The MOFFOM Festival (2)

14. 2. 2009 | Rubriky: Articles,Feature

[by Ken Hunt, London] Chancing upon the final-cut premiere of Alex Reuben’s film Routes was kismet. Alex Reuben is a DJ and filmmaker – British out of Ukrainian Jewish stock – with shorts like Big Hair (2001) and A Prayer From The Living (2002) to his credit. “I was a DJ so that’s how I started making films,” he tells me in Prague “Through the money I made DJing, that’s how I made films. All of the films are related to DJing in some way. More in the method I make them, though.”

Routes is the eye-catching offspring of Harry Smith and Les Blank. Picaresque, without spoken commentary, it is a fly-on-the-wall, fly-on-the-windscreen road movie about dance encountered on a journey through the Southern States of America. Reuben’s focus is dance, down-home and urban, dance steeped in tradition or dance stepped in emergent dance forms like clowning, krump and hiphop. It opens with a sequence of barefooting – a hybrid between clogging and a form of barefoot dancing associated with Negro slave ships – performed on a square of wood to fiddle, guitar, banjo and double-bass accompaniment. Only these are white feet dancing and white musicians pounding out dance rhythms at the Shindig on the Green in Ashville, NC. As he drives to New Orleans – the travel footage feeds the narrative, seldom seeming makeweight or ‘make-length’ – he encounters white, black and Native American dancers in settings that include solo dancers, family pair dancing and what looks like sprung ballroom, Cajun and zydeco, clowning, gang dance and, in New Orleans, second-lining and Mardi Gras Indian parading. “It was all pretty organic.,” he smiles.

In early August 2005 he arrived in Kentucky where he prepared and collated information and contacts. At the end of August he reached New Orleans, just after Hurricane Katrina struck on 29 August and just before the next strike. He had taken advice from, amongst others, Mike Seeger. Talking at the Q&A after the film’s premiere in October 2006, he recalls that Fats Waller’s was the first dance music that set his bones dancing and dry-mouths it was a piquant, bittersweet moment. His footage of streets devastated by Katrina’s stops at the ruined building that housed Fats Waller’s publishing company. It ends though as it began, enthused by dance music and dance.

A one-man film crew, Reuben began filming on the North Carolina leg with a HDV camera rigged to the side of the car so he could film road miles hands-free while driving. He also developed a two-handed filming technique with hand-held camera in one hand and microphone in the other. “I’m not always pointing the microphone the same place I’m pointing the camera,” he grins. “I tried to make the sound move, as if I’m drawing or painting in space. That’s why you get those variations in sound. Which I deliberately tried to do. I’m not interested in getting sound like you’d get from a mixing desk in a normal concert.”

Routes consciously builds on earlier work, whether David LaChappelle’s dance film Rize or Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. He is aware of the baton thrust into his hand. Asked about the Harry Smith connection, he replies, “People think he was an anthropologist in that collection. When I looked into it and really listened to the reissue all the way through, I heard it completely differently. The Anthology is much more an artist’s project. For example, he was an expert on American Indian culture but there’s no American Indian music in the project, so it’s clear that he wasn’t out to make an anthropological study of all the music in the States.” A discussion ensues about Smith’s ethno-narcotic journeying.

“He was making a very personal connection between all those sounds. When I heard it, he programmed it like a DJ would select the set. It’s really like that. It really moves and builds to a climax. He’s categorised it. I wanted to collect dance and music in the same way that he wanted to collect songs. He thought it was going to be lost and die out. He used the term globalisation, which was interesting. Back then in the 1950s he used it. Which, of course, as we know, it hasn’t. I wanted to collect it in relation to dance.”

Routes contains the most eidetic dance sequence I’ve ever seen, courtesy of the Melrose Golden Girls. They are a bunch of split-second choreographed black cheerleaders performing krump moves like wide-eyed, psychedelised meerkats out of Mati Klarwein’s Annunciation, the painting that adorned the cover of Santana’s Abraxas album. Most people would have seen them as nothing more than a sideshow at a sports fixture. Reuben captures their perfection. The Melrose Golden Girls burn into the retina like nothing less than the hot sauce of community culture. From North Carolina to Louisiana, Routes captures a cosmopolitan, multi-racial, community-based America, the existence of which we forget at our peril. This is another sort of Americana. And one I can relate to.

A variant of this piece first appeared in fRoots issue 300.

Photograph courtesy of Alex Reuben.

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