Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air
21 storeys in the air, in a five-bedroom apartment in the heart of Harlem, a man lived with his two pets – a tiger and an alligator. While it sounds like a fairy-tale this is a true story. British director Philip Warnell is less interested in the specifics of Antoine Yates’ tale, instead he uses the subject matter as a springboard for musings on captivity and mans’ relationship to wild animals. However, whilst it is a fascinating story, at times the documentary becomes too caught up in presenting a philosophical point.
From his car, Yates talks to the camera as he cruises his neighbourhood. He speaks out about his love for Ming (the tiger), referring to it as a relationship albeit “one of containment”. The film is not subtle with its messages: as the camera follows Yates, never entering the car but always peering at him through the windows, an obvious point is being made about the nature of observation in documentaries. In this urban Jungle, Warnell treats the landscape like a zoo, creating his own version of a nature documentary. He is brilliant at evoking the claustrophobia and hubbub of daily life in Harlem. The camera often rests on one subject whether it be a door, a corridor, a street, or the entrance to the park. These long, drawn-out shots, which never focus in on the action, instantly detach the viewer from the society that is being recorded, observing the world from a distance.
The film falls into the trap of pretentiousness with the 27-minute mid-section, which follows the tiger and alligator around Yates apartment, accompanied by off-street noises and airy philosophical verbiage. It is agonisingly protracted and self-indulgent, detracting from the rest of the feature. Excluding this, and with its more experimental elements, Ming of Harlem is an original and interesting hybrid of a nature documentary.
Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air is released in selected cinemas on 22nd July 2016.
Watch the trailer for Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air here:
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