If you are a reflective, empathetic, observant human being, then the art you create will thrive with the themes emerging from your identity as it resonates in the world. This is my first reaction to Cecile Emeke’s YouTube series Strolling/Flâner/Passegiando and the full-length documentary that she created from the series. The rest of this review will attempt to unpack these two statements.
‘Strolling’: Conversation, Poetry & Film
Strolling, Cecile Emeke’s original series of filmed conversations on YouTube, is formally complex and yet incredibly organic. The basis of the visual narrative follows the naturally fragmented rhythm of conversation and spontaneous thought. The same rhythm is musically present in the syncopated, jumpy jazz-beat of the soundtrack – in many episodes emphasising snare, rim shot and symbol beat with intervening riffs.
As in conversation or thought, edits are sometimes abrupt. Neatly interposed jump cuts often shorten pauses between phrases or sentences, interacting with the rhythm of individual sentences and the soundtrack. Other cuts interrupt gestures or create visual breaks within the verbal flow of a statement. These jump cuts may be injected into a continuous shot or may comprise a shift in angle or distance. In most cases, cuts act to create a visual counterpoint to the verbal jumps and breaks that characterise spontaneous conversation.
The point of view constantly shifts from following the subject to facing the subject in conversation, or observing the subject from a neutral position—creating a playful shift between narrator, conversational partner, and first-person POV. The camera shows detailed shots of bodies, places, or objects, revealing the fragmentation of human perception of self, other, society, or history. To create the disguise of coherence would falsify the chaos of the black diaspora being portrayed: irreparable histories, constantly challenged belonging, continually attacked or maligned identities.
Episodes focus on single individuals or pairs: strolling largely in the UK, flâner in France, passegiando in Italy. A large number of those interviewed are women and so themes of feminine experience and identity often merge with themes of black diaspora and the colonialism that white culture would like to pretend is a thing of the past.
The indicators of this reality, however, do not come out of some historical overview or a lecture, but out of everyday conversation and reports of everyday experience. For black viewers, I can only imagine that most of the statements and narrative testimonies occasion a head nod, a head shake, or laughter filled with irony. For white viewers, depending on their state of denial or level of experience, the response will be diverse, although I fear that most people attending such screenings in the first place will be those predisposed to recognising a reality they know exists but don’t often get a chance to hear about directly.
A Few Key Passages From Some Of The ‘Strolling’ Episodes:
Strolling Episode 1: Jamaica
“A lot of young people in Jamaica suffer from depression and don’t even know it.”
“Yeah, we can’t take it seriously.”
“We’re taught that it’s not something that happens to black people. That’s something that happens to Americans.”
Strolling Episode 1: Passegiando (Italy)
“They [Italians] talk about immigrants coming here and stealing, killing committing lots of crimes. What about the mafia that you have exported all over the world…you have exported crime everywhere!”
“[We are called] second generation immigrant! I’m Italian!…We are a reality. We are here. We are in front of you.”
Strolling Episode 2: Tottenham
“There are residuals of Colonisation apparent…arguments between light skin and dark skinned people, that’s probably one of the biggest indicators…that there is something inherently wrong. It seems really deep-rooted. And more than just, oh…a bit of banter or jokes or something like that.”
Strolling Episode 3: London
“My parents always taught me that if people ask you, you should tell them that you’re British-born Jamaican. But having said that. Yeah, British is stamped on my passport and that’s where I was born, but at the same time I don’t feel like I belong here. And if I was to go back to Jamaica, I would sure as hell not belong there either.”
Strolling Episode 7: London
“Men are defensive about feminism because to understand it, you have to understand yourself, and being faced with yourself is not a nice sight to see…now that I see it, that’s not how I have to be.”
“I’ve had people say my hair is wild. I’ve had people say I look like a drug addict. Or a drug dealer. Most of these people are of the same ethnicity as me. Who’ve internalized the things that people say about them. The fact that someone can say that: If my hair is like this I’m more likely to be a crackhead than a banker is ridiculous. I shouldn’t have to cut my hair when I turn thirty and wear a suit. But I think that it’s really interesting that my hair is different and weird and strange and wild and exotic because my hair grows like this. No, my hair is normal. Your hair is weird. It’s so straight and flat and weird colors. And when it goes into the water it sticks to your face. That’s weird to me. Can I touch your hair? Can I play with your hair? This is my default.”
These extensive quotes have been included because rather than creating a theoretical, ideological or overarching storytelling framework, Cecile Emeke has put herself—filmmaker, narrator, artist—in the service of those that she documents, largely allowing them to create their self-portraits. Certainly she has imposed her interests through her selection of conversations and the passages of conversations she includes in the episodes as well as through the formal constraints of her cinematic technique. However, what sticks with the viewer are the authentic, spontaneous, freely disclosed personal experiences of her subjects, and it is through the culmination of the experiences presented in the series that the viewers are asked to put together the big picture that rises from this broad base of personal experience.
Interestingly, it is both of these aspects – the very personal exploring eye of the filmmaker and the subjective, detailed, and authentic experiences of those speaking that create the authenticity of the documentation and it’s the organic quality of form.
‘Strolling:’ The Feature
Experiencing the basis of the series—its formal and conceptual coherence along with its random, spontaneous authenticity—is helpful in seeing the underlying character of the feature.
Those familiar with the series must note that the feature sacrifices much of the aesthetic so readily apparent in the episodes. With less jazz-like visual rhythm or counterpoint, the shots are more static. There are less jump cuts. There is less variety of detail, less poetry in the editing. Medium close-ups or medium shots dominate, shifting the focus to a gathering of experiences, sacrificing some of the artistic idiosyncrasy of the episodes to exploit the power of repetition. As Emeke herself said in the Q & A, following the event at Berlin Feminist Film Week, she herself was surprised at the repetition she discovered in the series.
Considering Emeke’s observation, it is not surprising that the film is divided into thematic chapters. Anyone familiar with the series must also see that this is a structure that has not been imposed but rather that has risen to the surface. Musical themes have been imported from the episodes. Passages from conversations have been extracted from the episodes and put together according to them. However, it is the repetition and harmony of experience that is emphasised here.
Cecile Emeke: A Q&A With The Director
In the Q&A, Cecile Emeke appeared as a strong, soft-spoken, reflective person who, as she herself says, started filming in order to test the reality of her own experiences and observations. As such, she embodies a creative documentarian with a high regard for listening as a means of discovering a collective reality. As this kind of artist, she has created documentaries that almost force the viewer to stop pre-empting with preconceived conclusions or “colonising” the words of her speakers but, like her, to sit and listen.
After the event, I was left wondering if this capacity to listen is one of the positive aspects that the tradition of the feminine can offer the world at present. While masculine tradition is visibly aimed at filling the world with words and imposing ideas through words, the feminine tradition might be less obviously filled with the capacity to listen. Part of Cecile Emeke’s power as an artist certainly lies in her ability to listen and give voice to others while simultaneously using her art to express so much of herself.