Citizen Jane’s ‘The Foreigner’s Home’ goes beyond immigration

Immigration, race and the role of art are questioned in “The Foreigner’s Home,” a film by Rian Brown and Geoffrey Pingree that explores Toni Morrison’s 2006 Louvre exhibition.

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“The Foreigner’s Home” is not here to provide answers. The documentary directed by Rian Brown and Geoff Pingree asks the viewers to reflect on their own actions and responsibilities when it comes to immigration, race and culture. The piece, screened at the Citizen Jane Film Festival on Nov. 3, follows Toni Morrison through different phases of her life. It brings the viewer back to her Nobel Laureate in 1993, to an intimate interview that was recorded at Morrison’s home in New York in 2015 and explores her Louvre 2006 exhibition, “The Foreigner’s Home.”

Morrison’s work usually touches on sensitive but important subjects such as race and identity. Throughout her life, she has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978 and finally, the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Her exhibition at the Louvre “The Foreigner’s Home” is the center of the narrative for a reason. Morrison approached the political theme of immigration with artists who were immigrants themselves, performing modern art like slam poetry right next to the classic paintings of the Louvre. By doing so, she compares not only forms of art and their subjects but also the role of the artist in these matters.

“At the Louvre, Toni Morrison invited "outsider" artists from all over the world to create art that was in direct dialog with the 19th Century European objects and paintings,” Brown said about the exhibition.

The definition of foreigner is never given during the film. The viewer is presented with insightful reflections and is asked a number of questions, and they are all left unanswered. That’s one of the main points of the piece.

“I think we all have the responsibility to ask ourselves where we stand [when it comes to race and immigration issues],” Brown said. “The role of the artist is to make the urgency of these issues visible by making films, writing books, creating images and dance. The artist is the only one to bridge this divide.”

One of the most powerful moments in the documentary is when Morrison, in one of her speeches, tells her audience that you can fear, accomodate or be the foreigner. In such a short sentence, she simplifies an issue that was current when the paintings of the Louvre were made, when she had her exhibit in 2006, during her interview in 2015 and while the film was being screened in 2018.

“Toni is like a prophet; her words and ideas send a warning to all of us,” Brown explained when talking about her visual resources for the documentary. “We needed to create a visual world to support her words and ideas, so the film is built around interviews, hand-painted animations and archival footage."

Brown’s animations played a critical role in the film as well, marking meaningful transitions and highlighting scenes in a cinematic way. She calls her unique style of animation “Dig-tac,” something between digital and tactile, where she takes footage sequences, historical figures or any still images, prints the frames out, handpaints them and photographs the final result, creating the animation.

“So the animation involves retracing images from the past, like a palimpsest," Brown said. “It makes the film visceral, physical and emotional. They link to the film to symbolic meaning.”

When asked about what she wanted the viewers to take out of the film, Brown responded that she wanted people to leave the theater with the questions, “Who is the foreigner? Am I the foreigner?”

“We have to come to terms with it; we cannot look away,” Brown stated finally.

Edited by Alexandra Sharp | asharp@themaneater.com

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