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Q&A: Director Khalik Allah’s documentary captures beauty at a Harlem intersection

Khalik Allah’s documentary at AFI Fest

An image from director Khalik Allah’s new documentary film, which explores the dreams and realities of New Yorkers around the intersection of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem.

(AFI)

The Pathmark grocery store, Rainbow clothing outlet and bodegas at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem may seem unlikely settings for a documentary film. But for director Khalik Allah, there’s a beauty in the struggle of the men and women who find themselves here, at poverty’s doorsteps, that deserves to be captured.

“Beauty is obviously in the eye of the beholder,” Allah said. “But to me, these people are rich regardless of the exterior circumstance that depicts them as being poor and drug addicted.”

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His new film, “Field ...,” whose title includes a variant spelling of the N-word, showed Friday and Sunday during the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest. In it Allah highlights those who call the New York City intersection and its surrounding streets home. Among them are addicts of a street drug called K2 (synthetic marijuana) and formerly incarcerated alcoholics, people whom audience members might usually ignore or walk past. This film, which continues to make rounds at festivals nationally, forces audiences to spend 60 minutes listening to its subjects riff on police harassment, their personal dreams and fears, and their lives at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Allah, popular on social media for his photography, spoke with The Times by phone from Copenhagen to discuss his documentary and the men and women of Harlem:

How did you first come to know about 125th Street and Lexington?
I grew up as a Five Percenter, which is headquartered in Harlem. [The Five Percent nation  is also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths.] I used to see [that corner] and avoid it. Later on, when I became an artist, I took interest in the intersection because all of the content and substance in the area. They had a tendency to be more open than the Eastside, where I was before.

What about this corner stood out to you as important to highlight? What do you see in these people that others might not?
I focused on this corner because of how sketchy it is and the police and the beauty I saw through my lens. I don’t see them as addicts. I’m identifying with the spirit within the people. I’m not seeing their weaknesses. I only see their strength. And by focusing on their strengths, it’s the purest form of charity.

Why did you choose that title for your documentary ? Are you trying to be provocative?
I was in a rebellious mentality while I was making the film [during the summer of 2014]. But my superheros are Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, slaves who fought against the master and led rebellions.

The people in my film represent the field slaves of today. Money is being made off of their bodies. Even if they don’t have jobs, they’re being recycled by the prison industrial system. I wanted to play off of that concept from slavery.

[In the film, Allah also states the title is also pulled from a Malcolm X speech, titled “Message to the Grassroots,” in which the activist describes two different types of slaves, those who worked in the house and those who worked in the field.]

The subjects of the film speak on police, poverty and parenting. Did you expect all of that to come out when you began?
Kind of. The idea going in was to show 360 degrees of the environment and mind-state I’m in when I’m out there, and the mind-state of that corner. To do so, I just tried to flash the camera on everything. I was more or less trying to capture an energy. Not much writing was done, it was kind of freestyle. Then when I went to edit, I had all of this [great stuff]. When you cast the net out you may catch an octopus that you weren’t expecting.

This was captured during summer 2014, around the time of Eric Garner’s death. You inserted footage of it, but you say the film is not political but rather spiritual. What do you mean by that?
I can guarantee there are people who critique and say it’s political. But those [political] things are ancillary and secondary to my intent. My intent was to show something genuine. Even with the title, you’re walking a fine line of exploitation, but it was more spiritual than political because I’m only trying to focus on the light in another person. Most don’t think these people have any light left. They are dead to them. I feel like I can resurrect them through the camera.

I call what I do “camera ministry.” I’m resurrecting and baptizing people with light. It’s not religious or political or anything. Any political implication it has -- well, what’s not political? What’s not going to be political when you’re talking about why people are living the way they do?

The film is a collection of video portraits in succession, with non-sync audio of your subjects. Why did you choose this method, as opposed to something synced?
The movie was built in a way where it separated audio and video so that you had to use your imagination. You had to draw on that. I’m not telling you what to think. I’m giving the viewer freedom to think what they want. This is truly a photographer’s documentary.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
I hope they get the sense of empathy and a deeper sense of love and compassion for people like this who they would usually avoid. I want them to view people as being rich anyway; they’re rich in spirit. They’re rich in beauty, in strength, in resilience, to be so oppressed for 400-plus years and still have this energy.

Once you get over the title, if that is an issue for you, it could really be named anything and it would be valuable.

Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.

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