Paris Is In Harlem


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Paris Is In Harlem
"This theme and structure are a natural fit for Kallas."

How do free jazz groups manage to coordinate their playing? Intuition is a factor, as is experience – people learn to anticipate one another – but what it really comes down to is understanding a language. Rather than being created at random, the music consists of numerous learned motifs which fit together like jigsaw pieces. There’s a similarity here to the way that individual lives intersect within a city, each person’s actions influencing the choices of those around them. In Christina Kallas’ latest work, framed around a shooting in a jazz bar, it’s the points of intersection, as much as the choices, which create the story.

The film takes place on a vary particular day: the 31st of October, 2017. It’s the day when new York City finally repealed its Cabaret Law, a piece of legislation originally enacted in 1926 which forbade dancing in all spaces where food or drink was sold unless they had a licence. With the issuing of licences tightly controlled, and with a selective approach taken to enforcement, this law was used to clamp down on queer people and people of colour, as well as preventing one of the things that racist authorities really feared: people of different races dancing together and letting go of their social inhibitions. Accordingly, Kallas’ film looks at the incidental ways in which racial mixing, once treated as scandalous, has become commonplace in the city, even though prejudice remains. Nowhere is this fusion better represented, or better able to express its creative potential, than in jazz.

This theme and structure are a natural fit for Kallas, who has made her name with her command of layered, multi-character storytelling and split screen technique. The film opens with a bang – literally – as what may be gunshots are heard inside a bar, but what may easily be missed on a first viewing is just how many of the film’s protagonists are present in this scene, moving in and out of shot, engaging in small but important actions whose relevance emerges gradually as we travel back in time to follow them, and others who are inside the bar during that scene, over the course of the day. Are they hurtling towards destruction or, as the impending repeal of the law suggests, might there be room for positive resolution?

The performances are solid all round from a carefully balanced ensemble cast, and Kallas gives them plenty of support. In one extraordinary scene, two halves of a split-screen conversation were reportedly filmed simultaneously as actors in different locations spoke on the phone. Elsewhere, careful choreography sees characters track back and forth through one another’s scenes, the trajectories of those in the background only becoming clear when we return to them. Sometimes the screen splits four ways, not every shot focused on a person. We observe the streets and key locations, watch hands without seeing faces – the kinds of details one might pick up on when exploring a place in person, absorbed unconsciously without any immediate sense of why it might matter.

It takes a highly skilled director to give viewers the sense that they are moving freely through a story without direction, discovering meaning along the way before finding themselves back where they began – just as it takes skilled musicians to create the illusion of completely freewheeling jazz. Paris Is In Harlem has been painstakingly constructed to frame a series of separate dramatic storylines, and though some of these are stronger than others, the whole is very effective. Exploring contemporary issues like musical themes, , it’s a New York City symphony which hits all the right notes.

Reviewed on: 04 Feb 2022
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On the eve of New York City's controversial 'No Dancing' law getting repealed, the lives of several strangers are forever changed by a shooting at a historic jazz bar in Harlem.

Director: Christina Kallas

Writer: Christina Kallas

Starring: Vandit Bhatt, Leon Addison Brown, Ellie Foumbi, Laura Pruden, Souleymane Sy Savane, Lauren Sowa, Stephen Vause

Year: 2022

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: US


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