I Am Samuel – BFI London Film Festival

Written by Ricardo Acosta & Peter Murimi

Directed by Peter Murimi

Rating: 3 out of 5.

While identifying as gay isn’t strictly illegal in Kenya, the act of engaging in a relationship with someone of the same gender or sex is. An openly honest account of a young gay man’s struggles with receiving the equality he deserves, I Am Samuel documents five years of Samuel’s life as he moves to steadily introduce his parents, his friends and hopefully, one day, his country into accepting who he is.

I Am Samuel’s unobtrusive verité-style maintains authenticity in how it delivers the truth across the film, refusing to pander to ideas of a manipulated narrative for dramatic effect. As director Peter Murimi gradually introduces the audience to Samuel, his partner Alex, and their subsequent friends and family, time is given to develop them as people, rather than encouraging snap judgements. This verité comes at a cost though, as the film’s flow stifles, and any seeking a form of closure will be pressed to find one given Kenya’s continued attitudes towards the love between two members of the same gender.

The longevity to create pays off for Murimi’s debut piece, filming over five years allows for a definitive picture and flow of narration. The established relationship guarantees an openness from Samuel, concerning his relationship with Alex, as a level of trust is paramount given the nature of their relationship in a country violently opposed to love in a form which some are regrettably still unfamiliar with.

Depictions of violence only make up a minuscule, but impactful, anchor point for the film. Those who mindlessly preach on how things are different or that homophobia isn’t as prevalent need only watch the film’s opening moments. Censored, but still visceral, a young man is between and assaulted as the perpetrators hurl abuse and, breath-snatchingly declare to ‘teach him a lesson’, instructing one another to get a knife.

I Am Samuel doesn’t garb itself in shocking imagery, though one distressing scene shows the scars a man bares after being mistaken for Samuel. The dedication to their visibility is extraordinarily respected by Murimi, who strives to allow everyone the chance to tell their story and experiences – obviously, chiefly that of Samuel and his partner Alex. Nothing is treated as inconsequential, as it all goes to building the image of who Samuel is as a person and his ambitions, despite the conformation and expectations men in his culture face.

A level of established trust is evident as the camera works its way into Samuel’s parent’s homes to unfold their thoughts on the revelations of their son’s ‘friend’ Alex. Redon and Rebecca consistently harp on at their son to find a wife to both help with the family farm work, and to continue a legacy. His father Redon, a pastor, in particular raises eyebrows to this ‘friendship’ with Alex, discussing with the camera his concerns, as equally does his mother but for wholly individual reasons and worries for his safety.

Clean, capitalising on the beauty of the region, the film’s visual direction of light and aerial shots capture the stage for Samuel’s story. Backdrops are never parts of the narrative, outside of location changes to and from his parents or grandmothers residence. What aesthetical shots used enrapture, but stick within the verité guidelines to reinforce the film’s authenticity, rather than bathe in spectacle.

Leaning into the rights of humanity to be recognised through the players in this film, as opposed to a direct political allegiance, Murimi succeeds in building I Am Samuel’s legitimacy as a short documentary feature which manages to divulge five years of a young gay man’s life into seventy minutes. Will the film essentially change the fundamental rights to care and love across Kenya? Not likely, but in putting across Samuel’s story – Murimi’s documentary protects the autonomy and determination a young man has to love, hopefully improving his future. 

Ice Poison – Taiwanese Film Festival

Written & Directed by Midi Z

Taiwan / 2014 / 95 mins

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Burmese director Midi Z latest film is a socially conscious remark on the two options facing the poor – both of which risk your life. One is to risk breaking your body with labour, amidst endless hours working for a pittance. The other is to risk it taking or trafficking drugs. As South Asia seeks to hammer down on the growing drug epidemic, Ice Poison takes an experimental approach to the influence economics play in people’s choices.

The film primarily follows two stories which intertwine. The first is that of young farmer (Shin-Hong Wang), whose father trades the last cow for a scooter, hoping to make ends meet as a taxi driver, where he meets Ke-Hsi Wu. As the allure of the city exudes across the outer regions, the village knows of the detrimental vices which lurk within – chiefly drugs. After allying with Ke-Hsi Wu, a young woman frequently travelling, the pair find an arrangement which benefits one another as Ke-His Wu finds a means to transport her ‘packages’ and the young farmer gets a slice of life.

You’d be forgiven if you mistook the set-up of Ice Poison as a gritty documentary, as its reliance on relative unknowns and earthy cinematography suggests a docudrama. In reality, this experimental film slowly (very slowly) builds on the pair’s relationship. The banality of the filmmaking is purposeful, meant to emulate the drabness of reality for these farmers and workers. With no expressive demonstrations or grand displays of emotion, Midi Z’s film raises questions but potentially closes eyes.

There’s no question the film is a tricky one to get into; there are slow burners, and then there is the pacing of Ice Poison, which never injects momentum or melodrama, but at the cost of an initial grip for the audience. The narrative flows as it naturally would, with the filmmaking following – there are little to no cuts outside of scene transitions and interactions are allowed to carry out without interruption.

Even for the dedicated, the mundane nature of the topics drifts, and while the conversation does flow, not all aspects are required for the storytelling to affect. The cinematography is unforgivingly bleak – often with long-held shots, where colour is a rarity. Reflective, Ice Poison has next to no score and relishes the quieter moments. These are often the film’s tighter sequences, devoid of prattle or filler and merely showcasing the human condition. Here is where both Shin-Wong Wang and Ke-Xi Wu’s performances at the heart of the film achieve the minutest fix of the drama we have oh so craved.

Much of Midi Z’s stance towards the crackdown on drugs is frank, never commodifying or vilifying those who trade in narcotics or ‘ice’. Instead, Ice Poison offers up an explanation, rather than an excuse: that those choosing to earn a living this way are far from villains, but pushed into the situations, primarily out of poverty. Playing directly into the hands of Midi Z, he draws the eye to a part of the world many have never desired to watch, and yet, even a comparative examination of the futility of the ‘American Dream’ is ironically thrust upon them in the rural areas. Even in what appears to be a region-centric film, ideas surrounding hard work and working up from nothing seem to be ever reaching. 

Authenticity is without question, but the detail in the monotony is Ice Poison’s principle issue – and it’s a large one. The vacant visuals may evoke a genuine documentary aesthetic, with a refreshing refutation of artificial creation, but it swings wildly into this decision. It quickly becomes tedious (and at points frustrating) as even the moments of genuine sincerity or emotional outlet are dampened to further impress upon the dreariness of the situation.

Review published for The Wee Review

Scottish People Can’t Rap?! – Preview

Sounds ridiculous, right? Scottish people, rapping. No, seriously. And not only is it accurate, but Scottish hip-hop is an exceptionally underestimated blending of nuanced storytelling, cultural portals and progression of lyric, rhythm and rhyme – and now, with the arts embracing the digital medium, Scottish People Can’t Rap?! takes things to a new, virtual level.

To change the preconceptions of the genre and its place in Scotland, award-winning rapper, poet, music producer and songwriter Dave Hook (a.k.a Solareye) is working with Edinburgh based filmmakers Neon8 to create a selection of documentaries which challenge the eye-rolling stereotypes, and supposed novelties of Scottish hip-hop.

Any struggling with the concept haven’t experienced the Scot’s capability of fusing their natural storytelling, adoration of music and culture with interpreting another form of expression, melding them into something wholly authentic, inspiring, and often sensational. And so, utilising Hook’s PhD research, the production team of Scottish People Can’t Rap?! set about to reflect on his practice as a rapper, and infuse a sense of dramatic dissection and cultural critique into a VR experience.

So why VR? By now we’ve mostly concluded that 2020 is a bit of a write-off, but there is a spec of hope many creatives and talented producers have harvested from the ashes. Ingenuity and necessity have encouraged arts online, away from their ‘natural’ home and forced a realisation that other mediums and methods of communication are perhaps what was missing all along. Consuming entertainment has never been easier, and through Virtual Reality, viewers are able to advance and drawn themselves into an immersive venture like never before. Going beyond the confines of usual frameworks, Neon8 shares an interest in empowering VR films and their place as educational tools, and not simply gimmicks, exploring the further possibilities of the digital life of live performance.

On the subject, creative director Kelman Greig-Kicks has said; “VR really does allow the viewer to be right there, in the room where it happens. And as we’re living in a time when we physically just aren’t able to be, we feel the moment is here for this technology to become a part of the live arts & music arsenal to fight through and survive this crisis”.

Spectacularly, and in no small testament to the support and curiosity surrounding the project, the team have been staggered by the overwhelming faith in the planned documentaries – even more so by the success in obtaining the initial £5,000 in crowdfunding in a little under 24 hours. With Creative Scotland offering to match with their funding initiative, this enables the team to get underway with creating the premiere, readily lunging into work. With the first episode now underway, they seek to secure funding to produce further episodes and broaden Scottish People Can’t Rap?! to further audiences.

Crowdfunding for the event can be located here

Want to find out how to team are doing, and catch some sneak-peaks and support the project further? Give them a follow on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and from their Website