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All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

Deeply sensory piece of slow cinema explores the life of a Black American woman in the Deep South, as her legacy is carried across four generations - from the 67th BFI London Film Festival

This is a movie that you can feel with all of your senses. You can see it, your can hear it, you can taste it, you can smell it, and you can touch it. Thirty-three-year-old poet, photographer and filmmaker Raven Jackson creates a genuinely intimate portrait of a resilient female character, who has spent her entire life in rural Mississippi. The story begins with a child Mack (played by Kaylee Nicole Johnson) being taught how to fish by her father. She gazes at the unfortunate creatures as they struggle to breathe inside a fishing net. Her elder warns her: “don’t you think of releasing them back into the water”.

This is a movie about the irreversibility of time, and the circularity of life. Mack abides by the rules, and does not let the animals back into river. Instead, she allows tradition to define her existence. This tradition consists mostly of a spiritual connection to the land, and churchgoing. Mack becomes a mother and a grandmother, yet little seems to have change to in her tightly-knit, ageless community. Her descendants perpetuate her legacy of love. Now played by Charleen McClure, adult Mack treats her offspring with the same love and devotion that her parents bestowed upon her and the environment. These are people intimately linked to all four elements: a tragic fire (the movie’s most powerful scene) heralds one of the biggest changes in Mack’s life, the wind brings new opportunities, water washes and carries away the undesired, while earth anchors her to the land.

Both Johnson and McClure deliver heart-wrenching performances, their eyes overflowing with emotion, their embrace bursting with tenderness.

This is a quiet film with very sparse dialogues and a very loose narrative. “There is no beginning and no end, just changes”, Mack explains, her comment apparently extending to the movie as a whole. There is an enormous amount of attention to detail, particularly the water and the earth (the titular “dirt”). People too are made of water and dirt, we find out. . The photography consists mostly of close-ups, with the occasional wide shots. Passionate embraces are captured in intimate detail. There is a strong focus on hands, crafting a sense of comfort and protection. A gospel song performed at the local church seems to provide a palpable explanation: “Lord, in your hands I’m alright; Lord, in your hands I’m satisfied”.

The outdoors takes are long and the movements are subtle, as if the passing of time wasn’t mandatory at all. Constant images of flowing liquid (rain, river, or even urine) beg to differ, revealing instead that life is fluid, and there’s no way of turning back time. It’s all water under the bridge. Film and sound editor Lee Chatametikool (a collaborator of Apichatpong Weerasethakul) constantly alternates artistic devices, ensuring that the film remains visually and acoustically arresting throughout.

The narrative is almost entirely subordinate to these exquisite sensory devices. As a consequence, the plot can be a little difficult to follow at times (despite being relatively straightforward). This is a movie to be contemplated, not one to be read and deciphered like a conventional drama.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt premiered in the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. The UK premiere takes place in October as part of the BFI London Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 24-09-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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