IWOW: I Walk on Water is a sprawling, frustrating New York City symphony

Khalik Allah’s ambitious and unwieldy film essay, which goes under “the hood of the hood” in East Harlem, is bogged down by its director’s self-aggrandisement.

IWOW I Walk on Water (2020)

▶︎ I Walk on Water is available in virtual cinemas and on streaming platforms including BFI Player.

Encompassing shorts and features, photography and documentary, Khalik Allah’s work in the last decade has displayed a notable consistency of subject matter and approach, along with a tendency towards expansion and experiment. Focusing on the homeless, addicts and others hanging out around the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, Allah’s shorts, including Urban Rashomon (2013), and his doc feature Field Niggas (2015) suggest street photography brought to vibrant cinematic life through an edgy but lyrical style.

Following his input on some of the Louisiana-filmed sections of Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016), Allah returned to his mother’s homeland Jamaica for Black Mother (2018), creating a portrait of the island that again centralised the traditionally marginalised and used a rich mix of formats to achieve polyphonic effects. As Allah has put it: “Every film I’m making is a continuation of my last film.”

IWOW: I Walk on Water (2020)

That sense of continuity is stronger than ever in Allah’s latest work IWOW: I Walk on Water, which takes the viewer back across 125th and Lex in an attempt to go further under “the hood of the hood”. The mash-up of video formats – Super 8, 16 mm, VHS – recurs, along with desynchronisation of the audio, so that what we hear is sometimes related only tangentially to what we see. The difference is one of scale: in contrast to the lean running times of Field Niggas and Black Mother, IWOW stretches to 199 minutes. The result, by turns arresting, offputting, insightful and self-indulgent, is a demonstration both of Allah’s ambition and of the ways in which more can be less.

The effects Allah creates are, to begin with, quite exciting. In the opening sequence, a ragged, rousing rendition of the hymn ‘Blessed Assurance’ over fragmentary street scenes and close-ups gives way to a female voice repeating the words “I walk on water”, accompanied by harsh guitar chords. The stage seems set for a spiky, spiritual city symphony: another aria in Allah’s ongoing ‘street opera’.

Throughout, scattered moments recapture the opening’s power. Allah’s camera lingers over some of its subjects so intently that it’s impossible not to be haunted by them, while the soundscape by the sonic artist 4th Disciple, mobilising hymns and hip hop, provides a potent accompaniment to conversations between Allah and such rappers and luminaries as Killah Priest, 60 Second Assassin and Fab 5 Freddy. A memorable sequence freeze-frames a smiling Black girl in front of an ad for the fashion label Thakoon, while Allah and colleagues muse on neighbourhood changes and the history of Black-owned businesses.

IWOW: I Walk on Water (2020)

As it progresses, though, IWOW succumbs to self-consciousness and grandiloquence. In promotional material for Field Niggas Allah articulated a vision of himself as “a Christ among the impoverished”. As the new film’s title suggests, this streak of messianism has deepened. It seems, in particular, to have been exacerbated by critical acclaim for Black Mother, posters for which are displayed at various points in IWOW, as we hear Allah describe the film as “a movie that helped so many people.”

The braggadocio comes to a head in one wincingly uncomfortable sequence in which the filmmaker, on magic mushrooms, confronts his visibly distressed mother with the extent of his Christ complex. Arch interludes involving his Italian girlfriend Camila suffer from a similar self-consciousness, with Allah fretting: “They’re gonna say, ‘You made a movie called Black Mother and you’re with a white woman.’” Meanwhile, bland nature shots – lapping waves, circling birds – seem meant to offer a moment’s pause for us to digest street philosophies that don’t always avoid banality: “Life is what you make it,” “Only the truth is true.”

The random nature of I Walk on Water, with its audiovisual refrains and curious segues, indicates that Allah shot a mass of footage and then attempted to edit it into (or out of) coherence.

IWOW: I Walk on Water (2020)

A potentially interesting Old World detour – to Haarlem in the Netherlands – is completely thrown away. Insofar as the film has a centre it’s provided by Allah’s interactions with Frenchie, the homeless Haitian man diagnosed with schizophrenia who featured in Urban Rashomon, and who Allah appears to view as a combination of brother, father figure, guru and muse.

Still, a queasy blend of empathy and exploitation surfaces, as Allah presents himself as Frenchie’s saviour (“Nobody cared for him before”), giving him money, questioning him about his life, encouraging him to perform (and rebuking him when he repeats something). Brief moments of critique of the artist/subject relation are included, but these feel rigged in the filmmaker’s favour. Giving the lie to Allah’s definition of the film as “a statement of my uncompromising dedication to the streets”, the picture starts to look like an epic vanity project hiding – none too successfully – under the guise of social conscience.

“Do you want to make this movie with me?” Allah asks Camila early on, the question also suggesting an open enquiry to the viewer. Yet IWOW achieves a productive, interactive openness only in fits and starts. Intermittently impressive, the film doesn’t coalesce; lacking the sustained intensity and underlying shapeliness of Allah’s previous work, this impressionistic urban hymn finally frustrates more than it wows.

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