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Searching for Kahlil Joseph: How one learns about a {good} short film director on the Internet

As I watched the Academy Awards last month I began to wonder about what happens to all of those nameless people who’ve won big name film making awards for short films at big name events. I don’t just mean the Oscars, but also Cannes and Sundance. What does a short film award afford these filmmakers? Certainly it offers limelight, prestige, and a foot in the door to future funding. They have a title now, gosh darnit! They’ve won at Sundance! Cannes! They have an Oscar! For one, I don’t understand the impetus behind the category at the Oscars. Let’s be honest, aren’t these usually the categories in our Oscar party ballots that most of us vote for based on title alone? Some of us may see an Academy shorts presentation at the local art house, or are industrious enough to find these films online and have our own private screening. But for the most part, we’re doing this to have some extra edge on our voting competition. But after they win, or lose, where do these filmmakers go? I don’t mean this to be snarky. I do wonder about the future of these filmmakers after such momentous wins. Is this really the road to success? Or is this part of a PR move by these separate institutions to re-inscribe the myth of total Hollywood that making a solid, story-grounded film will open more doors and will guarantee continued rewards in the industry?[1] I became interested in one such director out of chance. After years in film school making and watching a number of good, mediocre, and out right bad student short films, I’m hard pressed to force myself to watch short films nowadays. I’ve done my time with this genre, and I’m not easily impressed by its niceties, its cute characters, or stylistic rip-offs. So, when my alma mater advertised that one of our own had just won a special jury award for short film at Sundance, I grudgingly felt obliged to watch. Kahlil Joseph’s 2012 short film “Until the Quiet Comes” is totally bizarre. Its lyricism, its poetic movement (bodily and via the camera), its heat and its cold, its tonal shifts and rhythmic shifts, and its description as a “music video”. This last claim is hardly fair, because ‘Quiet’ is not a music video but an interwoven meditative narrative or images from a day, a week, or summer in the Nickerson Gardens housing projects in Watts-Los Angeles set to three different selections from the Flying Lotus album “Until the Quiet Comes”. In a genre that so often has the tendency to be obvious in style, pandering in tone, and weighty with significance, Joseph’s film both avoids and embraces moments of realism with the mystical and moments of pain with joy. This film does not linger, but seems slow, it does not describe but is full of detail. This is where I get caught up in Joseph’s work (because like most of the aforementioned filmmakers, this ain’t his first rodeo). http://vimeo.com/48551671 In “Quiet”, I get caught in the helicopter shot before it reaches the telephone polls, the camera as it lifts with the young boy’s arm to shoot, the insistence of flickering fluorescent lights in every night scene, and the web of endless pink and red lens flares during the death dance. Whether in a cluster of dots that move diagonally across the screen or as narrow outlines at the edge of the screen, the lens flares pulse and burst with the movement of the Steadicam which interacts with the newly-risen dancer’s performance. The fluorescent light’s waver (like the other fluorescent diegetic sources) creates a sense of these scenes being projected into the lens of the camera by flickering light rather than a continuous illumination. “Quiet” feels cinematic because it draws so much from the mixture of quotidian realism (from sharing cheetos on a bench to a moving camera running shot of young children) to the magical sort (the never-ending stream of blood pouring from the little boy’s body in the pool from an imagined bullet). I say draws, but I don’t see obvious comparisons that are mentioned by other reviewers (From Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep to Beasts of the Southern Wild). This is why I wanted to learn more about Kahlil Joseph[2]. I combed through a number of trade press releases[3] about the film at Sundance and most articles didn’t say much more than I already knew, mainly that this short film was beautifully shot and audiences loved it. OK, What else? Then I stumbled on this New Yorker piece written last fall 2012. Author Hilton Als calls “Quiet” an “amalgamation of horrifying beauty” and suggests that “Black UP” a 2011 film by Joseph is his ‘pièce de résistance’. This is a lot of praise for a director who according to my own small searches online has made less than 10 short films (which also includes advertisements for Vans and Built for Wendy as well as music videos for Seu Jorge and Aloe Blacc). Yet Als’s praise also addresses why Joseph’s unique style and narrative content have a vital place in today’s young filmmaker’s scene. Als writes:

“What it amounts to is emotional filmmaking that is disciplined into narratives about blackness that spare us the self-conscious folklore of something like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” by not imagining what blackness feels like but what it is. And it’s a measure of Joseph’s modesty, and of letting the work speak for itself, that there’s very little biographical information about him out there.”

I want to come back to Als assertion about “what it[blackness] is” later, but let me first say that I don’t know if it’s a measure of “modesty”. This seems a silly or naïve proposition for someone as talented as Joseph trying to make a name for himself, but it’s more likely that there’s little biographical information now because he appears to currently work within a larger creative agency rather than simply in a collective group of filmmakers. Though certainly it could be the case that he works in both freelance and in personal creative capacities. It’s hard to tell and I don’t see clearly how one would exclude the other. What’s not difficult to discern is the heightened attention to the medium in which he’s working. Joseph appears to shoot primarily on film with a consistent cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd (also from their What Matters Most filmmakers group). He also employs Steadicam for most of his shooting and a variety of swooping and even upside down tracking shots. I still don’t know what to make of these upside down shots, I don’t understand them to be upside down as a gesture of “the world is upside down”, but more of an abstracted play on space and the visual oddities that transform when the everyday or expected is seen at a new angle. Take for example the last shot of his 2010 film “Belhaven Meridian”, a cited homage to Burnett’s 1979 Killer of Sheep. http://vimeo.com/10369494 The film is technically a single-shot, but I’m distinguishing a final shot here because at 1:47 right after we see a fake production crew “shooting” Killer of Sheep, the camera begins to rotate and action, style, and music begin to shift over the next 30 seconds. This moment of transformation is key for Joseph who uses sound drops and still moments as an opportunity to do something else in a video, to take us somewhere else. What for 1 minute 46 seconds was an homage to Burnett, is now fully Joseph. In this nearly two-minute “inverted shot” We don’t see the world in a new way, we see precisely something else. For one, the camera tilts at moments giving more space to the road on screen and then in the next moment more space for the sky, making it difficult for us to continue to focalize on a single person or group of subjects. Once the motorcycles come into view I feel entranced by the way that palm trees glide over the screen like water and how the bikes turn into odd swerving diamond shapes at the top of my screen. There’s little narrative impulse for me to follow these three bikers, and their placement at times at the very top 1/3 of the screen makes me focus on the world, a world, that is floating past me instead. The movement of the world–whether from a runner or a bike–drastically re-figures the way I notice the micro-movements of the body and the arrangement of light and shadow in this newly abstracted space. But, what do we make of that pronounced graphic mask that floats into view at 1:49 before the inverted shot continues? What sort of symbolism or inertia is Joseph directing us towards? Why does this icon move us from the realism of Burnett to Joseph’s own surrealism. I imagine that both these obvious cultural markers and more subtle quotidian images of everyday black life placed throughout Joseph’s films that Als means when he writes that Joseph captures “what it[blackness] is”. Joseph’s mystical and magical realist qualities have been recently taken up by visual artist Duane Deterville on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog where Deterville asks viewers to examine Joseph’s possible connections to “African diasporic Yoruba religious content and imagery”. Deterville’s complex reading ties “Quiet” to a long social and cultural history of “Afriscape Ghost Dance”. Joseph’s connection to African mysticism seems to make sense especially in “Black Up”, but I’ll leave Deterville and others to probe this connection further. More than the beautiful cinematography, more than the insistent lens flares, and the skilled Steadicam, where Joseph excites me most is his attunement to space and place and the ways in which people occupy those places naturally or as set pieces. In “Quiet” despite the title card of Nickerson Gardens, Joseph has already established not just the key markers of Los Angeles (palm trees, empty swimming pools, telephone poles, and fluorescent lights), but the dirty feel of twilight in LA and the sense that the even the widest space in LA can feel suffocatingly small. Joseph does the same for New York (specifically the Bronx) in “Black Up”. http://vimeo.com/whatmattersmost/shabazzpalacesblackup We have the usual NY markers, above ground train tracks, police lights, bodegas, people hanging around for buses, for people, for something. And then throughout “Black Up” we break to Puerto Rico[4], or rather some tropical forest somewhere not in New York. This break is often signaled via musical cross-fade from the Shabazz Palaces’ musical backing to some new song or even into ambient noise of the forest. At moments these spaces seem at odds, except when the music or sounds cross over, but then we also have piles of bodies in white t-shirts spread across this jungle. This seems like a massacre, though the blood, if there is any, is barely registered to the viewer. This space seems both idyllic and horrific, which isn’t the same for New York which seems at once boring and calm. The beginning of the film is hectic with fast cutting across different street, party, and meat butchering scenes, and then the film slows down and stays on long moments of late night activity, or rather inactivity. The most mindful and mindless moment of the film is when the camera seems to hang out with a group of young people waiting in line for an MTA ticket or a late night McDonald’s meal[5]. The important thing is not why they’re waiting in line, but that the waiting in line is boring, mindless, and everyday and somehow predictable and placid in the same way. We’re not made to reflect on how carrying a child across city streets is a burden or that the couple we peak glances at peaking glances at each other might actually be fighting. Instead that the ordinary second can contain a movement and sense of its own. Joseph blends the commonplace with the extravagant, the micro movements of life with historical artistic figures (Gil Scott-Heron, Charles Burnett) and moments whether metaphorical (the nameless bodies) or actual. There’s a lot of weird stuff mashed up together in this video: slaughtering of pigs, sped up tracking shots of a boy alone on a busy street, more upside down shots, abandoned warehouses, and that really slow motion trace with the sepia toned horses ( I have no idea). All of this is to say, that whatever Kahlil Joseph has already started with his small, but impressive list of videos thus far is evocative, chilling, beautiful, and in need of some more serious attention.

Footnotes

  1. OK, OK, I’m sure there a number of special cases to prove me wrong on this position, my curiosity in asking this question is how many of us take the time after these initial awards to do more digging into these filmmakers []
  2. The first thing you notice when you look up “Kahlil Joseph” is that the guy in the wikipedia page is not the Kahlil Joseph you’re looking for, though this Kahlil Joseph is also a director, but primarily an actor. Moving on… []
  3. For Example: Indiewire []
  4. It’s not actually clear that this is Puerto Rico ( I gleaned that from a credits page on the What Matters Most Webpage). []
  5. I actually have no idea what to make of this window. It’s next to the McDonald’s, it has a sign that says “waiting grade approval”, so I’m really just guessing at what it is and why people are waiting in line. []