To Anisia Uzeyman, the United States are a dream. Complete with surreal landscapes and too real terrors, her portrait of the country is both a panegyric and a cautionary tale. Shot in 2012 on an iPhone 4 and 4S, Dreamstates finds success in moments of sincerity allowed by an inconspicuous, always-ready camera. With a more traditional approach and an earlier release date, Uzeyman could have made the same splash that Sean Baker did at Sundance 2015 with iPhone-shot Tangerine. But rather than emulate a big-budget aesthetic, Uzeyman makes poetry of love, pain and music within the black American experience.
Of Rwandan descent and Parisian birth, Uzeyman offers an unfiltered perspective on Americana. “This country is so, so big,” she remarked, “as a foreigner it explains a lot of things.” We pass through New Orleans’ street music scene, New York, the vast Midwestern plains, and our very own Port of Oakland cranes. Her unpolluted vision takes notice of customs where most of us turn a blind eye (e.g. an Iowan gas station’s 10% pro-life discount). It’s the kind of illumination that finds both wonder and trouble in our sense of normal. As her husband and co-star Saul Williams remarked on the socio-political backdrop of the film, “it’s not necessarily the story, but it’s not to be erased from the story.”
Although Uzeyman insists the film is a work a fiction, inescapable elements of reality are essential to her diegesis. Most evident is the fact that Uzeyman and her real-world husband, musician and actor Saul Williams, play a couple traveling America on Williams’ real-world tour. They film each other in bed, in the back of the van, in the green room, with an intimacy impossible to manufacture. Meanwhile, the production’s surrounding reality seeps in through the windows, the billboards, the radio. A news broadcast referencing the murder of Trayvon Martin precedes a scene of turbulence in their relationship.
Following the screening, which took place at The Lab on 16th St. in San Francisco as part of The Black Aesthetic, Uzeyman explained that they were coincidentally on their way to film the breakup scene in Florida when the Trayvon Martin incident occurred (not as much a coincidence as an indication of America’s police problem). As Williams described in the Q&A, the film became the experience of traveling America with a group of black males: “The concerts were one thing but the rest stops and the gas stations and all that was another, she was observing our behavior, like “no no no, let’s not stop there””.
Dreamstates’ success is neither a fluke nor an individual stroke of genius. Over several years, Uzeyman assembled a world-class team to transform her raw iPhone footage into a cohesive, finely-crafted love story. Editor Jean-Marie Lengellé (Blue Is The Warmest Color, Timbuktu) and sound designer Blake Leyh (The Wire, Tremé, Into the Woods) provided technical expertise, and Williams’ (Niggy Tardust, Martyr Loser King) throbbing score and Afro-Punk performances provided the heartbeat. Among the Executive Producers are art world icons Wangechi Mutu and Maripol.
As a music documentary or road trip film, Dreamstates would rank among my favorites – but the film doesn’t sit squarely in either category. There is an unmistakable New Wave influence in Uzeyman’s directorial sensibility, employing loose voiceover and improvisation. In fact, Uzeyman herself recently starred in a film titled Ayiti Mon Amour, recalling New Wave matriarch Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. But the sharpest comparison for Dreamstates would be John Cassavetes’ Shadows, a famously improvised film similarly focused on race relations in the US. Each elucidates the country’s strained relationship with race through experimentation, unscripted experiences, and black music.
Having proven her capacity with minimal resources, Uzeyman should be a target for heavyweight producers. She has the vision, the execution, the presence and the collaboration – if I had cash I’d invest it in her next project. I don’t, but at least I’ll have this on record when somebody else gives her what she needs and something special hits the screen.
T. Anthony Schear doesn’t accept the status quo. His progressivist rebellion from the status quo substantiates his opinions. These are ideas you’ve never heard before, which make you think: Where did these thoughts come from? Are they potentially concerning? Wiki | Portfolio