From the outside, the world of haute couture often seems ridiculous, and it certainly lives up to that reputation often. But lost among the magazine spreads, photo shoots, ad campaigns, red carpet parties and so on, is the reality that it's not only a very tough business to break into, it's just as hard to maintain visibility. It bears many similarities to the movie world in that regard, where today's hot screenwriter is tomorrow's trade paper footnote. And indeed, few figures break through from that world to become household names along the lines of Gucci, Prada or Louis Vuitton. But then again, few have the work ethic of Ozwald Boateng, the subject of Varon Bonicos documentary that stands out from the pack of similar films, if only for its honesty about the personal toll and uncertainty that comes with a career at the top of the industry.
But of course, before he got to the top, Boateng struggled near the bottom, and with Bonicos following the designer for over a decade, he captures his rise from its earliest beginnings. Self-taught and driven like few people are, by the age of 23 Boateng was already making headlines, becoming the first black tailor (and youngest too) to open a shop on the famed Savile Row. And later in that same year, 1994, Boateng would mount his first runway show in Paris. The headlines were coming fast and furious, his cutting edge, yet accessible designs for men's fashions were turning heads, and everything he had been reaching for, since practicing cutting fabric on pieces of paper in his parents' London home, seemed close at hand.
A British Fashion Award followed a few years later, his own line takes off and soon he's handed the coveted, career-making role of creating the spring/summer 2005 collection for Givenchy. And where most documentaries would easily capture all the glam and glory of being in that world, and focus on tracking the famous people Boateng rubbed up against (yes, some are featured here, but they're largely in the background), Bonicos zeroes in on Boateng's struggle to maintain a balance between his responsibilities as a husband and father (he has two children by his wife, and former Russian model Gyunel) and his ambition to fulfill his dreams, and strike while the iron is hot. We get a picture of a man so confident in his craft, but not in his own life, and it's this humanistic approach that makes "A Man's Story" ultimately involving.
It also helps that Boateng is just a fascinating person, with boundless energy and a restless creative spirit. It's not at all a surprise that he had his own brief reality show "House Of Boateng" (you might have seen it on the Sundance Channel) or that his endeavors move beyond fashion. He's also a bit of a filmmaker, creating short films that precede his runway shows, and as corny as they somtimes are, ranging from manga-inspired animation to martial arts footage to an almost Malick-esque look at Native Americans, you can't fault his curiosity. And yet a rift forms between Boateng and Gyunel in a refreshingly candid portrayal (okay, it does favor him slightly) of a man whose job provides for his family, yet finds him on the road most of the year. Is he being selfish or selfless? The film asks you to decide, but the truth is that the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, which perhaps makes his battles with his wife all the more pained.
The third act of the film focuses on Boateng's efforts to singlehandedly organize the Africa Summit, an ambitious, star-studded night featuring celebrities, high level politicians and more, gathering in Ghana (Boateng's home country) for an event that hopes to celebrate the ties between America and Africa. Again, where most other documentaries would turn this into a self-congratulatory sendoff to the movie, "A Man's Story" takes a different turn. Assessing what he accomplished, Boateng openly questions whether or not his soiree actually made any kind of real impact. No one is harder on Boateng than himself, and as the movie draws to a close, he's onto his next venture, opening a flagship store in London where, of course, he obsesses over every detail.
Though saddled with a title that is both vague and frankly, not that good, "A Man's Story" is a fascinating look at the juggling act of a man who is succeeding in public, but still trying to find the answers in private. [B]