Khalik Allah was perhaps uniquely suited to direct “Black Mother,” a cinematic essay about life in Jamaica. Born to an Iranian father and a Jamaican mother, raised on Long Island but a frequent visitor to his mother’s homeland, Allah shot his film over the course of several years with an insider’s knowledge of the cultural terrain but an outsider’s observant eye. “Black Mother” captures just about every aspect of Jamaica — poverty, prostitution, Colonial history, food.
What sparked the idea for the movie was something fairly simple. “I’ve been going there all my life, since I was 3, and I’ve never seen a film about Jamaica that wasn’t about reggae,” says Allah, speaking by phone recently from his parents' house in East Patchogue, where he was born and raised. “So that was the impetus — to show my real impression of the island.”
In the relatively small world of experimental documentary film, “Black Mother” has made a major splash. It premiered last year at True/False, the influential nonfiction film fest in Columbia, Missouri, then moved on to showings in Copenhagen, Paris, London and beyond, including a stop at New Directors/New Films, the prestigious festival organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Along its journey, critics have praised “Black Mother” as “enthralling,” “bold” and “brilliant.” The movie screens at Manhattan's Metrograph theater through Thursday. A Q&A with Allah will follow screenings at 6:15 p.m Saturday.
“Black Mother” is only the second full-length feature from Allah, 33, who began shooting video with a Hi8 cassette camera, a Canon ES90, that his mother bought for his 14th birthday. Film school is not on his résumé, Allah says. After high school came a stint at Suffolk County Community College, then a single semester at Five Towns College in Dix Hills. A job as a broadcast technician for AMC Networks in Bethpage allowed Allah to stay afloat for several years while pursuing his filmmaking career.
Allah’s first documentary, about people he found at the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, drew attention for its impolitic title but also for its distinctive style: candid, intimate portraits, filmed in slow motion, accompanied by non-synchronized audio of their interviews. Allah employed the same technique for “Black Mother,” which captures a wide range of events: a man negotiating with a sex worker, a street philosopher railing against sugary drinks, the funeral of Allah’s grandfather, a woman giving birth.
Later this month, Allah will return to Jamaica, where he lives part time, to screen the film at the University of the West Indies, and he’s hoping for good reviews.
“The movie is such a visual mirror,” he says. “And not everyone likes what they see in the mirror.”
WHAT "Black Mother"
WHEN | WHERE Through March 14, Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., Manhattan, check website for show times.
INFO $12-$15; 212-660-0312, metrograph.com