Kicks – a film review


at the Sideshow [image source:]

Not long after I saw Justin Tipping’s debut feature film Kicks, I somehow came across a whole pile of those “cinema is over” and “cinema is dead” pronouncements from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and others. Aside from the fact that these pronouncements were all made at times when these iconic filmmakers had new films to market, it struck me as interesting that their particular generation of filmmakers were lamenting the current stage of filmmaking precisely when new filmmakers from outside of the traditional filmmaking demographic were finally getting their work out there for all to see. I mean, film artists like Tipping, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins and Amma Assante, to name a few. The great Kelly Reichardt has just been the focus of a huge BFI retrospective and symposium. Yes, these are not the traditional “white male” directors, but surely by now we should be past the stage of expecting that all film directors are white men. Plenty of them are, and that’s fine, but not all. What this means is that other kinds of stories can be told, new ideas are coming out and this can only enrich cinema and take it further. I suppose I was just a bit surprised that Scorsese doesn’t see a link between his early film-making, films like Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and films like Kicks by Justin Tipping.
I was very fortunate to be able to host a master class by Tipping at Central St. Martins, to the BA and MA students studying film. Tipping had many interesting things to say, which I’ll get to, but first I want to give a mini review of the film.
It is a deceptively simple story of a teenage boy on the cusp of young adult hood, but very self-conscious about his scrawny physique and lack of masculine identity when he compares himself to his friends. He comes to believe that the best way of gaining status in his social circle is to have a truly desirable pair of kicks – sneakers – and after some effort requires a pair. However, these become the focus of local bullies, and he is soon relieved of them. This sparks a rage in him that he barely understands, as he goes off on an increasingly violent quest to retrieve his precious shoes and assert himself in the world.
Robert de Niro, who liked the film, is quoted as describing KICKS as a “portrait of a young man drowning in the expectations of machismo.” The film addresses notions of status and power as well as masculinity, and it shows how these ideas are embedded at a young age. The film makes us question these toxic narratives of masculinity, not only as they exist within the smaller circle of Bay Area teens portrayed in the film, but within the wider culture which we all inhabit.
KICKS has been compared to de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and it certainly has an affinity with that neorealist film classic, but what is interesting to me, and what’s really different, is the commodity fetishism of the shoes. It’s very recognisable, but also very disturbing. The shoes don’t just mean shoes; like the bicycle in Bicycle Thieves, the shoes represent a whole way of life and position in the world and sense of self-esteem. However, unlike the bicycle, the shoes have no utility, they are simply commodity fetish. Tipping’s film does an excellent job of really conveying to the viewer the real importance of the shoes, and their core necessity in the life of the protagonist Brandon (Jahking Guillory), as well as their function within the wider social circle – while never detouring from the stark reality of the complete uselessness of the shoes and their inability to actually give any concrete benefit to Brandon or anybody else. Which is the tragedy of our times.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between three friends, Brandon and his bigger and somewhat more self-assured buddies Albert and Rico (magnificently played by Christopher Jordan Wallace and Christopher Meyer). The friendship is tested many times during the story, and the dialogue is well-written and well directed, with an authenticity that almost hurts as we see the three talking and joshing around and constantly on the edge of saying and expressing what they really want to say and really feel, yet always just holding back.
Another very interesting aspect of the film is the “villain,” Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), a local thug who steals the shoes. Siriboe, who is excellent and definitely an actor to watch out for, soon reveals Flaco to have a surprising motivation for the theft and the character is much more well-rounded, interesting and (dare I say it) even sympathetic, than one expects. The violence in the film, which is sparingly and effectively used, is never gratuitous and never justified. One of the great set pieces of the film is a “sideshow,” a big gathering of young people on a vacant lot, where they spin their cars, drink and smoke weed and show off. It is a buoyant, exuberant social scene, but one which can turn ugly in a split second. The great Mahershala Ali appears as Brandon’s uncle and the father of a clan of young men who are just getting into a way of life that may not end well. Again, Ali’s character is multidimensional and although the part is small, it makes a powerful impact. Altogether the film demonstrates convincingly the limited lives framed by poverty and lack of opportunity, where aspirations are small, local and potentially deadly. Figures of authority – Brandon’s mother (who clearly sees a different path for her son), teachers, police and so forth – are not seen in the film at all.
The film boasts beautiful camerawork by Michael Ragen, that preserves the necessary realism of the film but at the same time aetheticizes it, without prettifying the conditions. If I have one aesthetic criticism, it is that slow motion is used a little bit too much; in my view it would have been better if the slow motion appeared only in the last third of the film. However, this doesn’t spoil the film experience at all.
In the master class Tipping was very generous with his time and shared many insights with the students, who clearly appreciated the opportunity to meet the director. Tipping revealed some very interesting things. Although the film appears to be about the African-American community in the Bay Area, Tipping points out that the story is much more universal, just as in the area is quite multi-ethnic. Tipping, who has a Filipino heritage, grew up in the Bay Area and elements  of the films are semi-autiobiographical. The production held very open-minded casting calls and was prepared to cast actors of any race who appeared right for the part. However, after exhaustive searching through youth groups and many casting calls, he has ended up with a predominantly African-American cast of uniform excellence. It is interesting to understand that the film is not specifically about an “African-American cultural situation” but is deeper and broader than that.

The film’s subject matter is close to his heart.  Tipping wrote the film while doing his MFA at the American Film Institute. Once he won the Student Academy Award and the Director¹s Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award with his short film NANI, the opportunity was there to finally realise Kicks. But it took time, luck and a lot of support from people who were willing to ignore the prevailing “wisdom” that films about Black people (or made by anyone other than a white male) would never “sell.” I think we are all aware how unwise that “wisdom” is. We want and need films that offer us a variety and range of voices and visions.

Tipping hopes that the film will make a contribution to opening up the question about hyper- masculinity in contemporary society. Kicks is a powerful film and certainly one which young people would do well to see. Unfortunately, in the United States the film received an R rating simply because, in his quest for authenticity, it uses “bad language.” The irony of this is hilarious yet sick-making: the film is only rarely violent, and the violence as mentioned is not gratuitous, unlike the vast majority of films which receive much lower ratings. Luckily the film is out on streaming media, which completely bypasses the rating system which is purely for cinematic exhibition. However, it does mean that the film will not be shown in schools and youth clubs, which to me is very shortsighted and unfortunate.

Hopefully the film will reach its intended audience, and hopefully the British audience will find the film and take it on board. It’s on iTunes and all usual streaming outlets.



Short Films Review: BBC Arab film Festival 2017

Today I visited the BBC Arab film Festival 2017, which is a showcase of films from across the Arabic-speaking world, presented by the BBC with the support of the City of London and involving a wide variety of people from the BBC, the Guardian and independent film production. It’s a big deal and is probably the main showcase for films from the Arabic-speaking world in the UK. Unfortunately, Arabic-language films rarely get screened in the UK, even in London.  I don’t know why, because as a general rule London has a broad taste for world cinema and I don’t doubt that there’s a big audience out there. Certainly the screening I went to was packed with cinephiles, and I would be surprised if the rest of the screenings are not similarly busy. However, I wish it was possible to see films from the region on a more regular basis, in cinemas, screening events and of course on DVD.

So what did I see today? It was a program of shorts, one documentary and four fiction films and I’m going to review four of them. I discuss them in the order that they were screened today


The first film I saw was called Aida, directed by Maysoon ElMassry, a student at Egypt’s National Film School. It’s not like any film school project I’ve seen; it’s a really strong and well realized piece of observational documentary. The subject is a very old woman called Aida, who was well known in the city of Alexandria as a flower seller. For over fifty years she has trudged the streets of Alexandria selling flowers; the film shows her in the twilight of her life when every movement is slow motion without a camera. We see her getting ready to go out, as she edges slowly and gingerly down a long staircase from her upper story flat to the street below, where she pushes an old wheelchair piled with flowers to sell on the street. Each day is a repetitive, Sisyphean event. It is pathetic. Yet she is not pathetic; she is strong and proud, dignified and, we suspect, stubborn. She never speaks, and the filmmaker never directly addresses her; it is truly fly-on-the wall cinema. The camera focuses all the time on Aida, but we get a strong sense of the chaos and cacophony of the modern city, as she trundles her way through heavy traffic stopping cars to sell them flowers and cadge a cigarette. As a portrait of old age, it is sad. Yet as a portrait of human dignity it is immensely beautiful and makes us understand just how valuable human dignity is.


The second film, Jareedy, is also by an Egyptian filmmaker, Mohamed Hisham, and it is a drama set in Nubia in the far south of Egypt. A “jareedy” is a type of small boat used by the Nubians to cross the Nile, and it becomes the dream of a young boy who is haunted by the stories and cultural memory of the displacement of the Nubian people for the building of the High Dam. The most striking thing about the film is the cinematography, revealing the beauty of the landscape, the power of the river and the starkness of the sandy, sundrenched hills. The village, with its painted houses and exuberant children,  comes alive in this film, showing a world which few of the film’s audience will probably have seen (even among Egyptians, as the director pointed out during the Q&A). Again the theme of human dignity comes out, as both the young boy and the old man refuse to forget the Nubia that once was; they claim their rootedness in the land, and their insistence on memory and story is a stance of dignity.


Fate, Wherever It Takes Us is a different type of film, a personal autobiography by Kadar Fayyad. Fayyad works with NGOs on human rights issues, and issues around youth and conflict. However, she is also a refugee – a Syrian national who went to Jordan to do her master’s degree and found that her country had fallen apart when she was away. Now she lives under asylum in Amman, where she continues her work. She was invited to create an auto-portrait on film in a workshop organized by Danish film project. Fayyad use her phone camera, which leads to some very interesting experimental moments, as she muses on the concept of “fate.”  It is an immensely moving, touching portrait of an ordinary woman, little different to myself or any of my friends, who has found herself in this strange position. She speaks delicately about her state of existence at this fault line of human tragedy which is the Syrian conflict. Somehow she makes us feel as though it could happen to any of us, any time – and indeed this is true.


The final film of today’s screening was shocking and it made me cry. Yes, really. It is a drama called Mare Nostrum and was made by the Syrian filmmaking duo Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf. I really wish everybody with eyes should see this movie. It is set on an unnamed beach on the Mediterranean shore where a Syrian father rehearses over and over an agonizing ritual in the hope that it will lead to salvation. It is beautiful, with gorgeous painterly abstract moments, which are at the same time taut and terrible. The best and worst thing about the film is how recognizable it is, how much we are already aware of the story, and of the suffering and of the helplessness. Yet it is not a despairing film; it forces us to confront our own judgments and the judgments of others – particularly those voices in the media – and examine, and imagine what it takes to make such a decision. Shocking, yes; compelling, yes; essential, definitely.


Following the screening, there was a really interesting panel discussion featuring the filmmakers which (barring the usual complete idiot’s question – there’s always one) was enlightening and stimulating.

Out of today’s experience watching these films, it comes to me again, in a very immediate and urgent way, how important art is, and how important a tool like cinema can be to give voice and visual complexity to things which are talked about endlessly in the media.  But the nature of media discourse makes what we see/hear there almost impossible to feel. Art is not media discourse, it has much more potential to make us examine things in depth and to engage emotionally. All of the films presented today manage to do that very successfully, and this is what art is for.


Interview: Rana Kazkaz & Anas Khalaf (Mare Nostrum)