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Film review: IWOW: I Walk on Water

26 February 2021

Stephen Brown watches a film full of faith testimonies

A still from IWOW: I Walk on Water

A still from IWOW: I Walk on Water

BEGINNING with “Blessed Assurance” yields a clue to what follows in IWOW: I Walk on Water (no BBFC classification). The documentary-maker Khalik Allah prowls the streets of Harlem, New York City, while “praising his Saviour all the day long” — except that it’s mainly at night at the 125th Street-Lexington Avenue junction where the action occurs.

When Allah isn’t searching for Christ in others, he alarms Reason, his mother, under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms, by suggesting that he himself is the Lord. We hear another woman, alluding to Matthew 14, repeatedly chanting “I walk on water” as if arming herself with this mantra against a sea of troubles. The alternative for these street people is to be overwhelmed and drown.

Allah challenges those he meets with the place that Jesus has in their lives. We hear remarkable stories (mainly in voiceovers) from rappers, police officers, and those adversely affected by poverty, drink, and drugs. Some have mental-health issues. Khalik is particularly drawn to Frenchie, a Haitian man in his sixties who is schizophrenic. He considers this grizzled old man his soul-friend. “Talk to me about God,” he instructs. “I like you talking about God.” And that’s what he gets, despite an impediment that makes the man’s speech nearly unintelligible.

As other interviewees — the graffiti artist Fab5 Freddie, a composer known as 4th Disciple, the barefooted Olivia, who has spent much time in hospital, others old before their time — express their beliefs, rarely does mainstream Christianity feature. Here is a panoply of lay-led faith testimonies. These people who walk in darkness have seen a great light, and Allah is here to expose it.

His Italian girlfriend, Camila, is bidden to offer a prayer for guidance in making the film. We hear several conversations that she has with Allah, on subjects ranging from the nature of God to the delights of the female anatomy. There is puzzling employment of cinematic techniques. These include different aspect ratios, switches from colour to monochrome, displays of sprocket holes and leader tape. The same goes for the array of disparate images. We are treated to lovingly poignant close-ups of Allah’s subjects interspersed with shots of Harlem, seascapes, majestic buildings, and nature.

At 199 minutes, the director seems short of meaningful material, filling the screen with anything to hand. This stream-of-consciousness approach ultimately comes over as self-indulgence, and reminded me of Rambling Syd Rumpo in Round the Horne.

While there is no doubting the director’s “uncompromising dedication to the streets”, as he describes it, I wonder what draws him, born and bred on Long Island, to this deprived area of Manhattan. I lived in Harlem during the turbulent 1960s, and, watching this, I feel that it’s yesterday once more — but without the vibrancy of those days. Allah’s street people look a sad lot, by and large. The faith proclaimed in the picture feels like that of those resigned to drowning rather than waving: less “We shall overcome” these days than “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”

In virtual cinemas and on demand from 26 February

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