Director Ja’Tovia Gary’s “The Giverny Document (Single Channel)” challenges its audience to consider the emotional weight of ignorance. [Indie Memphis Film Festival]

Artist Ja’Tovia Gary is a provocateur, a demonstrator, and a rebel. She uses her art as a means of proclaiming her space, her ideas, and her life as something of incredible value. None of this should be necessary, which appears to be exactly why she creates; that aggravating, irritating, exasperating requirement that she, both as a woman and as a Black woman, must reclaim a place in this world in order to be in this world. Gary’s fourth film The Giverny Document (Single Channel) is an expansion on her 2017 short film Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) and the basis for her 2020 art installation The Giverny Suite, each an exploration of Black women by way of a visual poem of sound and sight. One does not need to be aware of Giverny I nor need to have experienced the physical nature of The Giverny Suite in order to process the emotional weight Gary shares with her audience, a weight which, unless recognized for what it is, is likely to drown us all.

Over the course of 42 minutes, The Giverny Document is a collage of images conjuring emotions across the spectrum. On their own, they can be joyful (like the opening/closing song “How Can I Lose” by Shirley Ann Lee), peaceful (like the scenes of Gary wordlessly wandering through the Giverny Gardens in France), incongruent (like when Gary forcibly displays various foliage in varying states of decay overlaid on the garden or other places), and downright disquieting (like when she plays footage from Diamond Reynolds just after her boyfriend Philando Castile was shot by police). These emotions don’t take into account the brief snippets of a 1976 Nina Simone performance from the Montreux Jazz Festival, the “Man on the Street” interviews Gary conducts on the streets of Harlem, New York, or the archival news footage from various sources. As she overlays one aspect on top of the other, Gary crafts a compelling statement about the commodification of women and man’s perceived ownership over another.

L: Ja’Tovia Gary conducting an interview on the streets of Harlem.

Looking at these pieces from a distance, it may be difficult to understand the connection each piece possesses to the other. Take the brief snippet of Fred Hampton, deputy chairmen of the Black Panther Party, speaking on the nature of education and how the lack of education leads to not only to the subjection of the Black community, but how the Black community will then become the Imperialists, selling each other out in order to achieve a new rung on the ladder. Why is this relevant today? When intermixed with the 2016 footage for Reynolds, the audience is given a bridge between the arguments during the Civil Rights Movement and now, how the Black community continues to be viewed as malevolent simply by existing, even when they are in demonstrably weaker positioning. Considering Hampton is believed to have been assassinated during a raid conducted in partnership with the F.B.I. and local Cook County Chicago Police Department and Castile was similarly murdered while complying with orders from a police officer, Gary presents the calm words of one (Hampton) across time and space to be juxtaposed against the terrible sorrow and shock of another (Reynolds), profoundly crying out that we as a society are not as advanced as we believe, that there is no Post-Racial America if one life is still viewed as less than another. As though to drive this point home further but on a global scale, Gary utilizes footage of an unnamed military strike and serial footage of a newscaster discussing the continued French traditions within Haiti despite separating themselves from French control. The enslavement and control of the Black global population exceeds the borders of America and should never be considered limited by our borders.

Nina Simone performance from the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival.

What is particularly striking amid so many things Gary presents and juxtaposes, is that while Gary is featured, she herself comments not at all on the material. She is the figure who wanders through the Giverny Garden, a feminine presence dressed in a floral-patterned dress, taking in the wonders of nature while distinctly being detached from it. She is of nature, yet she is as unnatural as fauna is to flora. Gary is human, but she is also a woman and, more distinctly, a Black woman, making her stand out further. In concert with the interviews she conducts with those willing, Gary examines where women feel safe, both personally and within their bodies. She asks them about living in Harlem and about their experiences there. Those who proclaim absolute safety claim this because they are wrapping themselves in the love of God, creating a direct connection between their faith in a higher power and their personal sovereignty. Those who do not, speak more of their experience as the object of someone else’s desire, recounting moments where they are seen as something to be dominated. Gary is absolutely at the center of The Giverny Document, her purpose and meaning spread out evenly throughout as what we see and hear are given flow through her intent, yet her own opinions are given no voice within the presentation outside of one moment. In that moment, she screams. It is guttural, drawn-out, and powerful, even if not already mixed with the emotions of another. To be a woman, Gary posits, is to know pain.

How horrifying a reality.

But it doesn’t have to be. Gary doesn’t offer any ways in which things are fixed or can be, but only challenges the audience to consider what they know and what they consume. I, for one, love Nina Simone’s music, but never took the time to consider how her success amplified herself, how it allowed her to amplify others. Yet, despite all she earned, she would likely be treated the same as Reynolds. How often does anyone truly consider what came before and how it connects to now in a way in which incites real change? Based on the protests in America over the last few months, the answer appears to be no. Based on the response by those who demonize those protests, the answer appears in the metaphorical form of burying their head in the ground. We cannot fix what we refuse to acknowledge. Gary’s rage and sadness are real. They are timeless. What a day it shall be when they no longer burn so hot.

Screening at the 2020 Indie Memphis Film Festival.

Head to director Ja’Tovia Gary’s official website to learn more about The Giverny Document (Single Channel).

To learn more about The Giverny Document {Single Channel}, check out the Q&A between director Ja’Tovia Gary and festival Artistic Director Miriam Bale from the 2020 Indie Memphis Film Festival.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming

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