“Cinema is a physical experience”: Alex Reuben showcase at HOME

We head to HOME for a special screening of work by filmmaker Alex Reuben

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 07 May 2015

To the newly-minted HOME this May bank holiday weekend, to check out the sprouting buds of its film programme. The £25 million multi-arts venue may still be under construction (when we visit, the wing due to house the new gallery space is still strewn with workers' tools and building materials), but new artistic director of film Jason Wood’s early cinema lineup has been firing on all cylinders, with one-off special events and plenty of screen time given over to films outside the general release.

One such one-off was a screening of Alex Reuben’s 55-minute documentary Routes: Dancing to New Orleans. “One of the things I want to try and do is create a forum for films that slip between the cracks,” Wood told us last month ahead of HOME’s opening. Reuben’s film certainly fits the bill.

Released in 2008 to little fanfare on a single screen in London’s Notting Hill, it’s the kind of overlooked gem we hope to see more of over at HOME in the coming months. It takes the form of a quixotic road movie through the southern states of America. Without voiceover or inter-titles, we're dropped into the melting pot that is the music and dance traditions of the Deep South. We see white hill folk slapping wooden boards with their bare feet, black cheerleaders putting on a bootylicious performance at a Friday night football game, Native Americans with their tribal displays and Christians in their Sunday best tap-dancing for Jesus.

The film was clearly made for peanuts and the digital image is lo-fi, but it’s also poetic and evocative: in each vignette the sense of place and community is finely rendered. The documentary's road movie format is the kicker: it suggests a relationship with the South's landscapes and its dance forms – they become interlinked. "I call it ‘choreogeography’,” says the director during the Q&A that concluded the screening. ”It's a bit like psychogeography, but without words.”

The editing, too, is simple but effective. We don’t need any voiceover commentary to understand what Reuben is trying to say by juxtaposing two similar-looking dancefloors where two different communities are dancing the night away. The music and the dance moves in each hall are nearly identical – the difference is in the dancers' skin colour. One group is universally white, the other black.

“For me Routes is a very political film,” says Reuben. “What I’m trying to show visually is how colonisation and slavery have merged with indigenous American indian forms to create those dances and forms of music that we think are separate but aren’t even close to being separate. You can see how close certain forms of step are to African dance, to Indian dance, to British dance. We tend to think, 'Oh, they’re just folk dances from Britain,' but they’re not: they’re all connected.” 

Routes was screened with two of Reuben’s shorts – Que Pasa and Line Dance – and Cinderella (RockaFela), a rough work-in-progress. All four show a filmmaker fascinated by the human body as an expressive tool, a canvas on which we create. “I’m interested in improvisation, the feeling of what happens in the moment,” he says. “And I’m interested in how people express themselves naturally and physically.” As a subject, the democratic forms of dance chime perfectly with this cinematic ambition.

“When you watch a film in the cinema you have a physical experience” – Alex Reuben

Reuben, whose background is in art and design, describes feeling like he’s painting in sound and image when he makes movies. Interestingly, he’s not keen on his films being viewed in any platform outside of the big screen. “When you watch a film in the cinema you have a physical experience, of both the image and the sound,” he explains. This is backed up during the Q&A when several of the audience members confess to feeling like they wanted to get up and dance during the screening.

The atmosphere of the auditorium is also important, he says. In the dark, it’s just you and the film: “It’s a projection that’s completely different from watching it on a computer screen or even on TV. You can't pause it, you don't get up and make a cup of tea – you’re in that moment.” Given that his work itself is all about being in the moment, he feels it loses its power in any other setting.

Seeing a film amplified on screen also amplifies your emotional reaction, he reckons: “The empathy you feel with the figures is something that you don’t feel when you watch something small. And also, you usually watch things on a small screen with very bad sound – not always, sometimes you’ve got headphones, but even the best computer speakers are pretty bad. Plus you don’t have that sense of it being around you, of being enveloped.”

We heartily agree with him on this front; cinema should be experienced in a cinema. With HOME’s new quintet of screens, Manchester film fans' opportunity to see this magical mixture of image and movement on a grander scale looks set to be enhanced. Parts of the venue may still be a building site, but what's on its screens is right on the money.

More from The Skinny:

Keeping It Reel: HOME's artistic director of film, Jason Wood

Love in Troubled Times: Simon Stephens on The Funfair

The HOMEwarming Weekend takes place 21-25 May – for full details of the lineup, head to homemcr.org