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PAFF 2012 Highlights #1 – Russ Parr’s “The Under Shepherd”

PAFF 2012 Highlights #1 - Russ Parr's "The Under Shepherd"

The 2012 installment of the Pan African Film Festival ended on Monday; I caught a late night flight back to New York City and arrived yesterday, Tuesday morning, and a day later, I’m still getting back into the NYC flow of things.

I’m behind on my reviews of the films I saw at the festival – blame all the folks who took up my time while I was there, keeping me away from my work; you all know who you are ;)

I’m joking of course; I wouldn’t trade those moments with anything.

I’ve also just been very busy.

So I’m going to work on getting my reviews written and posted beginning next week, once I’ve had time to get myself together again.

But in the meantime, I thought I’d post some quickie reactions to a few of the festival’s highlights leading up to my eventual longer, more thoughtful reviews… starting with the film that I thought was certainly one of the most interesting at the festival this year – Russ Parr’s The Under Shepherd, which stars Isaiah Washington, in an ensemble cast.

I say it’s one of the most interesting films I saw at the festival, but not necessarily meaning good or bad. I usually don’t judge films so rigidly. I’m more interested in being moved in some way, or maybe as former S&A contributor Qadree puts it, if there’s a solid “pattern or system of communication” employed by the film and filmmaker that allows me, the audience, to understand and appreciate the film.

The Under Shepherd is an ambitious film, and definitely several grades above Russ Parr’s last directorial effort, 35 And Ticking; ambitious in terms of story and scope. It’s also bold given the setting (“The Black Church”) Russ chose to explore the film’s themes; bold because any hints of criticism of that specific communal *space* will likely be met with stern looks and strong disapproval.

Not that The Under Shepherd is a critique of what we call “The Black Church;” although, based on the audience reactions both times I saw the film, it’ll likely be perceived as such. I’d recommend taking a closer look, digging a little deeper, peeling back the layers on the film’s surface, and realizing what’s really the film’s central element that’s driving the narrative. I’ll tell you that it’s not “The Black Church.”

But more on that in my full write-up.

We may as well call it an Isaiah Washington showcase because he chews up lots of scenery here, and I’d even say his performance is absolutely crucial to the film’s success. He’s in almost every other scene, and I think Russ realized that he’d need an Actor (emphasis mine) for the part. Isaiah Wasghinton is an Actor, and the dynamic role he plays (thanks to writer/director Russ Parr’s scripting) offers him a range of opportunities to flex his abilities; and flex he does. Isaiah looks like he’s having a lot of fun with this character; it’s evident in his performance. 

The film has its missteps – especially in its mid-section, where filmmakers often have difficulty sustaining narratives; there’s a lot going on here, as Parr attempts to address a number of issues within the film, making it almost impossible to keep all of it under control and cohesive. But I grew to appreciate Parr’s ambitions here; risks are taken, and he’s clearly pushing for something grander, which should be the rule. As I already noted I saw the film twice because it’s just that kind of work – plenty packed into its running time – and your reactions to it could very well vary from one viewing to the next.

But at the very least, it’ll surely inspire conversation afterward, as it did after its PAFF screenings.

I’ll say no more for now.

Here’s a clip:

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