Cinéma du Réel 2023 review: Allensworth (James Benning)

“Benning’s cinema is one that heightens the senses, but it also allows the mind to wander; in fact, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.”

Allensworth, est. 1908. This is the scant information you get at the start of the same-titled film by American director James Benning. Going into one of Benning’s films blind is something of a fool’s errand, but for Allensworth this is particularly true because his specific brand of landscape cinema is frugal in contextualizing its images, and context is key for his latest subject. Allensworth is a town that was, as the opening title card says, founded in 1908 by and for African Americans, but its heritage only reveals itself in bite-size details, and even then only for those with a solid grasp of black history (or those who read the synopsis). In twelve shots of slightly more than five minutes, filmed over the period of one year, the landscapes of a town that was largely abandoned after the first World War evoke a history of inequality and prejudice through the sparse usage of diegetic music and a single staged scene.

Benning’s films require both patience and perception to fully appreciate his collages of American life. Detractors might label his work slideshow cinema, but Allensworth is the latest work in a long string of contemplative documentaries that are often completely devoid of human life. But there is much to discover in the American landscape for those willing to open their eyes, the absence of people emphasizing the desolation of the open spaces the US prides itself on. Starting with a shot of a lone, leafless tree against a grey January sky, the cycle through the months heightens the senses cinema intends to tickle. The longer you watch, the more you see, hear, and eventually feel. Shifting light and bursts of sudden sunshine painting a shadow across the simple wooden or metal-plated houses that have inhabited their space for over a century; birds chirping a score as we read a single tombstone in a dilapidated cemetery; Nina Simone’s one-in-a-thousand voice singing Blackbird in the background as our eyes examine a shed that has seemingly been in disuse for decades.

Blackbird and Huddie Ledbetter’s emotional In the Pines, both standards of black music, are oblique connections to the rural town’s history, with a more direct and almost shocking departure from Benning’s regular format coming in the form of the ‘August’ section. During what is traditionally the first month of a school year, we suddenly find ourselves in a classroom, where a black girl (Faith Johnson) recites several poems by Lucille Clifton in a replica of a dress worn by civil rights activist Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine who attended a previously all-white school in Arkansas in 1957. Clifton’s powerful and evocative poetry sharply outlines Allensworth‘s intent: to render the black experience of struggle and adversity in stark, metaphorical imagery.

Benning’s cinema is one that heightens the senses, but it also allows the mind to wander; in fact, it’s one of the most rewarding parts of the experience. Exploring what your eyes and ears can pick up, one examines the role of sights and sounds in the larger frame of the film, as well as having one’s fancy tickled about what is going on just outside the frame of the camera. A certain amount of patience is needed for this most demanding of documentary genres, but those going in with an open mind will find Allensworth an experience that freshens the senses and lets you see the potential of cinema on the outer edges of the art form. That to fully immerse yourself in the film requires a bit of reading up on black history beforehand is something you’ll have to take in the bargain.