IWOW: I Walk on Water review – freeform meditation on New York's dispossessed

I Walk on Water is a hefty documentary project from artist and film-maker Khalik Allah: something that might be called an investigative meditation on the lives of the homeless, the marginal and the dispossessed in Harlem in New York City, and the film-maker’s own life. Lasting three hours and 19 minutes, it is an expansive collage of video, celluloid and 16mm, in colour and black-and-white, something close to underground cinema.

Allah simply lets the camera roll open-endedly and talks to street people like the Haitian man nicknamed Frenchie (we never hear what his actual name is), whom he has photographed before. The director often uses the 125th Street subway station as his base of operations; he features rappers’ performances and also films the uniformed NYPD cops, whose faces are half-smiling masks of opaque indulgence. Allah brings his Italian girlfriend, Camila, into the story, recording his often agonised introspective conversations with her. (He reveals at one stage that apparently his film was going to be called “Camila”). He moreover bizarrely includes encounters with his own longsuffering parents: conversations during which he candidly reveals himself to be under the influence of shrooms and believes himself to be Jesus Christ – to his mother’s very considerable dismay. This sequence explains the title, and, also, on a slightly more serious level, could have something to do with his concerns for the lowly, the last whom Jesus said would be first.

This is a film which has been described as “immersive”, though a sceptic might say that its sheer length means that audiences, however sympathetic, will inevitably at moments lose attention and de-immerse. Maybe some of it is redundant, and there are an awful lot of droning druggie conversations off-camera, including a very weird discussion about how awful brussels sprouts are. But the length is what gives it its texture, and its shapelessness is how it becomes exploratory, almost a real-time autobiography. Allah is asking profound questions, in his way, about what it is like to be people like Frenchie, to live outside the framework of connected prosperity.

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• Released on 26 February on digital platforms.


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