One of the splashiest arrivals on the art-house circuit this year has been “Krisha,” Trey Edward Shults’s audacious, disquieting directorial debut, playing at Landmark’s West End Cinema.
In the film, Shults plunges audiences into a disastrous Thanksgiving celebration, as the title character — a drug addict who has drifted in and out of recovery — returns to her Texas family and descends into a painful, protracted relapse.
Drawing inspiration from John Cassavetes and Shults’s mentor, Terrence Malick, as well as real-life family members who died from substance abuse (the title character is played by the filmmaker’s aunt, Krisha Fairchild), Shults draws the viewer’s eyes and ears in and out of his heroine’s experience with a combination of expanding and tightening aspect ratios and a sound design that reflects her increasingly disoriented state.
As impressive as “Krisha” is as an example of bold, expressionistic filmmaking and a bravura lead performance, it is no doubt raising questions with some viewers who, with the film’s denouement in little doubt from the get-go, might wonder why they’ve been privy to such a demoralizing episode in the life of a woman at her most vulnerable. Ultimately, “Krisha” confronts the audience with a defining tension of spectatorship: When do we cease being compassionate observers — secret sharers of a character’s hidden pain and vulnerability — and when do we merely become voyeurs?
With its fictional framework and obvious cinematic flourishes, “Krisha” imposes enough distance that viewers can assure themselves they’re watching a performance, not literal human suffering. But two nonfiction films arriving over the next several weeks, fresh from the festival circuit, take questions of spectatorship and voyeurism to new, discomfiting levels.
Roberto Minervini’s “The Other Side,” about a downtrodden community in rural Louisiana, presents an unnerving portrait of poverty, drug addiction and inchoate white rage. Shot through with stomach-churning imagery of cyclical self-destruction, what Minervini has called a portrait of “the bastard stepchildren of the American Dream” could be the feature-film adaptation of Kevin Williamson’s recent essay for National Review, in which he took pitiless aim at “the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.”
“The Other Side” made its world premiere at Cannes last May, allowing critics and cineastes there to bask in the cruel irony of beholding the artfully photographed American lumpenproletariat just steps away from the sparkling French Riviera. Such are the contradictions that animate a major subgenre of art cinema, determined to renounce reassurance and uplift in favor of making its complacent audience squirm.
There are moments in “The Other Side” that inspire gratitude for confronting viewers with the most unsettling truths of an American subculture largely kept out of view. There are others when the raw candor of Minervini’s images feels intrusive, opportunistic and tantamount to turning over a rock simply to see what’s writhing underneath. (“The Other Side,” which hasn’t been scheduled to open in Washington, will have its U.S. premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” documentary series in May.)
Theoretically, these same issues should make Khalik Allah’s “Field Niggas” just as problematic — even more so, considering the title. A poetic, mesmerizingly immersive documentary about a group of homeless African Americans who regularly hang out on a Harlem street corner, “Field Niggas” — whose title derives from Malcolm X’s 1963 speech “Message to the Grassroots” — can be difficult to watch, not only because Allah captures so much pain and helplessness, but because the viewer is sometimes unsure what his aims are.
More than once as the film has made its way on the international screening circuit, Allah has encountered questions about his ethics. One audience member in London decried the presentation of “black bodies presented as spectacle, at their most vulnerable and denigrated.” Another wondered if “Field Niggas” wasn’t another instance of “poverty porn,” artfully packaged for the delectation of privileged, mostly white art-house audiences.
Those same questions will most likely arise when “Field Niggas” makes its local debut at George Mason University on Tuesday. And, just as likely, Allah will field them with his characteristic blend of bull-headed directness and spiritually minded compassion. As he has explained at previous screenings, he had spent three years with the subjects of “Field Niggas,” photographing and befriending them long before he started to film. His goal, once he turned the camera on, was to create “a family photo album for the homeless,” not a festival-circuit darling.
In fact, “Field Niggas” was intended to be seen only by Allah’s family and friends until programmers at the True/False Film Festival discovered it last year.
Allah was still reeling during the question-and-answer session after the film’s premiere at the festival in Columbia, Mo., simultaneously abashed at his newfound success and adamant that his presentation of street life — its disorder, desperation, mental illness and drug addiction — be seen as a portrait made “from the inside out,” rather than mere objectification.
The fact is that “Field Niggas” makes a powerful claim for the dignity and visibility of its subjects, even as it travels to precincts far outside their purview. What could have been an example of “ethnographic” documentary at its most patronizing instead becomes an opportunity for radical engagement — thanks to Allah’s reflexive eye for humor, pathos and beauty, his willingness to interact unguardedly with his subjects on-screen, and a nonsynchronized sound design that demands more of the audience than passive onlooking.
It’s the accumulation of these formal choices — as well as Allah’s passionate presence when he screens his film for audiences — that elevates “Field Niggas” from poverty porn or pity party and into the realm of bearing witness, the very definition of art. Voyeurism, after all, stops at the act of watching. To go deeper, a film needs to look, listen and maybe even love.
Field Niggas will be shown at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the George Mason University Johnson Center Cinema, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. Filmmaker Khalik Allah will answer questions after the free screening.