Ming of Harlem, Phillip Warnell’s debut feature documentary is the story of a Bengal tiger, raised by Antoine Yates in a 21st floor apartment.
The story itself could take 5 minutes to tell but Warnell knows that the audience needs to be immersed, as much as is possible, in the surroundings: the community; the apartment building. Warnell wants the viewer to really understand this environment. The direction allows the film to breathe. It hints at the story, then teases it out via news footage and police radio recordings. This supports the commentary from Yates as he tours the neighbourhood, describing how it was to live there. The hallways of the apartment building are institutional to say the least. Lingering views of the corridors foster the feeling of claustrophobia.
There are lengthy silent shots, though it is never really silent in a busy inner-city environment. This creates space into which questions tumble. Questions about ethics and boundaries, hypocrisy and social norms. Questions about architecture, urban planning and mental health.
“Why did you have these animals?” asks a reporter
“Love” Yates replies
“Explain that to us” she responds
“About love?” he asks
Halfway through the film the slow pace becomes too much. The tedium of it all – a trapped tiger with not enough room to roam. The obvious response is that this animal should be in the wild. Yates’ response to this is “Unfortunately, there’s no real wild.” Man is responsible for destroying so much natural habitat. People are hypocrites when they keep some animals captive and not others. He truly believes that Ming was safer, for himself and the general public, kept in the apartment.
A 21st floor apartment is not a good zoo, but then what is a good zoo? Is there such a thing? Yates is telling us that one way or another we need to question where to draw the line. Warnell has a broader agenda. He wants the viewer to think about how people live, stacked up in dense urban areas. Sure, these apartments are not suitable for tigers, but how suitable are they for us? He allows Yates to put it to us: “Even people themselves are not free.”
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