A Season in Hell: Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document

By Michael Scoular

The first time the musical score drops out in Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document, a 43-minute film about the cultural inheritance of Black women, four pieces of footage flash in quick succession. We see an Instagram video post, in which Joseline Hernandez responds to a defamatory accusation (“What the fuck? Can I live? Can I live? Can I fucking live?”); a glimpse of a dancer in Haiti, over which a man narrates, “…and continue the carnival traditions of France, the nation against which they revolted, in eighteen-hundred four”; a helicopter shot overlooking a castle (the voice returns, “…land, a brooding mass of masonry erected without concern for the abject poverty that has been the average way of life for the people…”); and bird’s-eye drone footage of an Obama-era bombing, the impact of which is rendered as faint static.

The camera focuses, and we’re in Giverny, France, known primarily as the late-career retreat of Claude Monet, where it served as inspiration for his most prolific, experimental period of work, and where Gary spent nine weeks during the summer of 2016 as an artist-in-residence. One imagines that the process of applying to the residency necessitated some level of engagement with Monet’s permanent place in the canon. As The Giverny Document covers incredible tonal and subjective distances in matters of seconds, it would be wrong to say that Monet alone is a central organizing principle; that being said, his presence, as a fellow artist within the film (in footage shot by Sacha Guitry), and as a point of significant departure, is worth some attention.

Monet once imagined (but never lived to see) an exhibition in a massive, round room whose circumference would be covered by canvases of his “Water Lilies” paintings; Gary’s film, which comes with the appended qualifier of “(Single Channel),” realizes something of the painter’s dream when exhibited as a gallery installation, under the name of The Giverny Suite: here, the film is projected on three walls, with each surface playing an independently edited sequence. In either space (the Monet exhibit exists today at Musée de l’Orangerie), the desired effect is immersion, up to the point of overwhelming emotion. Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground (1982) is an important reference point for Gary; its heroine, who successfully merges her artistic metaphor and inner life in the film’s final moments, is seen labouring at length on a dissertation about moments of ecstasy. Monet and Gary (to a greater extent) are after that kind of intensity, one that works on both an intellectual and immediately physical level. It’s part of their entire methodology: both foreground their techniques (her edits, his brushstrokes) to draw attention to the artistic intervention on every inch of their respective canvases.

And then, perhaps most significantly, there is the matter of the garden, which was all built according to Monet’s desires and at great financial and environmental expense: the famous footbridge was inspired by Japanese art, the lily pads by similar varieties on a friend’s property, and the artist’s opulent studio by that dreamed-of room, which would require canvases of much greater dimension. He was, in a sense, a collagist of the environment, with no care for the native origin of his “organic” materials. This is what Gary is entering into dialogue with: the past’s excess of material, tainted by a history of displacement and thus ripe for re-examination. To go to Giverny, then, would be to travel from theory to first-person encounter.

It was, by all accounts, a season in hell. “It was kind of a mindfuck,” she says in one interview. It’s one thing to get used to the rootlessness demanded of the internationally regarded artist abroad. But it’s another to do all this through a disorienting double consciousness: her sense of time would have been disrupted by the news regarding the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both of whom were murdered by police at the time of her residency. Monet, writing of a grief that put a complete stop to his work, said of the surrounding beauty that, with this new pervading knowledge, it appeared to him as “a horrible joke.” He could make nothing of it. Though she would not complete work on the footage for years, Gary did at least manage to turn her camera on.

“I’m probably an editor who directs,” Gary has said. “The idea of handing this over to someone else is so foreign, so counterintuitive. For me, that’s where the real making takes place … at this point in my practice, it’s important for me to have that control, because I’m developing a language that’s specific to my voice.” When Gary speaks about “language” and “voice,” these terms are not to be understood in the sense of an artistic “progression” or “maturation,” but in direct relation to her use of the archive. Any number of sympatico editors might be able to fashion compelling montage out of archival materials, but only Gary can know what she needs to say. It’s not that Gary wants to speak through the archive. She wants to speak as one.

Perhaps here is the place to introduce Alice Walker’s concept of artistic duty: “The black revolutionary artist must be a walking filing cabinet of poems and songs and stories, of people, of places, of deeds and misdeeds.” Walker’s taxonomy has room for everything that Gary brings to bear on this project. The archive is often a site of grief. It can compel visitors to enter its doors and find countless stories like Castile’s and Reynolds’s. And, if, as Walker puts it, the artist spends more time, and does the “unglamorous but worthwhile” work of absorbing the whole history of a community, then the monolithic story of suffering and resilience isn’t the one that gets told every time. The meaning that Gary unearths out of each moment in The Giverny Document is what Walker refers to as “hatred, keenly directed.” For to watch this film is not to see an artist add to the canon or a personal hierarchical list, but to experience a series of emanations that, at different points, disarm, galvanize, and cross-up the viewer.

Some of this has been evident for years. In the time immediately before and after her residency in Giverny, Gary completed the short films An Ecstatic Experience (2015), Sleep Is the Cousin of Death (2017), and On Punishment (2017). In all of these, she works with the submerged history of the archive, transforming an eclectic mix of visual sources through direct animation techniques (i.e. Gary draws on the celluloid) and aggressive sound editing. Historical documents, modified and invigorated though they may be, aren’t made “relevant” in these films; they’re sutured together by Gary so that the technological distance between the contemporary viewer and, say, mid-20th century television, is collapsed. It’s all always been meaningful, but now it’s all personal.

But even if the artist’s presence is felt in those films, it’s nothing like the effect of The Giverny Document — when that aforementioned camera was turned on, it was with Gary in the frame. Alternately following and disrupting the rhythms of Nelson Nance’s composition (a mid-tempo beat, a pitch-shifted Louis Armstrong), Gary’s edits jarringly move between canted angles, decorative re-framings, and stroboscopic flickers. This is new terrain for Gary’s films, and it comes out of an intuitive response to the aggression of contemporary news media. In the film’s most direct and fraught moments, she seemingly personifies those targeted. As Diamond Reynolds, in her moment of greatest terror and powerlessness, turned the camera on herself to create an irrefutable evidence of misdeed, Gary likewise asks the viewer to witness her as she heeds police instruction (an excerpt of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop plays on the soundtrack) and paces in reverse. If this is an act of personal archiving (i.e. an attempt to preserve and process trauma), it’s something that still has the power to haunt; the ambiguous source of danger gnaws even more than in, say, the park from Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966).

Is there any salve for this? Two sustained threads interwoven into the Giverny footage offer possible responses. In one, Nina Simone performs at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1979. In another, Gary plays the part of an on-the-street reporter, asking, in ethnographic fashion, whether other Black women passing by a Harlem intersection feel safe in their bodies, and in the world. These sections, though still broken up and dispersed across the running time, feature almost none of the interventions I’ve previously described. They’re allowed to breathe, yet the contested nature of their respective environments comes through just as clearly.

In Simone’s case, Gary is not simply attempting to step in and reclaim her music by virtue of her presence and sheer virtuosity. Any number of white TV-hack directors has already tried to do that kind of surface-level engagement of late (see: Liz Garbus, Cynthia Mort). What Gary does is something close to James Baldwin’s autobiographical lament in “Stranger in the Village.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Switzerland or America. It doesn’t matter that one may seem more conducive to art or silence, that its distance produces a different tenor of emotion. Every word, every note, if it’s up to the white spectator, is denied its full credit. But Gary’s engagement (by threading in her Giverny-sourced in-camera effects) does for Simone what Teju Cole’s revisit did for Baldwin: she affirms the labour of the original work, marginalizes the impact of the white gaze, and re-commits to exploring what that original vision might have seen today.

By now it should be clear why Gary would decide to include the voices of over a dozen Black women in her film. It isn’t a surprise, either, that she picks a glorious winter’s sunny day for the shoot, and that she enlists a cinematographer like Mia Cioffi Henry (who has previously worked with Adinah Dancyger and Zia Anger) to capture it. Throughout this sequence, Gary performs the reporter role in costume and doesn’t betray any particular conclusions to this exercise. But what is Gary really doing in Harlem? Is this a field for her to study? Is she educating, or testing a theory, or hoping to find something? This isn’t Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961), or Kiarostami’s Homework (1989), where we hear the provisional statements of intent before the accounts come to us.

Everyone that Gary talks to immediately connects with the question. While some respond yes or no, implicit in their answers is how, really, no, they don’t feel safe in the world, unless they’ve trained their body, or thought about how they move and look, or believe in a protective, benevolent god. Otherwise nothing is guaranteed. Gary seems to be attempting to get a representative sample, speaking to women from the age of seven to seventy, first-generation immigrants and others who would have lived through the end of the Harlem Renaissance; despite the range of subjects, the predominant tone of this sequence is one of repetition. There’s Gary’s single question on one side of the mic, and a shared experience on the other.

Perhaps that repetition matters more than the meaning of any individual response. From Giverny, a place where Gary was doubtless asking urgent questions about safety, to Harlem, we might follow the trajectory of an education: a movement from individual isolation to collective commiseration. Even when compared to the Simone footage, these sections are relatively unmarked, giving additional autonomy to the director’s “subjects”— Gary even leaves the celluloid un-masked, so that we see beyond the edges of the film frame. Perhaps this footage waits for the future, to one day inhabit another’s archive. It fits a traditional mode now, but anticipates the hands through which it might be animated.

For Gary, The Giverny Document is her first feature, perhaps her most fully realized work to date. But it’s also a work of transition. Her next project, she says, is going to go even deeper into the roots of her identity. It begins with the people in her immediate life, to whom she asks a multitude of new questions.

The Giverny Document screens at the Vancity Theatre on February 26 as part of our Transmissions series.

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