Islam and Christianity are the two denominations mentioned in the title of “Two Gods”, but they are not opposed to each other, or even compared at all. Zeshawn Ali’s calm and compassionate documentary may center on a black Muslim community in Newark, but it presents a difficult and adaptable world in which people will take any shards of faith and grace they can find. For middle-aged Hanif, doing his best to lead a good and modest life after past turmoil, spiritual peace is found in a profession others might find unnerving: as a junior employee at a Muslim funeral home. He assembles the coffins and washes the bodies of the dead with equally painstaking patience, finding a serious but fulfilling sense of responsibility to these bodies in limbo.
But Hanif works just as hard to extend this duty of care to the Land of the Living, acting as a mentor and proxy father figure for two neighborhood boys with different issues. It’s the ebb and flow of his influence and connection with these kids that gives Ali’s astute doc – shot over several years, but focused on 82 minutes – his subtle narrative push.
After scouring the festival circuit last year in a low-key fashion, “Two Gods” will find a large and sympathetic audience when it premieres in PBS’s “Independent Lens” slot on June 21, a month after the doc was released. got its limited theatrical release in the United States. In its intimate portrayal of working-class black people trying to rebuild lives and livelihoods amid the obstacles of crime and prejudice, the film could rightfully double with Garrett Bradley’s recent “Time” – and not just because of its elegance and deep tones. black and white lenses. Yet his serene pace and worldview are distinctly his.
In Hanif, Ali found an unusually reserved but rewarding focal point for this kind of non-fiction character study. Tall and lean, with a gentle polite manner and understated body language, she is a gentle soul who works hard at this sweetness nonetheless. Tattoos on his neck and a sometimes distant gaze are lasting marks of criminal activity and prison time in his past; today his work and religion keep him gentle, even though he’s likely to explode old-fashioned hip-hop while building coffins in the otherwise hushed sacred space of the morgue. More proactively, he uses his reform experience to distance others from his past mistakes – teaching casket-making as both a useful craft and a sharp symbolic warning. In 12-year-old Furquan, a fatherless child with a cool head, the older man’s advice is a soothing relief from the physical abuse he suffers at home. For 17-year-old Naz, who is already engaging in illegal activities with ill-chosen friends, Hanif’s warning example may or may not strike in time.
But the burden of mentoring is not easily borne by the older man, not least because his own life is not quite in order yet, as poverty and social marginalization still plague him. At one point, he relapsed into drugs, putting his job, his place in the community, and his hard-earned spiritual recovery at risk. There are also upheavals for his young charges, as Furquan is moved to a safer home in North Carolina, while Naz suffers from a contact with the law that could change his life. Ali and editor Colin Nusbaum turn tumultuous years into brief minutes of screen time, economically distilling an arc of self-ruin and self-healing that Hanif has already experienced, probably more than once. The path to redemption is not precisely mapped out, perhaps because there is no well mapped path there: these men have to find stability in themselves, which is easier to say. what to do.
Ali works as his own cinematographer, capturing Hanif’s everyday reality in monochrome paintings that alternate between sharp focus and more blurry reverie. The rich contrasts of tones in the imagery may suggest warring spiritual and moral impulses in the film’s human subjects, but despite the title and the detailed observation of rituals and rhetoric in the black Muslim community, the religious commentaries are reduced to a minimum. There is a solemn respect here for the fragile inner peace of others: this sober and human film seems above all to be interested in the way in which this serenity is reflected in the world.