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BFI FILM REVIEW: DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

BFI FILM REVIEW: DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

Directed by: Julie Dash

Produced by: Lindsay Law, Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa, Steven Jones

Written by: Julie Dash

Cast: Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Abdurrahamn, Adisa Anderson, Kaycee Moore etc.

Music by: John Barnes

Cinematography: Arthur Jafa

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



“I didn’t want to tell a historical drama about African-American women in the same way that I had seen other dramas. I decided to work with a different type of narrative structure…[and] that the typical male-oriented western-narrative structure was not appropriate for this particular film. So I let the story unravel and reveal itself in a way in which an African Gullah would tell the story, because that’s part of our tradition. The story unfolds throughout this day-and-a-half in various vignettes. It unfolds and comes back. It’s a different way of telling a story. It’s totally different, new.” — Julie Dash

If you didn’t know the British Film Institute (or BFI) is the UK’s lead organisation for film, television and the moving image. It is a cultural charity that: presents world cinema for audiences in cinemas, at festivals and online; cares for the BFI National Archive, the most significant film and television archive in the world; is a registered charity that actively seeks out and supports the next generation of filmmakers; organises and runs the annual London Film Festival; and works with the government and industry to make the UK the most creatively exciting place to make film internationally. As my wife and I are members we get sent films on Blu-Ray/DVD as part of the membership. These can be re-released classics or remastered arthouse masterpieces such as Daughters of the Dust (1991).

Daughters of the Dust (1991) was a labour of love for writer and director Julie Dash. Originally inspired, way back in 1975, by her father’s experiences, she strived to create a short, poetic and cinematic account of a Gullah family’s migration from idyllic island life to New York at the turn of the century. Eventually, and after many year’s of development and struggle, PBS’ American Playhouse would grant the low budget for a feature film. The film is set in 1902. It tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family and their varying viewpoints, thoughts and philosophies in regard to the move from Helena Island.


Daughters of the Dust review – the dreamlike film that inspired Beyoncé's  Lemonade | Film | The Guardian

Daughters of the Dust (1991) was made for a reported $800,000, but it looks worth far more in terms of cinematography, costumes and settings. Arthur Jafa’s camera placement and use of the natural light, on the beach and swamp land especially, conjures up some magical imagery. The iconic images of the women on the beaches in their bright white dresses are stunningly memorable. While watching I felt like I was viewing a gallery of moving paintings, such was the exceptional nature of the composition. Again, despite a low budget and use of actors from independent cinema, Julie Dash, gets some incredibly natural and compelling performances from her cast. It’s all the more amazing as most of the cast had to learn the Gullah language employed from scratch.

Thematically the film is very powerful too. Conflict derives from dialectics such as the clashing of elder versus younger people, ancient beliefs versus Christian religion, African heritage versus Neo-American capitalism and nature versus technology. Julie Dash structures these themes and the character’s desires in a non-linear fashion over a period of a long weekend. There are poetic flashbacks and flashforwards too as the imagery is supported by a voiceover from a yet to be born child of parents, Eli and Eula. Ultimately, this film is a very immersive experience. There are no subtitles, so the language can be tricky to understand, but for me that enhanced the desire to feel the narrative. Indeed, the lyrical beauty of Daughters of the Dust (1991), combined with the humming percussion-driven music, stunning landscapes and inventive cinematic language mean you are swept out to sea by the powerful emotions of Julie Dash’s spectacular vision.

Mark: 9 out of 11


CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

Directed by: Nicolas Roeg

Produced by: Peter Katz

Screenplay by: Allan Scott and Chris Bryant

Based on the story: Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

Cast: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Renato Scarpa, Massimo Serato, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Sharon Williams etc.

Cinematography: Anthony B. Richmond

Music: Pino Donaggio

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

I watched this classic film again on the big screen at the British Film Institute in a 4K restoration recently. It has not lost any of its cinematic power. Don’t Look Now (1973), indeed, remains one of the greatest films in the horror and thriller genre of all time.

The story is a powerful study of grief and how a couple vainly attempt to overcome the tragic death of their young daughter, Christine. The opening scene is a masterclass in image system building, cinematography, performance and editing. It is an incredible example of pure cinema, establishing the dread and suspense representative throughout the film. It truly is an iconic sequence and a rarely bettered opening cinematic salvo.

A few months later, the bereaved parents, John and Laura Baxter, are in Venice for his architectural work on an ornate church. He seems to be handling Christine’s death by throwing himself into this project. Laura is more sensitive and wears her emotions close to her skin. An encounter with two mature women causes her grief to explode as one, a psychic, states she can see Christine on the “other side.” The girl is passed but happy and smiling in the spirit world. John is sceptical, but Laura is overjoyed there is a chance to make contact with Christine.

After this encounter Christine seems to appear within the Venice tunnels, her footsteps and laughs echoing in the darkness. With a murderer also on the loose in Venice, the creeping fear within the story heightens and the suspense intensifies. With Laura keen to contact Christine again, themes and symbols relating to religion, the afterlife and occult all combine to add to the terror. Moreover, religious iconography, water, the red mac, children, tunnels, mistaken identity, death, past, present and future also add to the rich tapestry of images.

Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are so natural in their roles. They give beautiful and haunted acting performances as the bereaved couple. The memorable love scene contained within the second act was very controversial at the time. However, the editing, loving tenderness in performance and sumptuous score illuminate a brief moment of reprieve from the prior horror and terror to come.

The ending of the film contains two big reveals which will shake even the most experienced horror genre viewer. Interestingly, when released the film was double-billed with The Wicker Man (1973), so lord knows what audiences were feeling when they left the cinema. Lastly, Nicolas Roeg and Anthony B. Richmond shoot and direct the film with precise and spectacular style. Shadows threaten, water forebodes, and the masque of the red death hangs heavy over proceedings.

With young filmmakers such as Ari Aster causing a stir with contemporary horror films about grief, death and rituals, I would certainly advise you to catch Don’t Look Now (1973) on the biggest screen you can find. It was a masterpiece of cinema when released and remains so today.

Mark: 10.5 out of 11