Reviews Short Documentary

The Thing Is (2016) – 3.5 stars

Director: Harvey Kadijk & Smita Gayadin

Writer: Smita James

Running time: 5mins

I first encountered the work of Harvey Kadijk a few months ago when reviewing his claustrophobic take on the isolation brought on by trauma, DION. While the second film he sent to Indy Film Library is definitely not as polished or well-rounded as that effort, that is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, The Thing Is was produced four years ago.

As is made clear in our submissions criteria, we do not have a limit on the year films must be from. If you want a frank evaluation of a documentary you filmed on Super 8 in the 1970s, we will happily indulge you – and indeed, I would encourage more filmmakers to revisit their old work by asking for critical notes on it.

Looking back on our old work can be a necessary, if occasionally painful, experience; it can show us how far we have come, give us a basis to celebrate our progress as artists or appreciate the learning process we have undergone in recent years. It can also help keep us grounded, or put us back in touch with the things that made us fall in love with our art in the first place. In this case, looking at Kadijk’s earlier collaboration with poet and orator Smita Gayadin should serve to do both.

The film focuses on Gayadin’s breathless delivery of an earnest spoken-word piece imploring empathy and compassion for the LGBT+ community. The intersectional poem takes aim at constructs of class, religion, race and gender, to deliver the universal truth that all forms of love are just as valid as one-another – a message which has sadly only become more pertinent since this 2016 recording.

As with DION then, Kadijk’s camera has instinctively sought out a worthy cause, a story worth championing amid a darked era of mistrust and violence across the world – and this noble pursuit of justice should be lauded in any up-and-coming artist. At the same time, Kadijk uses the gorgeous streets of Amsterdam as a stunning backdrop for the unfolding action – a grand yet understated wallpaper which beautifully compliments Gayadin’s poetry. We follow a number of other the city’s LGBT+ community in among its timeless architecture, displaying one of the Dutch capital’s greatest virtues – despite being rooted in history, it has also managed to embrace change, and ways of life which have traditionally been shunned in Western society.

Elsewhere, however, there are more than a few rough edges on display. For one thing, early-day Kadijk seems to have been much less rigorous in his management of performers during this particular production. As the author of the poetry at the heart of the film, broadly speaking Smita Gayadin’s judgement on how to deliver the material is on-point. However, there are a number of important moments where she seems to falter, or run out of steam, due largely to where she has placed or misplaced emphasis on her words.  

For example:

“Thoughts go on and off and in a split-second presumptions are made. Prejudice on: premade thoughts who own us, divide us.”

Just after realing off a long, relentless list, Gayadin suddenly punctuates her flow with the sudden interjection of “Prejudice ON”, as if she were some grim neo-conservative superhero about to unleash her power on the unsuspecting public. She follows this with another meandering list of feelings, which culminates with the assertion that bigots can never understand what it means:

“To fist-fuck somebody’s lover for money, to be religious and not killing others. In the name of the Lord, the thing is… [A minute passes] There is nothing wrong with this.”

Again, the full-stop seems to have come early, cutting off “In the name of the Lord…” from the sentence it was clearly meant to adjoin. At the same time, maybe encouraging Gayadin to repeat “the thing is…”after the minute of footage of LGBT+ people around Amsterdam might have made it seem more like the poet was gathering her thoughts having been momentarily overwhelmed by her feelings on the subject of her prose – rather than like she had to check her script to find her place again. A little coaching from Kadijk could have gone a long way here to making the text both seem more organic, and less like it was being read aloud, while improving the flow of the film.

At the same time, while the soothing score in the background is steady and rhythmic enough to blend with Gayadin’s delivery, fooling us into believing it isn’t there while it subtly helps to lift our spirits – sometimes it very much is not there at all. It fades in and out of audibility without much rhyme or reason, which is unfortunately a little distracting at some of the most important moments of Gayadin’s oration.

With that being said, if I were to see this film without knowing who its director was, or what he was capable of now – and if it were a 2020 production – I would still note that it shows signs of great potential. Perhaps the best thing I can say here is that the artists involved seem to have done precisely what I wish all young filmmakers would – they have not rested on their laurels, they have moved forward with the best aspects of their craft and learned from their mistakes in former projects. That’s worth far more than a perfect score here.

Nobody is born an artist – be that a poet, photographer or filmmaker – but through hard work and a willingness to learn from previous efforts, anyone can become one. The Thing Is might not be perfect, but in the context of an artistic career firmly on the upward curve, it does set a great example to be followed.

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