Directed by Brooklyn-based Alvin Adadevoh and Amber Lee, the documentary short Personas Non Grata creates a prismatic portrait of an international performance art collective. With an introduction that briefly describes the fall of the Soviet Union and the “new societies [that] grew out of it,” the film establishes its social consciousness and anti-totalitarian principles before diving headfirst into a cinematic collage of conceptual performances.
This surreal aftermath to suffering, alluded to in the opening, is what the actors and directors seem to concern themselves with going forward. The camera never lingers on any one particular moment, remaining frenetic and up-close, traversing the staged action and tightly framing itself on the fine details of the group’s extravagant set pieces. Toy soldiers are torched until they become distorted clumps of their former plastic selves; an angel-winged figure is covered in confetti while clutching a golden brain under bubble-gum-pink lighting; animal skulls are arranged on a nude woman’s torso and spray-painted chrome; an anonymous musician with a paper-bagged face strums thunderous–sometimes startling–chords on an electric guitar in the background. All of this culminates in a final bombardment of the senses, where a man with a megaphone shouts diatribes in the actors’ faces while they smash their props with blunt objects and ready a branding stick to imprint a man’s skin with an X scar.
This showcase of ideas is able to capture the spirit of the collective’s art because it does not overtly politicize itself or lay bare the philosophy of their work, but rather fragments it all in a cinematic way—the interviews are understated and sparsely placed between the imagery to just slightly add whatever context is needed. A couple of actors will describe the unpredictability of their process, and the excitement that comes with it, someone else will touch upon the like-mindedness of the people involved and their setting out to “create a new school of art,” but these moments of dialogue never detract from the visceral, intimate footage of their performances whipping across the frame in appropriately disorienting ways. We get to see every last component of the piece, but never any single component for too long. The collective aspect of this group of artists, as well as their assault on conventionality on the stage (or rather in the “space” of a venue), are thus emulated in the anxious movements of the camera and the heightened shadows or deep hues of the cinematography.
Additionally, the sound design fluctuates between a soft, industrial thumping in more singular moments and boisterous, overloaded cacophonies in the larger gatherings (like the skin-searing finale). The filmmaking at-work in Personas Non Grata accomplishes what might be otherwise lost in-person; for a type of experimental art that seems to aim for alienation and distance to spark critical thought, the medium of cinema develops an immersive, trance-like quality through its audio-visual flourishes, a quality that makes this kind of elliptical contemporary performance suddenly more accessible, or at least approachable.
Adadevoh, Lee, et al. are ultimately able to present this underground collective’s work in an aesthetically innovative way that is sometimes humorously over-the-top in its choreography and other times quietly intimate or even dream-like. What Personas Non Grata does is take that opening line about “society” and use it to its best effect; the humans behind the jarring performances, their physicality in the moment, the artistry of the costumes and props and how they are used or manipulated, the attitudes of these ideas and how they are conveyed as an artistic whole. All of this is achieved by steering away from exposition or statement or anecdotes and instead allowing the visuals on-screen to simply speak for themselves. Therefore, what could have been nothing more than an introduction to a performance troupe or a manifesto for their intellectual aims is elevated to a performance art piece that stands on its own, capturing the essence of Non Grata in a truly cinematic, rather than dramatic, light and bringing a new dimension of understanding to their experimental process.
In the end, is this “proof of concept” a strange experience? Yes. Is it as enigmatic as the collective it follows? In many ways. Was that vaguely heart-like organ in the actor’s hand a real one? Possibly. Did they really brand that guy’s chest? Pretty sure. Will this curious hybrid of a film leave you with not only a desire to see more but also a burning, contentious urge somewhere deep inside you? Absolutely.