THE FOREIGNER’S HOME: Oberlin filmmakers Rian Brown and Geoff Pingree’s new documentary on Toni Morrison and the role of artists as chroniclers, curators, and critics of the soul of humanity
The Foreigner’s Home is author and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s meditation on the role of artists as chroniclers, curators and critics of the collective soul of humanity. Cleveland director, producer, editor, animator and filmmaker Rian Brown directed the unusual documentary, a compilation of footage shot by Morrison’s son, Ford Morrison when she stepped in as guest curator of The Foreigner’s Home—a 2006 exhibition at the Louvre—as well as interviews, stills, clips, and animation. Foreigner premiered in the Netherlands at this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival this past January.
Morrison’s opens the film like this: “My faith in the world of art is not irrational, and it’s not naïve. Art invites us to take the journey from data to information, to knowledge, to wisdom. Artist make language, images, sounds to bear witness, to shape beauty, and to comprehend. My faith in their work exceeds my admiration for any other discourse.”
That’s a lot for the average audience to take in.
“I hope that the film speaks to everyone, not just artists,” says Brown. “It wasn’t made to be an insider experience. The film speaks directly about the urgency of events happening to millions of people across the globe right now who are being displaced by war, hostile governments, hurricanes and religious and racial intolerance. It is about the foreigner and the power structures who decide who is a foreigner and who isn’t.”
According to Brown, the exhibition was warmly received by the public and the press, slam poets and all. But the film doesn’t deal with that. It is more an intimate study of Toni Morrison on a mission. While documentaries of this type are typically pitched through the conventional Hollywood machine, Foreigner had an unconventional impetus.
“Jonathan Demme reached out to [co-director] Geoff Pingree and me, who are both filmmakers at Oberlin College,” says Brown. “She had some videotapes shot by her son Ford…[t]he tapes had never been seen. Morrison wanted Jonathan to find someone discrete who could take a close look, see what was there—and to possibly cut something together.”
Five years on and the film is done. Putting together a film from footage you did not shoot or direct poses challenges. It puts many different cooks in a very intimate kitchen.
“Funny you should day use the cooking analogy,” says Brown. “At first it felt a little bit like cooking with foundational ingredients that allowed for a feast to be created around them. After working for while with the original tapes, we realized that original material from the Louvre wasn’t enough to make a movie. So, in the end, most of the film we did shoot and create ourselves. We filmed interviews with Toni Morrison and [award-winning Haitian-American novelist] Edwidge Danticat in 2015 which frame the piece, I created original hand-painted animations, and we selected every piece of archival footage. In the end, we had visual control and a hand in most every frame.”
DIG-TAC, the animation technique Brown created, combines digital elements with hand painting. It is enchanting and adds another dimension to the storytelling. “The process weaves the physicality and spontaneity of the analog brush/charcoal mark into the digital moving image in order to create tension between the two gestural rhythms. I created the thousands of individual paintings for the DIG-TAC experimental animations,” says Brown. “I like the mark of the hand with animation because of its sincerity. You lose the human element with CGI.”
“During [Morrison’s] time in Paris,” says Brown, “she invited artists, writers, filmmakers, poets and choreographers working outside their native language from all over the globe who posed questions about otherness and exile in their work. It wasn’t just a forum exclusively about black arts, but about artists investigating themes of immigration and the notion of being a foreigner in a global sense.” Exploring the perspective of the outsider is significant to Brown and a recurring theme in all her work.
“I have explored ‘otherness’ in many of my [other] films,” says Brown. “This latest film is made of a complicated tapestry of materials and urgent global topics about being an outsider. Ultimately the core message of the film about how the work of artists and their exploration of these issues is, in Morrison’s own words, “vital to what it means to be human.” Indeed, foreigners—artists or not—bring objective eyes and inquiry not poisoned by pretense or politics that others may not.
Subjectively speaking, Black artists and Black Arts, in general, seem to get an audience and appreciation overseas neither can find in America. Since Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin and more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates, France has provided a fresh breath to the Black American creative. Morrison uses Foreigner to investigate colonial and social otherness broadly, and the artists’ responsibility is to lead these conversations.
A Cleveland premiere is in the works this spring, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. An exhibition of Brown’s hand-painted DIG-TAC animations is slated for September at the Sculpture Center.