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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » That's My Face
That's My Face
Wellspring // Unrated // January 13, 2004
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted February 14, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

Who am I? That's the question that Thomas Allen Harris asks himself in That's My Face, a personal exploration of his own identity as an individual and as an African-American, an exploration that ends up taking him to Africa and finally to Brazil to find answers.

That's My Face is fundamentally a missed opportunity. The film opens up a myriad of potentially fascinating topics. It could explore the nature of African-American identity, both within the United States and in Africa. It could follow the changing nature of the Black experience over the course of time, from the 1960s to the present day. It could look at what it means to be Black in different countries: in Tanzania, in Brazil, in the United States. It could tell the personal story of a young man coming to grips with his own cultural identity.

But That's My Face ends up doing none of those things. It briefly touches on each of them, just enough to make the viewer realize that there's a lot that could be said... and then moves on. The film opens in a weirdly mystical way, with the narrator telling us about his experiences as a child with a blurred "other vision" that allows him to see beyond the surface of things, and his early connection with strange spirits or perhaps ghosts. It's not clear what we're supposed to make of this, but soon the narrative seems to settle down, as the narrator, Harris himself, tells us about his childhood and his family's experiences with Africa and their search for an African identity.

This early-to-middle portion of the film seems promising, suggesting that it will reveal a personal look both at the burgeoning Pan-African movement and at the narrator's uncomfortable relationship with mainstream culture back in the U.S. However, the focus of the film is soon lost in a strange muddle of mysticism. Instead of exploring the interesting issues that are brought up early on, Harris becomes fascinated with his spirit dreams and their potential connection to the ancient African gods. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more introspective, even self-centered. In the end, while Harris may have found personal revelations in his journey, they remain too personal; he isn't able to intelligibly communicate what he's found to the viewer.

It doesn't help That's My Face that the filmmaking style is often rather disconcerting, even disruptive. Harris' narration is intercut with comments from his family about their own experiences; that's a perfectly fine technique, and it's interesting to hear other perspectives, but many times the intercutting has been taken to an extreme, so that a sentence that's begun by one person is completed by another. It's a jarring effect that only serves to distract from what's actually being said.

The visual footage appears to all be home-video material, often of the narrator's family, sometimes of the events and people whom he observes on his journey. Again, this seems like a good idea, as it gives a personal touch to a film that's fundamentally about a personal journey. Where it falters, though, is in Harris' fixation on dreamlike, often random-seeming images; the camera will linger on a single part of a person's body, zoom into the scene in odd ways, or stay focused on a particular image for a long time without any narration. A few tricks like this might be visually interesting, but when it's combined with the unfocused, dreamlike narration, the effect is to disengage the viewer from what's going on.

The DVD

Video

That's My Face is a film that's very difficult to rate in terms of image quality. Since all its footage appears to be home-video or archival material, it's naturally not going to look as good as a film that uses fresh footage shot on modern film stock. All in all, the image is watchable, though of course rather fuzzy and with colors looking a bit "off" at times.

That's My Face is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio; it's a mix of black and white and color footage.

Audio

The soundtrack for That's My Face offers a basic but quite satisfactory audio experience. Harris' narration is generally clear and easy to understand, though a bit muted at times; the musical score is handled well and doesn't overbalance the speakers.

Extras

There's not a whole lot of interest here. The main special feature is an 18-minute section of outtakes from the film, with a commentary from Thomas Allen Harris and his mother, Rudean Leinaeng. This is actually much less interesting than it sounds; rather than talking about the process of making the film, or why he chose not to include this footage, Harris and his mother just talk about what's appearing on the screen. "That's my friend so-and-so at his apartment... That's my uncle..." There are few things as pointless as watching a stranger's random home video footage, and that's what this is.

We also get a filmography of Harris, and a set of weblinks.

Final thoughts

This 56-minute documentary is certainly distinctive, with its dreamlike, highly personal account of one man's quest to find his identity as an African-American. Unfortunately, That's My Face is largely a showcase of missed opportunities, with the film evoking interesting themes and issues but then leaving them untouched in favor of an unsatisfying mysticism. It may be worth a rental if you are in a very experimental mood, but in general it doesn't quite make the cut, and I'll suggest just skipping it.

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