Self-Reflection: Khalik Allah Discusses "IWOW: I Walk on Water"

The director of "Black Mother" and "Field Niggas" speaks about his latest project, an all-encompassing self-portrait.
Kelli Weston

Khalik Allah's IWOW: I Walk on Water is exclusively playing on MUBI in the UK and Ireland starting April 12, 2021.

The latest work from photographer-filmmaker Khalik Allah, IWOW: I Walk on Water, is a sprawling, ambitious, 200-minute self-portrait, a transparent exploration of the author himself through the relationships he forges as an artist and a man.

The film opens, aptly, with an a capella rendition of the classic hymn “Blessed Assurance”—sung by the director’s aunt—in a testament to his faith (Allah is a member of Five-Percent Nation) and the conviction that has defined his work. When we spoke last May—after IWOW had premiered at the 2020 True/False Film Festival and in the throes of a pandemic that had shaken the world—Allah pointed out the emblematic juxtaposition at the start of the film: He prays to God. Then, he muses on his dick size. “I thought [as a boy] it would keep growing forever,” he says to his then-girlfriend, Camilla, in voiceover. “The reason I started the film that way,”  Allah laughs, “is because I wanted people to understand that this is going to be a panoramic view… of life. It’s a 360 [degree] view of the summer into the fall 2019, specifically focused on my relationships.”

Allah first made a name for himself with his hypnotic photography and early shorts Urban Rashomon (2013) and Antonyms of Beauty (2013). IWOW marks the culmination of an unofficial “trilogy” comprised of the director’s feature debut Field Niggas (2015)—an ethnographic look at the denizens of 125th and Lexington in East Harlem—and its much acclaimed follow-up Black Mother (2018), which takes the same approach in his mother’s native Jamaica. Many of his subjects—wandering by chance into his frame before he secures their participation—belong to vulnerable classes: the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, sex workers, and so on. His casual, inquiring exchanges with them often become an introspective exercise, a reflection on his filmmaking practices, his subjective observations and philosophies. Made in the wake of Black Mother’s success, this finale is easily the most personal installment, complete with by now characteristic flourishes: cinematography shot across various formats (digital and film); unsynchronized sound; voiceover conversations that feature, among others, prominent New York hip hop figures (and mentors/friends) like Killah Priest and Fab Five Freddy. Above all, these films are thematically connected in their concern with race, poverty, spirituality and sexuality.

For the director this film’s birth is steeped in the transcendental. “I didn’t plan on IWOW at all,” he says. “I felt it was something that was being shown to me from an inward vision, like my third eye was guiding me, and saying, ‘Listen, collect this material, shoot this film, make this story, deliver this approach to filmmaking… make this third piece.’”

At the center is Frenchie, a homeless, middle-aged Haitian man with schizophrenia, who has long been a fixture in Allah’s films, since Urban Rashomon. He is a lively, intuitive, sometimes incoherent, deeply sympathetic man with whom Allah clearly shares a connection and comfortable rapport. Through Frenchie, and the countless other, mostly Black people, who populate his films, the director hopes to communicate the social dimensions that shape their ordeal.

“When I make a film like Field Niggas, people may look at that and be like, ‘damn, this is just Black people struggling.’ But the whole purpose was to show that there was so much beauty and so much happiness even amongst our people who are maybe living the street life or, you know, struggling like that,” he explains. “And then, when I deal with a post-colonial state such as Jamaica [in Black Mother], I’m showing folks the effects of colonialism and the resilience of Black people in that type of situation. I’m showing the details… that there’s more to the story than what meets the eye. It has to do with the multidimensionality of our people.”

His subjects also become the process through which the filmmaker navigates his own artistic and cultural liminalities. Born to an Iranian father and Jamaican mother who met in Bristol, Allah’s narratives on motility indirectly and directly confront his own inheritances. Here, he explicitly charts the personal and professional migrations he made as a result of his previous work. One scene baldly encapsulates these layers of ascendancy: one barefoot woman called Olivia—whom Allah has known since 2012 when he was still principally a photographer—nods off as she holds a poster for Black Mother. He is conscious of the shot’s broader implications, that filming the indigent and unmoored on the streets of Harlem begets his own mobility, to the streets of Europe, including the original Haarlem in Holland and specifically Belgium, where he would meet his Italian girlfriend Camilla, who also features prominently in the film. 

“I put it in my film that way just to show that it’s not over. Black Mother is still bubbling; it’s still continuing,” he says, “but here I am making another film already, just moving on.”

The repeated references to Black Mother and the return of subjects like Olivia and Frenchie, prove how much he hasn’t entirely moved on. “I always looked at it artistically, and just my integrity as a man wouldn’t allow me to just make a film like Field Niggas and just move on totally,” he says. “So I always knew I was coming back to the block, I always thought I would come back and revisit what Field Niggas was, I just didn’t know when.”

The ethical discourse that currently dominates contemporary documentary filmmaking emerges here in some surprising ways. Allah is open throughout the film about his more unconventional strategies, like offering his poorer subjects money. At different moments he takes Frenchie to get a haircut, puts him up in a hotel, and takes him back to his house, much to the chagrin of Fab Five Freddy, who expresses concern that Allah goes “a little too far with some of them cats.” While he encourages the filmmaker to establish stronger boundaries for his safety from what he describes as “wild elements,” the emotional consequences of the documentarian-subject relationship turn out to take precedence. When Allah later tells Frenchie that they won’t see each other—at least regularly—for some time while he edits the film together, Frenchie becomes audibly distraught. Eventually Allah relents and agrees to see him tomorrow, but the interaction clearly troubles him, too. “That’s real sad, man. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him,” he says in voiceover to a confidant. But even though the film clearly foregrounds his process, out of which these political questions unfold, Allah resists the idea that he wrestles with the prevailing ethical questions that have spawned increasingly self-conscious nonfiction cinema.

“I wasn’t wrestling with it [ethical questions]. I understood it and there were considerations. But I wasn’t wrestling with it because I don’t adhere to any laws of the film world,” he says. “There’s a lot of guilty people who are making laws; and when you got people who feel guilty and those are the ones making laws, they’re gonna project their own guilt out onto other people.

“For instance, there’s documentary filmmakers that have told me that you can’t pay your subjects because once you pay them it’s no longer real. It’s not authentic anymore. And these were people—not gonna mention who they were—but just based off of who I interpreted them to be, they may not be able to pay their subjects and have it be real, but I can. And I’m not paying my subjects hundreds of dollars; I may just give them a couple of dollars or something like that. It’s not even like I’m paying them. We just living; we just building.”

In the same vein Allah acknowledges the impulse to attend to his subjects and their stories with a certain degree of care. “Being responsible is at the forefront of my approach to the films that I make. For me, the responsibility comes down to this: depicting the essence of the person in the way that they wanted to be depicted, and in order to do that I have to have their permission,” he explains. “I don’t start filming them or recording them without first even having a relationship with them to an extent. And the emphasis is, I want you to tell me your story, even if it’s only a couple of sentences. I want you to tell me what’s going on with you right now. I want you to open up to me about what’s happening here on the streets and some of the struggles that you’re going through and some of the hardships and some of the triumphs you may have experienced in your life or whatever. If a person is willing to open up to me in that way, I record it. The responsibility is now to keep it honest about that person in a way that they would be like yeah, that’s what I mean, that’s what I said, that’s what I was going through. I don’t ever want there to be regrets,” he says. 

In part, Allah looked at the feature as a way to “liberate” himself from “the confines of business, of film as a business or film even as art [where] everything has to be nice and presentable.”

Allah explains, “I’ve never been that way anyway. I wanted people to know I wasn’t coming like the average person. You wouldn’t be able to control me. You’re not going to be able to tell me that this is ethics, or this is right, this is wrong, this is following this moral standard or this is disobeying that moral standard. I always understood that I was making the work for people that don’t even go to the cinema. I’m making the types of films I make for women like Olivia, who live on the street, who have no money, who don’t even care about that film. I’m making this film for a man like Frenchie.”

Interestingly enough, critic Vikram Murthi, in an ultimately positive review of the film for describes the film as “an insular affair,” writing that “the idea of putting a novice in front of this almost-three-and-a-half-hour behemoth feels like they would be lost in a beautiful-looking inside joke.” It’s true that the film does require some knowledge of Allah’s previous work, given how often it builds on and alludes to its predecessors.

“But that’s why this film is so important to me,” he says, “because who becomes the audience member or a supporter of this film is basically supporting freedom of the artist. When I say freedom of the artist, I don’t mean that I’m in here doing anything disrespectful or coming off in a negative way because I don’t think that freedom should be used for that. But I feel like the things that I’m saying are more revolutionary.”

Much of the freedom he feels, he believes stems from the critical success he has already enjoyed, which also turned the film into a more therapeutic experiment. “Most filmmakers in the documentary film world, or any filmmaker I suppose, wants to have mass appeal with their film. They want to go to a film festival and screen that film to an audience, or they want to get that film online and have it presented to the world. I’ve already done that. I’ve already experienced that. So this film was more personal to me. This film was therapy. It was a form of self-reflection, and dealing with growth, spiritual development. It wasn’t necessarily a film for an audience, although I know it’s gonna reach its audience.”

Certainly there are some particularly inaccessible moments, like a scene with audio of another woman performing oral sex on Allah. “Everything has a purpose,” he says. “I wanted that in the film. It’s open-ended where people can interpret it as they want to,  and a lot of people look at spiritual people as if they’re not having sex, and I wanted to dispel that and put that into the film. It was definitely not to belittle women—people may interpret it that way, but people will want to see what they want to see.”

In general, Allah invites potential critiques. “The film is so open-ended. I’m not offended by anybody misinterpreting things that might not be accurate. The same freedom that I want as an artist, is the same freedom that I want my audience to have to interpret the film in their own way.”

Indeed, narratively the film contains multiple moments in which the director confronts the challenges of those closest to them, like Fab Five Freddy, and importantly Camilla and his mother Reason, who has one of the most endearing sequences in the film. She insists on calling him “Danny” as they debate the tenets of their diverging faiths, with Reason obviously clinging to more traditional Christian values.

“Mom, do you know you gave birth to Jesus Christ?” he asks her.

“Danny, it upsets me when you say those things. Because I didn’t. I gave birth to you.”

“You can be Jesus-like,” she claims. It’s not at all tense: the exchange is winsomely tempered with warmth, affection, and moreover, humor, in a charming moment of rebelliousness in which Allah admits—to his mother’s shock—to taking psychedelic drugs.  

“My mother, that discussion between her and I was like a reintroduction,” he says. “When a person grows up they have to kind of in a sense reintroduce themselves to their parents. I just did it naturally on film. I’m grateful for everything that my mom said because it was totally unscripted.”

Black Mother did not actually feature his mother, and in fact, significantly focuses on his maternal grandfather, but Allah explains, “my mother’s energy is what I was striving to depict in certain aspects.” Although Reason expresses some skepticism when it comes to Allah filming her, she gave him his first camera when he was fourteen, the same year he discovered the Five Percenters.  “I was shooting just everything in the neighborhood,” he recalls, “whatever we were doing. That became the beginning for me.”

This genesis is particularly poetic given how deeply intertwined film and spirituality are for him.  “At the end of Black Mother a baby is born. This is that baby, metaphorically speaking. Frenchie is Christ. It’s not just me saying Khalik Allah is that. Camilla is Christ. Everybody is Christ. I’m trying to show that everybody is divinity. It’s very important that I highlight the divinity in a person. So when I put the camera on Olivia, it’s not just that I’m looking at her like somebody walking around at night time with no shoes in the summer. Now I’m trying to show that this person who seems to be covered over in poverty, underneath all that is light. That’s where my camera is aimed at.” 

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