Why do we have pets? It’s a question that will cause affront to nearly all animal lovers; the answer seems obvious for anyone that owns a cat, a dog, fish, rats. With Antoine Yates, a Harlem resident that had a severe case of a tiger and an alligator living in his apartment (Ming and Al respectively) his reasons are, naturally, unusually interesting. The film attempts to throw this up, among other potent questions, but not for lack of trying to drown it in experimental arthouse phooey.
Yates, Ming and Al came to national attention when the owner required medical attention after an altercation with the tiger. Yates offers justification for the imprisonment of the animals, describing the 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment his mother inherited like a mansion (which it is, compared to other apartments on the block). Yates defends his home as ‘the most secure containment for a predator possible’. Also pointing to the fact that tigers are likely to be hunted and killed in the wild, he believes what he is doing is right. His descriptions of Ming’s habits are chilling in the way he does a most human thing – personifying Ming to the point of holding him up as a friend, and equal. If it’s a comment on how hellbent we have become on plastering on human qualities when they might not really be there, it’s an important one.
The strengths of the film are in the questions that arise. But they arise organically, popping into your head while you stare at another lingering shot of a candid Harlem. When the filmmaker, Philip Warnell, imprints his directorial choices on the screen, in truth, it suffers. A large section consists of a tiger in an apartment enclosure – not Ming – moving through it, sniffing walls. It’s an image to see such a great beast enclosed where it so obviously should not be, but it goes on too long, it is layered with a meandering poem (especially commissioned for the film) and it, truthfully, falls a little flat.
At times, the documentary speaks of something greater. The endless shots of Harlem – from kids playing on the street to wide shots of a constantly breathing borough – remind you of how big New York is, and how extraordinarily varied the lives of it’s inhabitants can be. A monologue by Antoine provides the crux of the film: he describes the first time he stood on the top of a tall building in New York, staring at the stars, finally feeling like part of something. Perhaps Antoine searches for a re-connection to nature in a world where you are now more likely to see a telephone pole than a tree. Regardless of the subject, the film makes a mark when it steps back and allows manifold questions to grow organically – when it steps in to grab your hand, it derails an almost spiritual exploration of what it means to be human in the 21st century.
Dir: Philip Warnell
Featuring: Antoine Yates
Prd: Big Other Films, The Wellcome Trust, Picture Palace Pictures
DOP: David Raedeker
Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Country: United States
Run time: 111 mins
Ming of Harlem is out in cinemas on the 22nd July