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Cinema of Herself: On Four Short Films by Haaniyah Angus

My favorite film this year just showed up on my Twitter feed one day. A writer I’ve followed for a long time posted a 2-minute-and-37-second-movie entitled “last night I dreamt that somebody loved me” with the words “my short film is online. i made this on a whim because i've had this idea for like months and i needed to do it even if it's shitty. enjoy.” The only introduction. I clicked and just like that I felt like I was drawn into another world, a young woman’s full existence and every dreadful thought assailing her during the beginning of the lockdown. It was February and nothing I’ve seen since has been so transporting, so full, so breathtaking and scary. It felt, in the way that the work of young artists often does, less like I was being asked to watch a new movie than that I was being entrusted with someone’s state of mind. I thought of the playwright Andrea Dunbar, whose whole life had to fit into her small body of work when she died before her 30th birthday. I thought of Fred Hampton, who was more himself and more aware of his place in history at 20 than some of us ever manage to be. Haaniyah Angus is 22 and yet in these two minutes it was as if she’d lived a hundred years. She released four shorts this year, and that was just the first. 

Angus came to my attention in late 2018 during the “When Hands Touch” debacle. She live tweeted her experience watching the movie, in which a black girl falls in love with a Nazi during the Second World War, and just like that she blew up. Its director Amma Asante blocked her on twitter and accused her of bullying her and her movie. Hunter Harris interviewed her for Vulture where she said something that I still think about every other day when I see the kinds of movies that get made as part of Hollywood and the wider film world’s attempt to finally give voice to underrepresented people in movies. “Yes, the rep for WOC within the film industry is minimal, but that doesn’t mean we should accept the lowest bar of representation.” It echoes now not simply because it’s still true (it was only two years ago, Hollywood didn’t magically get better) but because she decided to do something about it by making movies herself the only way she knew how to: with her voice, her computer, and whatever images made the most sense. 

In “last night I dreamt that somebody loved me” Angus took Super 8 footage of a happy couple in Chicago from a few decades ago and recorded a voicemail to a missing lover or maybe just a friend. The sound of the phone ringing is loud, alarmingly so. Her voice by comparison is faint, a crackling whisper. She apologizes for bothering the person on the other end of the line before spilling almost immediately into heartbreak. “I have no one else to turn to …” She ironically juxtaposes the happy couple with her trying to make peace with this person, who we don’t see or hear. The Super 8 couple appear to be as much a projection of Angus’ past with the person on the other end of the line as a kind of repudiation of older narratives of love and togetherness. Love, like everything, is different now than it was in the cinematic past. Her voice, lonely, harried, fragile, moves into a future unwritten by our foundational texts. 

There is for instance, next to nothing in the popular cinema like her second film, a 30-second sketch called “anti depressants are so not a big deal.” Sandwiched between the phrase “Why can’t I take … My anti depressants?” are Kuleshovian close-ups of her face, her hands, her mouth, and her medication, all photographed on a cell phone camera. The insistence of the images, the softness of her gaze, the exhaustion of this ritual implicitly happening every day. This is what life is like, and yet she renders it in such antique terms it feels like it should be some long forgotten ritual. 

The idea of representation is embedded in her work but she’s smart enough to not make it text. In “A Letter to Adolescence,” her third film, she didn’t have access to a crew or money for a cast, and anyway we were all newly trapped inside thanks to COVID-19. So she drafted images from movies that spoke to her, including Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Angus has written eloquently and passionately on social media over the years about life as a black muslim woman living in England, and in so casually showing that she identified with “Lady Bird” put the lie to so many of the bad faith arguments for representation in cinema, that she should be happy to have bad art if the characters look a little more like her. 

Movies should be honest, first, and she saw herself in Lady Bird’s flawed heroine as much as she did the frightened and newly alone lovers of “Beale Street.” And yet she still manages to create a portrait of herself that feels distinct from Gerwig’s self-portrait, that’s nevertheless enriched by its appearance. “I’m angry because I deserved better and so did you,” she says at the film’s end, speaking not merely of the way her government dropped the ball dealing with COVID, nor of the way the word is so hard on girls, but because when she went looking for herself in movies, she only saw so much because there just weren’t that many honest options. A film like this, in which Angus’ English accent gently dominates the sound design asking questions of her younger self and to phantom young women everywhere, is not simply a question to the authority of the movies given to young women, but an answer. Here is a highly personal cinema that opens itself to any viewer. 

Her fourth film and latest so far is the two-and-a-half-minute poem “The Tale of Eurydice” and despite still being methodically similar to her other works, feels like a departure. It may be her best yet. It starts with a collage of Renaissance-era paintings of tragic heroine Eurydice (wisely side-stepping direct cinematic representation of the character) set to a harp glissando from "Midsommar," immediately placing us in a misty, mythic headspace. It then cuts to images from Gerwig’s “Little Women,” set to Nicholas Brittel’s score from “Beale Street.” The progression from Gerwig’s images of Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird” to “Little Women” alerts us to the progression of Angus’ narrator out of her adolescence into adulthood. Like Ronan and Gerwig’s Jo March, this version of Angus is writing her own story. “Today is Eurydice’s 19th Birthday, it’s a day she never imagined being around to witness.” 

Several months into the pandemic and these opening lines suck the air out of your lungs. She turns the tale of Eurydice and Orpheus into what appears to be at least a partly autobiographical sketch, as clips from Paul Dano’s “Wildlife” and Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” complement her narration. She compares Orpheus to her father while on screen clips of Nino Castelnuovo and Catherine Deneuve’s courtship in “Umbrellas” plays out, tantalizingly hinting that her past and the cinematic past have become inextricable, and also allowing the kind of romance of a departed family figure to linger in uncomfortable melancholy. In essence, the family we don’t see, the lover we don’t hear, they’re all like memories of movies now, or at any rate they’re projected in our unconscious at the same speed. She has deliberately conflated her life alone in her room with images of loneliness that have spoken to her, and in so doing proven the elasticity of cinema in qualifying our emotions. 

Perhaps more important than any victories in her films as beautiful prose poetry is the creation of herself as a character in her movies. Angus is now a character with which other people can identify and she didn’t have to compromise in any way. Everything from her struggles with an eating disorder to her regiment of medication is in here, for all to see. That’s how it should be, how it must be if honest progress is to be made, even if movies like this seem to be something the mainstream is physically incapable of producing. She created a space for herself in cinema by simply being herself. The emergence of one of the most exciting new voices in film is one of the most inspiring stories in a year that’s been largely absent anything resembling hope. In Angus’ cinema she sees the past. I see the future.

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a critic and filmmaker who writes for and edits the arts blog Apocalypse Now and directs both feature length and short films.

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