Khalik Allah’s IWOW: I Walk on Water is an ambitious, bewildering stream of consciousness; visual, aural, even ethereal. A film that looks past first impressions, and stops, taking the time to listen and learn about faces, places and stories too easily disregarded, it purposefully eschews any kind of generic classification or simple payoff.
With a higher meaning and intention than straight documentary, I Walk on Water is – dare it be said – a work of art, to be experienced or endured, depending on where you sit or stand. Confusing, challenging and at times infuriating, invest the time to let this film wash over you and its revelations of homelessness, addiction, faith and poverty really leave their mark. Allah describes his latest project as “a sort of first-person documentary poem; a statement of my artistic integrity and my uncompromising dedication to the streets.” And inasmuch as any one sentence could summarise this mammoth venture, this statement does well.
For as much as Allah trains his camera on others – changing lenses, film stock and from colour to monochrome photography in an effort to regard his subjects, subject and locations from every angle – I Walk on Water is also a journey of self-discovery. Seeking meaning, both spiritual and personal, here is a man and filmmaker searching for his voice, exploring his relationship with Italian girlfriend Camilla, and to what ends he should target his talents. Which side of the line between hubris and conviction his frequently self-aggrandising comments fall will be subjective, but there’s no doubt as to witnessing something truly unique here.
Again training his creative, compassionate eye on the intersection of 125th and Lexington, the New York photographer and director returns to the scene of his 2015 film Field Niggas. “Unless you’re falling, you don’t really think about gravity,” says Darkim Be AllahChrist. One of many hip-hop and rap artists to convene, comment and chew the fat with the director as his microphone and camera roll. This concise bite of streetwise philosophy keys into the second leg of the two-pronged attack of Allah’s film. What series of terrible circumstances or life events must intersect for a person to find themselves here?
And why is there no support network or infrastructure to stop them from reaching this point? As for former projects, it is Frenchie – a Haitian man in his sixties who lives on the streets of Harlem – who centres IWOW. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic, the years of abuse and misfortune that he has suffered are plain to see and hear from our first meeting. Cared for and about by Allah, whether his close relationship to Frenchie is beneficial or problematic is a point for debate with friends and his mother. Does this lack of objectivity detract from or contribute to the overall message of the film? Again, this is a question to be answered from viewer to viewer.
But as sound and image have, from the outset, fought one another in a tussle for dominance – incongruous and dissonant, lips move out of sync and what we see seldom matches what we hear – this feverish sensory overload does finally flow. Images of the ocean and gentle waves, often inserted as a break between rolls of film, a chance to breathe between thoughts and contemplate, lap against the shore in the final moments. No miracles are performed here, but a very harsh reality, soaring spirituality and a dreamlike state of reckoning somehow find a way to coalesce.
IWOW: I Walk on Water is in virtual cinemas & on demand from 26 February. watch.dogwoof.com
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63