LENS AS WITNESS

By Gal Snir

Northwest Film Forum has long been an ally and contributor to Seattle dance, and their 23rd Annual Local Sightings Film Festival is no exception, featuring AJE IJO, a dance short film series by Kiana Harris, co-presented with Velocity Dance Center. A filmmaker native to Anchorage, Harris is also a mother, choreographer, dancer, and Cornish College aluma. In the last few years, she has shifted to creating more work on film, mentioning in a Seattle Magazine interview with Gavin Borchert that she is enjoying the permanence of the art form over the brief existence of dancing on stage. This will be her second dance film since her first short series, DIVINE part I and II, were released in 2016. Though newer to the field, her work has already garnered significant attention: Harris has been featured in a number of festivals including Langston Hughes African American Film Festival, Risk/Reward Festival, Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival, and Bumbershoot. 

Still from AJE IJO

Back in 2016, Harris explored themes of femme blackness and body positivity for Black folx through DIVINE. Now, Harris is continuing to hold space for Black and African diasporic people and artists of all genders through AJE IJO. Every part of the film celebrates the individuality of the performers, and while there are ensemble sections, the main focus seems to be the solos of the individual cast members. Each dancer is embellished in clothing and makeup unique to them and their performance. Likewise, sound in the film mirrors the movements of the dancers, reinforcing the sense that the film is tailored to the performers rather than the other way around. 

7 Reflections, the first of four installments, opens to Harris standing at the edge of a wooded riverbed. Articulating her head and shoulders in a slow motion sway, she seems uninterested in the camera filming her. Instead, she gazes thoughtfully in the direction of her arms that swing alongside her center and out to the calm river. As the percussion score by Yaw Amponsah becomes more lively and fast paced, the film montages scenes of Harris and a flower-crowned child twirling a ribbon on the same grassy bed. Lighthearted and meditative, the opening of 7 reflections pairs calming scenes of nature with feel-good movements. 

Still from AJE IJO

The second section of 7 reflections strays from this calm and opens to visuals of a dark, cold, turbulent sea. The dancer, Alexander Jackson, in a full face of white makeup, stares directly into the camera with a frightened expression, as if there is something terrifying behind the lens. The roaring waves match Jackson’s sweeping movements that spiral up to the stormy sky and fall heavily to the sands. The film then returns to the cool green forest and cheery percussive of its opening visuals. With this, 7 Reflections gives a taste of the performers and scenes featured more extensively in the following installments. Throughout 7 Reflections, the camera seems to serve as more of a witness to the artists, their movements, and the natural elements around them than as the agent of the art portrayed. Watching, I had the distinct sense that my role as a viewer was non-essential. That even if I closed my computer, these artists would still be inhabiting those green open spaces fully and authentically. Through shooting the film non-intrusively, Harris seems to favor holding space for the dancers over aiming to please the viewer through entertainment-based display. 

Still from AJE IJO

Unconscious Womb, the second part in the series, focuses almost solely on artist Marcus “Crownz” Cooper, who also appeared in 7 Reflections. As Cooper crouches by a tall oak tree, the camera films them through the other side of a split in the trunk. Their chest, arms, and head punch the air as if fighting an invisible ghost. Accompanying their furiousness, sounds of water, a rumbling high pitched drumming, and cacophony of crashing sounds and voices add to the confining and overwhelming tone of the space, like a pot on the verge of boiling over. The film switches between this scene and another moment where Cooper stands with their back to the camera in a stance of defeat–an enduring oscillation between anger and exhaustion. While Cooper never really wins ‘the battle,’ whatever that battle is, they continue to fight until the very end of Unconscious Womb, painting a raw, unfiltered visual of resilience and perseverance. It’s not so pretty, but what ‘real’ depiction of anything is? 

Still from AJE IJO

Both the third and fourth installments, Rivers of Nine and Immortal, showcase solos performed by Jackson. In Rivers of Nine, Jackson kneels by the crashing waves, the camera zooms in on a small teardrop rolling down their face, Jackson’s intensity rarely turning from the camera. Then, the focus shakes and blurs like a bad TV connection, a screeching sound blares and the film flashes to a dancer standing in a golden wheat field, foreshadowing calmer times to come in the fourth film, Immortal, where Jackson finally seems at peace. Spine, neck, and head arch up to the sky, remaining for a moment in soft suspension as the tall wheat grass blows in the breeze. The film could be paused at any moment to reveal Jackson in a statuesque pose. The ambient sounds and soothing scenery in Immortal mirror Jackson’s celestial state just as the pummeling waves and screeching noises reflect the turmoil of Rivers of Nine, giving equal attention to the highs and lows of this dancer. Perhaps this is to give the viewer a chance to see them in both extremes or maybe, given the performer-focused feel of AJE IJO, it is to allow Jackson to experience both states of beings. Ending the series with the peaceful Immortal, the conclusion seems to be that suffering, no matter how awful, will pass in the end.

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