta Live” was cleverly made and sharp, addressing the general concern we feel about becoming little more than cogs in a vast corporate machine, and the more specific one of the way this machine deals with the BME community. In an odd way it also seemed an almost “retro” piece, which may have been an attempt to add extra bite to the message – nothing’s really changed and in fact it’s getting worse. This was probably technically one of the cleverest of the films, simply because of the editing required. It was essentially a pop video of a rap artist, but with that slight freedom of rhythm and rhyme that one gets by calling oneself a poet. I did feel that perhaps this made one watch it, rather than listen to it but the result was nevertheless well executed and well received. The strongest part for me was the end, which shifted it slightly out of music video territory, momentarily into something else, as we’re left, staring into Conrad’s eyes. Clever.
The next piece, Vanessa Kisuule’s “Inkprint” was very different. It had the strongest poetic text in the purest sense of that word, and is the only one I would call a true “filmpoem” in the sense that the film itself, its frame content and rhythm and so forth, was part of the fabric of the piece. The text is a meditation, at first, on the difficulty of dreams, the destruction of imagination and the confinement of the human spirit through fear and hatred. But it then shifts as the character, a woman, apparently trapped in a domestic bubble, remembers her former, childlike self and her courage and ends up literally running through the fields. The images not only reflected this narrative, there were moments when the film itself seemed to take over, holding your focus with the sound of dried leaves being crumpled, or simply the sound of the wind, or the freeze-frame image of a girl, in a native headdress and a balloon. The whole effect was dream-like and slightly disconcerting; until it hits the mid-point and the energy of text and film rise into a crescendo of hope, of eyes-wide open determination. This woman was going to take control of her future and she didn’t mind getting her hands dirty. I liked it a lot, probably because it was the most abstract and overtly “arty”, but again I found this to be very moving.
Deborah Stevenson’s “Over Toast”, was, for me, the most problematic. Which is odd. It had good solid content, which was simply told. A camping trip, a remote landscape, a mother and daughter, the latter’s questions to her mother about our right to have children, to create another “gas guzzler” and then the mother’s response to her child. It was good. It was well made, beautifully shot, the stories felt real and everything was well performed. The problem for me was that the two halves of the poem collided, but not this time in a helpful way. The first half belongs to the daughter, whose poem seems more abstract than it is, is full of space and seems to exist in the geography around it, this beautiful but slightly forbidding place where they are camping. But the mother’s half seems almost like a polemic, is certainly delivered like one, and isn’t the “conversation” that her daughter wants. Separately both are very strong, but together, for me, it unsettled both. Whereas with McKenna’s piece the collisions all played out along one anchoring “through-line”, here we seemed to have two separate short stories that have actually collided, even though visual moments from the daughter’s narrative punctuate the mother’s. The only thing connecting these people, despite their being mother and daughter, is that they are in the same physical location, even though the mother is responding to her daughter’s concerns. Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps their connection is impossible, Deborah is saying. It’s still very good, and perhaps I’ve missed the point, but I did prefer the first half to the second.
Rik Sykes’ “The Trouble with Dreams” was the most straightforward of the five, and among the darkest, to begin with. One might almost say it sets a pessimistic tone, but actually becomes a very uplifting paean to the hero “standing next to you” and reminds us that “we’re [all] the architects of our own republic”. It was the sort of thing you would expect from the description of the event and the result worked well. The delivery of the verse (over a collage of grainy images of arrests or acts of kindness, of figures who might be politicians or leaders, or your neighbour) recalled the pitch and tone of Dr. King’s, a prayer to our humanity, a call to arms. It was the perfect end to the cycle of five urging us not to wait for a hero but to become our own architects. Straightforward, but no less powerful for it, a strong end to an interesting event.
You can look at the films yourselves, as I strongly urge you to do, by going to the webpage at Architects of our republic. The event was excellent, the films all very thought provoking. I’m sure you will find something you will enjoy.