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Khalik Allah talks us through his hallucinatory film about Jamaica

Black Mother is a polyphonic snapshot of the island – a look at its holy men and working women

Khalik Allah’s 2015 documentary “Field Niggas” – a reference to Malcolm X’s delineation of the two types of slaves – was a provocative portrait of the homeless folk, alcoholics, and K2 drug addicts on one of Harlem’s most deprived blocks.  

Since then – aside from working on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” – has spent the past three years deep in the edit for his next film, Black Mother. Once again, he manages to find new space between political realism and hallucinatory filmmaking.

Black Mother elevates Allah’s trademark of slow-mo portraits and out-of-sync audio, switching seamlessly from Super 8 to HD video. It’s a remarkably tuned, polyphonic snapshot of the neighbouring worlds of Jamaica’s holy men and working women that disrupts linear, stock, Western narratives, while also flipping the lens on his own identity – Allah’s mother is Jamaican and his grandfather lives there.

Following its premiere at CPH:DOX, we sat down with the New York-born 32-year-old to chat about the project.

Black Mother traces an undocumented side of Jamaica but it’s also a film about your roots...

Khalik Allah: To include my family in this project gives it a level of sincerity. I haven’t seen a film on Jamaica that wasn’t focused on the music, or on Rastafarianism. This is a film which was intended to show Jamaica from the inside-out.

Inside-out is a nice phrase. There are a lot of dualities at play: between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the raw.

Khalik Allah: That was the intention: to have a spiritual vibe but to hide nothing – like the hotels. I needed to keep it real with the streets. I wanted to include that type of energy, the hustling. The idea that Jamaica isn’t this paradise; it’s reeling from slavery, and independence since the ’70s.

You know in the film when the guy negotiates with the prostitute? Right after that scene, my grandfather talks about how he met my grandmother. I’m showing a mirror to the past from the present day. I’m showing 360 degrees: positive, negative, neutral. There’s parts where a person could detour, even step away from it. The way it ends, the crescendo, is a reward for those who have been able to participate with the film.

“I needed to keep it real with the streets. I wanted to include that type of energy, the hustling” – Khalik Allah

The crescendo you mention is a very raw childbirth scene. How did you get to film something so intimate?

Khalik Allah: Outside of dancehall, Jamaican women are pretty conservative. To film someone giving birth is unheard of. I had contacted the Jamaican Midwife Association but they weren’t giving me any leads - which I can understand because I understand the rhythm of the islands.

I knew it had to be extremely organic. I called up Roger - an old friend, the driver on this project, and a character in the film -  and asked him almost desperate, like ‘please find somebody’. He called me back: “Yo my niece is pregnant and she’s said you can film the birth.” Then when I got to Jamaica, she changed her mind: “You can film the baby coming out but I don’t want my face being filmed.” I was like: “Yo, I can’t really have any anonymous vaginas giving birth.” We spoke for hours and eventually she agreed to it.

You spoke about Field Niggas as a ‘future artefact’ of a neighbourhood being eclipsed by gentrification. Is Black Mother one too?

Khalik Allah: Definitely, and Jamaica is a layered place so to really depict it you gotta show it in a dense way. This film is made up of thousands and thousands of frames, but the whole thing just becomes one picture. The women in the film are a metaphor for the island itself, which has been raped by the British and then left in shambles, where, even after the rape it’s had to sell itself out and become a prostitute in the form of a service economy. Jamaica is forever changing; even now it’s becoming a Chinese colony.

Like your last film, the audio is totally out-of-sync in Black Mother. What led you to such an unusual way of playing with moving image and sound?

Khalik Allah: I remember after Field Niggas, Fab Five Freddy said: “You should make two more films in this style. That’ll be a trilogy, that’ll really concretise your voice.” He’d never seen that device before.

I never went to film school; my innovation isn’t always creative, sometimes it’s simply because that’s the equipment I have. In the case of the audio being out of sync, that began because I just liked slow motion and with the GH3, you can’t record audio. If you take the birth scene, I had a super 8 camera, a super 16 and a Bolex, but film is sensitive to humidity, so I ended up using the digital camera to make sure I got the shot.

“I shot the whole film high. I was blazing trees. There’s exhalations of smoke coming out of the frame” – Khalik Allah

The mix of formats made it hard for me to place different timings and histories...

Khalik Allah: That’s one of the things that I wanted to achieve. Playing on the concept of history, going back to the elders and back to the old country, it was really important for me to shoot film. But I was showcasing my whole range with this film.

One thing we’ve spoken about before is smoking weed in the edit. Were you stoned on this?

Khalik Allah: It’s funny man because when I made Field Niggas I was completely sober until I started editing. With Black Mother, I shot the whole film high. I was blazing trees. There’s exhalations of smoke coming out of the frame. That’s just how comfortable I was moving around shooting in Jamaica, but, I will say that it helps and it hinders.

Fab 5 Freddy told you to make a trilogy, does that mean there’s one more coming?

Khalik Allah: I’ve told myself to just get deeper into my photography and let my eye lead me to my next project. I’ll probably just start shooting in New York or somewhere different. Just keep exercising the vision – you know what I’m saying?

Black Mother is out in the US now.