'Dirt' and 'Two Cities': Complex ruminations on violence and race

A highlight of 2014's Maryland Film Festival was Darius Clark Monroe's "Evolution of a Criminal," a beguiling documentary that looked to Monroe's own life—when he was 16, he robbed a bank with a few friends and did three years for the robbery—in order to explore youth recklessness, personal responsibility, desperation, forgiveness, and change. Mixing the popular filmmaker-as-subject documentary approach with stylish recreations of real events and daring scenes in which Munroe approaches some of those traumatized by the bank robbery as both filmmaker and (on that fateful day, at least) perpetrator, "Evolution of a Criminal" introduced another young American filmmaker who could make the quotidian feel ecstatic. Monroe breathes the same rarefied air as Ryan Coogler, Alexandre Moors, Jeff Nichols, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Dee Rees, and Ti West.

Two years later, Monroe returns to MFF with "Dirt," a dramatic short about the cycle of violence and "Two Cities," a terse, busied documentary about activist and scientist Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika—though he is so many more things.

"Dirt," which is kind of like Ozu by way of Charles Burnett, luxuriates in long takes and small gestures as we watch a young black man (Segun Akande) dig a hole and bury a body in it in the middle of the day. Then, he gets in his car and drives away and his face twists from gritted-teeth satisfaction to a confused smile to seething rage and then he burst into tears. That night, out of guilt or shame or perhaps some other more mysterious force, he returns to the spot where he buried the body and the short shifts into brutal magical realism. The finale echoes of "Night of the Living Dead's" loaded MLK-nodding ending and makes a bleak, oblique commentary on the cycles of violence in this country, especially if you're a young black man.

"Two Cities" spends some time with Dr. Sanyika, a self-described "Houstorleanean," whose experiences living in New Orleans and then Houston after Katrina and now back and forth offer up a portrait of tenacity. Audio of Dr. Sanyika detailing his life is set to crisp black and white images of Sanyika, as well as landscapes, roads, and buildings in Houston and New Orleans, all shot in a style that mashes-up Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Gordon Parks, and whoever it is that shot Beyonce's "Lemonade." Early on, a building with competing graffiti that reads "Push," "Black Lives Matter," and "Fuck the System," frames the film's complex rumination on race from a Civil Rights-era thinker, while a series of shots observe the Astrodome—where Sanyika, like so many others, eventually ended up after being displaced by Katrina—from a distance. It's as if the camera can't bear to look inside, so it just keeps nervously pacing around outside. We also hear Sanyika describe the post-Katrina scene inside as, "a disorganized human jungle." Then his voice calms and he adds that "New Orleans was a social disaster before the storm" and that Katrina just "unmasked the injustices."

A soundtrack of elastic jazz music from New Orleans-based trumpeter Christian Scott piles on more context. "Two Cities" is a dense whirl of monologue, monochromatic imagery, and music countering and complementing each other, packing as much on the topic of turmoil and change as it can in just under 13 minutes.

"Dirt" screens Friday, May 5 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, May 7 at 12:15 p.m. at the Baltimore Lab School. "Two Cities" screens Friday, May 6 at 1:35 p.m. at MICA Lazarus Studio and Saturday, May 7 at 2:40 p.m. at the Baltiore Lab School.

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