Filmmaker James Benning has been making movies as early as 1972, starting with his short film Time and a Half. His projects shift in specificity, but each one appears to be an exploration of a precise subject, and Benning has grown a reputation (according to my research) for utilizing an avant-garde style to execute said exploration. For his latest project, Allensworth, screening during New York Film Festival (NYFF) 2023, Benning spends 65 minutes of our time and 12 months of real time in Allensworth, California, a location first established by Allen Allensworth in 1908. What’s significant about this space is that it was the first town in California whose founding, funding, and operation was all done by African-Americans. Though the space is unincorporated now, it has been designated a historic park that people still live on, though perhaps not as many as there used to be. Through the run time, Benning’s Allensworth seeks to force a confrontation between the viewer and each specific location within Allensworth, invoking a meditation on time and space. Compelling as it may be on paper, due to the minimalist approach, there’s little anyone without knowledge of Allensworth will really understand, creating less of a chance for meaningful consideration.
The setup is simple: for roughly five minutes at a time, Benning sets up his camera in different locations around Allensworth and captures what the lens sees and the mic hears. For the majority of the film, there’s no dialogue or score, just natural sounds of wind, insects, and a passing train as we linger on the image before us as though it’s a still-life hanging in a museum. Each five-minute section represents a different month of the year, a title card appearing to indicate the start of a new month and location, beginning with January. There’s no identification of where we are and there’s no explanation provided as to what we’re seeing (those don’t come until the credits), neither macro nor micro concepts given for any on-boarding or background before jumping in to the first of 12 locations. Without context, the audience is automatically slotted into one of two positions: harmony or friction.
Let’s explore the friction first.
All the information that I provided regarding why Allensworth matters in the introduction was gathered via research, not from the documentary. In fact, due to the limits on access for remote press covering NYFF, this is only one of five films that I’ll be able to screen, so coming in without context whether from the description or not, I’m covering it regardless. While the film summary does provide the historical context and I absolutely possess the ability to consume that information, it didn’t occur to me to read it as (a) I don’t always with a film in order to reduce potential expectations, thereby allowing me to process what the film is versus what I might want it to be, and (b) I presumed a documentary would provide context. Item B is where the friction starts as no context is provided at all. This matters because when the ambient score shifts to a Nina Simone tune, “Blackbird,” to play over one scene or to a Huddie Leadbetter tune, “In the Pines,” to play in another, Benning appears to seek connection between location and song. Whether it’s historical, chronological, spatial, causal, or some other form of connection is up to the viewer as the lack of context requires the viewer to fill the space with their own interpretation. (The film is avant-garde and seems to want to force the viewer to do exactly this, but without some sense of context will the viewer go to the place that’s intended?) There’s even an image representative of 1957’s Little Rock Nine that is shown during the credits, yet the correlation to Allensworth, even with post-watch research, reveals no connection beyond the obvious: racial discrimination that sought to steal from the African-American community all it could, in all its contradictory forms.
Where the harmony exists between documentary and viewer, if one ignores all they may not know, comes from studying the frames themselves. In each month, in each location, we may be shown a general landscape with only a tree (January) or the outside of a building (several months) and, in each one, the camera is placed in such a way as to get as broad a view as possible. Benning is inviting us not to look, but to observe, to see the space as it exists now in order to contemplate what it may have been. For the most part, and this may be thanks to the historic designation, nothing looks particular dilapidated or rundown, outside of the normal greys and browns due to nature. In one shot, there’s even a flag pole waving the state and national flag, suggestive of on-going life in the town. Research indicates that a few hundred do still live in the area, though we do not see them. Instead, the only person we do see is Faith Johnson (not identified until the credits), who never acknowledges the camera, but who reads to us several poems. Whatever your connection to the words and scene, one cannot help but take away a familiar cry from the Caucasian/White European community who, either through enslavement or invitation, utilized the power of immigrants to build themselves up only to shut those peoples down and deny their contributions over and over throughout U.S. American history. “Get your own town!” they would seem to say. Then, when they did, would say, “Not like that.” This would go on from the end of slavery and continue through today as behavior, dress, conduct, art, and commerce are still actively policed by regular citizenry and government officials alike.
This is certainly not Benning’s first exploration of the U.S.’s history of racism as he’s done this as recently as his three-minute 2018 art piece Birth of a Nation, nor is this the first time he’s used this cinematography style of a locked camera as part of a sound and sight experience (2011’s Two Cabins). Therefore, those in the know about Benning’s style and specific viewpoint are likely going to be wide open to the inventive and hands-off approach the filmmaker takes in Allensworth. However, those without foreknowledge, without any kind of connection to the subject, struggle is going to occur as the lack of context, the lack of meaning may prove to obtuse to parse.
Screening during New York Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official NYFF 2023 Allensworth webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.