Halimuhfack ★★★★

[8]

[WATCH THE FILM HERE.]

Situated somewhere between a single-channel film and an installation loop, this recent piece by Christopher Harris demonstrates why he is one of the most consistently interesting experimental filmmakers currently working. Deceptively simple, Halimuhfack represents a dense compression of multiple layers of historical signification.

In the foreground, we have a woman who is performing in the role of Zora Neale Hurston. She has adopted the posture and diagonal, off-camera position of someone responding to an unseen interviewer. We hear audio recordings of Hurston describing her work as an ethnomusicologist in Florida, trying to get as many African-Americans to let her record their folksongs in order to generate some semi-permanent archive of an entirely oral tradition. What we hear is Hurston describing her informal methods, mostly just hanging out with folks and asking them to sing.

Here's where things get tricky. Harris deliberately has the actress' lips go in and out of sync with the recordings. Often there is almost no correspondence at all. This discrepancy speaks to the incongruity between speech and its record, the necessary time slippage that haunted Hurston's project no matter how respectful or meticulous she may have been. Harris shot this footage with a Bolex, and we see flickers and scratches, telling us that the "live" portion of the event -- Hurston's speaking body -- is not even itself present. The crackle of the old audio recording tells us that it is even older and more distant.

And then, looping behind "Hurston," Harris has a group of shots from an ethnographic film of the Masai tribe, with men and women in beads, headdresses, and traditional garb performing ritual dances. They contrast with "Hurston's" stylish black dress. But more than this, they provide a literal backdrop for Hurston's ethnomusicology. A set of images of the Other, the Masai footage reflects a Western attempt to learn about civilizations through observation and recording. Was Hurston's project qualitatively different from this?

By all accounts, yes. Nevertheless, the "salvage paradigm" of anthropology -- capture these people and their ways before they are flattened by modernity -- is the spectre that haunts any such endeavor, including Hurston's. The fact that Harris is able to boil this critical problem down to a few provocative, dialectically resonant images and sounds, in less than ten minutes, is incredible.