Directed by Bim Ajadi Here/Not Here is a 30-minute film incorporating British Sign Language, Krump street dance and Visual Vernacular (VV). Written by Jonzi D, the film was created in collaboration with its Deaf and hearing cast. It was screened as part of Unlimited Festival 15-17 January 2021. Review by Joe Turnbull.
As the film opens with a group of Deaf dancers (VVers) working on their Visual Vernacular (a choreographed and poetic form of sign language) routine in a gritty urban backdrop, the aesthetic of shows like Channel 4/Netflix’s Top Boy is immediately evoked. Whilst the latter was a well-executed and rare insight into a black British inner-city perspective, it nevertheless reinforced stereotypes by compounding the association with drugs, crime and ‘postcode wars’ in which (mostly) black communities supposedly kill each other over minute differences rather than seeing common interests.
Although Here/Not Here flirts with some of these themes – rival groups tussling over limited space – it does so with an altogether lighter touch. Rather than trading in stereotypes, it does its best to subvert and undermine them. How often do we see black Deaf people on screen with genuine street smarts?
The subtext of the film is also subtly political and wholly typical in post-Brexit, austerity ravaged Britain. The three groups (footballers, Krump Dancers and VVers) are all vying for a dilapidated warehouse space because the creeping privatisation and gentrification of their local area mean their previous haunts have become closed off to them. Their competing interests and needs collide within these confines. Add into the mix a communication barrier between the hearing and Deaf characters, and conflict seems inevitable.
But just like dance, football and sign are all forms of communication that transcend words, so these proponents of their respective artforms must learn to overcome their differences. The complementary disciplines of rap and Deaf poetry pepper the production, acting as the internal monologues which elucidate the thoughts and feelings of individual characters. The first time this happens I felt the segue was jarring and was worried it might descend into cheesy rapping for the sake of the ‘street cred’ of the film. But this initial concern dissipated, and the technique ultimately made a useful conceit.
In one such monologue, the most conciliatory of the Deaf characters signs ‘the world is changing and the deafies won’t change with it’. Perhaps this was a knowing nod from Deaf Director Bim Ajadi towards his own community as a warning that despite the benefits of a closely-knit in-group with its own culture and language, there is always a risk of becoming insular if you don’t open yourself out to the experiences of others.
Indeed, the film could be more broadly taken as an exploration of the uneasy dynamic between integration and assimilation which many communities (especially those that face discrimination) grapple with. The push to integrate can be an affront to a strong sense of identity.
Overall, Here/Not Here itself felt as though it had a bit of an identity crisis. Is this a dance for screen piece? A drama? An extended music video? This somewhat fractured identity partially reflects the weight of the talent of the main creative team in their own respective areas. Writer Jonzi D is the Artistic Director of the annual hip-hop dance and theatre festival Breakin’ Convention, whilst the music is composed by Torben Lars Sylvest, a long-time collaborator of Olivier Award-winning choreographer Botis Seva. Ajadi is, of course, himself a highly accomplished film director.
When Here/Not Here is at its best, these elements are in step like a tightly choreographed dance routine, making for a truly unique offer which paints a brooding, beautifully shot but ultimately hopeful picture of Britain’s urban milieu. One that is based on a celebration of shared differences.