Saturday, February 15, 2014

Berlinale: Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photography And The Emergance Of A People

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Directed by: Thomas Allen Harris
Written by: Thomas Allen Harris, Don Perry and Paul Carter Harrison
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Date: TBA

Through a Lens Darkly..., a documentary completed over a ten year period by filmmaker and artist Thomas Allen Harris, presents a topic that resonates globally with an element of personal aspect and experience. In making a marginalised race his focus, Harris also presents a mostly marginalised topic - that of the forgotten or unknown role of African Americans in photography and the damaging depiction by those that stood in their stead. In this way, the documentary brings to the fore an aspect of African American history that has not thoroughly been examined before via the medium of cinema.

The power of a picture to tell a story is tremendous, as is well known, and through this the contemporary life and subsequent history of African Americans was sorely abused and warped for some time. We are aware of past stereotypes and extreme racial slurs, such as the minstrel show use of black face and degrading, prejudicial cartoons, but it is not often we are presented with how this was consistently disseminated by the media machine of the past, this powerful and potentially destructive tool. The documentary is an auspicious accomplishment in shedding light on the important emerging role of black photographers from as early on as the post-slavery era and onward through the progression of photography itself, a focus on the people who literally (re)made black history. It does not solely reconstruct the process of the reclamation of a social group's representation but also hones in on their aim to propagate something positive in showing that African Americans could have the same talents, refinements and ambitions as others in society. It is an interesting education on those lesser known and those not really thought of.

 Harris extends this positivism in encouraging viewers globally to take stock of the photos that make up their own histories and reflect on how the photos in your homes connect to history, be it internally personal or wider-reaching. The emphasis is in making the camera show exactly what it is that you see and the beneficial worth of being a part of familial pictorial and visual documentation. It is via this line of thought that Harris incorporates experiences of his own family life, particularly the contrast between this grandfather and his father in attitude - the former a photo enthusiast, the latter the polar opposite - and the effect this had on his own outlook and aspirations.

 Harris has a self-professed 'poetic' style of film-making and this is evident many ways, from the execution of a montage of shots, to the words and delivery of the narrative, and he does seek to achieve an aesthetic tone to his work. At times it can perhaps feel overly artistic instead of just allowing the documentary to stand for itself on its own merits, and it could have benefited with a touch more structure for something so focused on history and chronology. However, without these aspects, it would not have retained the same personal flair in his way of piecing together and retelling history. Although it does not quite reach adequate depth, as a salient segment of history largely untold its presence feels fresh and most ultimately worth listening to.

 By Angie Moneke

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