The Desperate African – Martine Syms

The Desperate African – Martine Syms

The Desperate African it’s a riveting and assured debut, anchored by a star turn of Stingily and Syms’ confident formalism.

Martine Syms’ First Minutes O desperate african they seem designed to give art school survivors a rush of Proustian memories through sheer panic. Palace graduate student (Diamond Stingily) is preparing for her final thesis review, her final act before graduating with a master’s degree. She is putting the finishing touches on her work as a quartet of professors enter her studio and interrogate, discuss and deface the Palace’s art, asking invasive questions and discussing obtuse jargon. It’s a dense sequence, with overlapping dialogue and a mix of perspectives punctuated by Palace’s confused and sometimes angry reaction shots. One professor reads a ridiculously prepared statement, while another insists on constantly referring to Edouard Glissant as a club (there is a notable moment when Palace finally corrects the professor with a different and more pertinent interpretation of Glissant, asserting his own intellectual good faith) .

For veterans of this process, it is both darkly comic and surprisingly realistic. Syms certainly knows him well, having attended both SAIC in Chicago and Bard College in upstate New York, where this film is set and shot. Stingily is also an artist, having collaborated with Syms on a number of projects and thus presumably well aware of the peculiar aura of excitement and dread that comes with submitting work to critics. What is most impressive about The Desperate African is that he encounters uncomfortable truths and dark humor in an otherwise realistic setting – this isn’t Terry Zwigoff’s over-the-top, ridiculous histrionics. Confidential Art School adaptation, nor a simplistic denunciation of pretentious clichés of art. Syms and Stingily do not doubt the importance of art, or the process of making it, but how black women are carefully attuned to the subtle and not-so-subtle power struggles that can infiltrate a competitive space, as well as the ways they people politicize words, gestures and objects. Although this sequence only takes up a few minutes at the beginning of the film, it colors everything that follows; Palace ends the review in tears, an image that suggests more pain and suffering than his brash, outgoing demeanor lets on.

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The rest of The Desperate African it transpires throughout the rest of the day and into the late night, as Palace begins packing to leave the next morning and tries to see friends, roommates, and a potential lover before his departure. She’s also wondering whether or not she should attend the big graduation party to close out the semester. The structure bears some resemblance to Linklater’s stunned and Confused, albeit on a smaller scale and centered on a different generation. But some things remain the same regardless of the season – namely sex and drugs.

A veteran of video production, Syms does a lot of interesting things here in her sci-fi film debut, allowing the film and its narrative to gradually unravel and become more diffused as the Palace gets drunker and louder along the way. for and during the party. She calls it a move from relatively realistic objectivity to more internalized subjectivity, culminating in a series of dizzy and disorienting encounters with her equally intoxicated peers. Syms also tries his hand at more overt stabs at styling; FaceTime calls are presented in a sort of ‘glamorous photo’ portrait, and Palace’s inner voice is occasionally represented via random internet symbols, memes and gifs that appear in quick flash cuts, blinking and you will miss them. It’s all spellbinding, anchored by a star turn from Stingily. Her blackness is only occasionally mentioned, but she is one of the few people of color seen in the film, and her large frame and orange hair make her the center of attention no matter who she is sharing a scene with. There are also class concerns that hover on the fringes, which, like issues of race, are not hammered home but act as a constant stream of potential conflict. Palace ends the film in downtown Chicago, carrying suitcases to and from a CTA Blue Line train. It’s a stark contrast to the bucolic surroundings of the Bard campus, and not so subtly suggests that Palace’s time at school was an escape from a harsher, day-to-day existence. The question, then, becomes a philosophical dilemma that has dogged many young artists: are the intellectual pursuits of higher education simply a narcissistic, frivolous bubble to take shelter within, as opposed to a more everyday existence? Should art reflect and give meaning to this very existence? Fortunately, Syms has the good sense to leave this as an open question. What a remarkably safe movie this is.

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Originally published as part of New Directors/New Movies 2022: Dispatch 3.

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