Screenshot from Paradise Omeros.
Isaac Julien isn’t your ordinary filmmaker; his films are not your ordinary films. If you come to an Isaac Julien film looking for conventional story, plot, action and characterisation, you will undoubtedly be frustrated. If, however, you engage an Isaac Julien film as an artistic experience – in much the same way you would experience a painting or other work of visual art – and in particular, if you experience it in the multi-screen installation form that many of his films take, you may find the experience much more rewarding.
Last Thursday evening at the StudioFilmClub, a large crowd turned out as the second of two evenings of screenings of Isaac Julien’s films took place, as part of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. (The first was dedicated to a screening of Derek, Julien’s feature-length biopic of the late Derek Jarman.) This second evening was dedicated to a selection of Julien’s shorter works – Paradise Omeros, True North, Fantôme Afrique, Western Union: Small Boats, and Baltimore. They were shown in single screen format, not their original multi-screen versions; they were also screened one right after the other, giving the viewer less than ideal amount of time to properly digest what she or he had just seen (but how much time is ideal, anyway?).
Yet the five films almost all had overlapping themes and concerns – journeys and travellers, the plight of the migrant – and a number of them had at least one recurring character, giving them a palpable thread. They were also undeniably beautiful to watch: some of the images are still replaying themselves in my head over a day later. What all these images add up to, however, is something that cannot be said from a solitary viewing. Isaac Julien makes films, but he also makes art, and like the best art, they need to be experienced and re-experienced to be fully appreciated.