Writer Diana Adesola Mafe on Jonathan Ferr’s “The Journey,” presented as part of the “Afrofuturism: Blackness Revisualized” festival
The first shot in Jonathan Ferr’s 2018 short film “A Jornada” (“The Journey”) is distant seagulls in a blue sky and a rocky ocean shore. A caption provides time and place: “Ano de 1538 — Reino de Iya” (Year 1538 — Iya Kingdom). A Black woman (Isa Oliveira), barefoot and bare-breasted but draped in reflective silver cloth, walks out to the water. She reaches up with arms covered in intricate silver and black patterns. Elsewhere, a Black man (Bruno Silva), barefoot and bare-chested, wades through tall grass, searching for someone. His body markings match those of the woman.
Another caption: “2017 — Em Alguma Diaspora” (“2017 — In Some Diaspora”). Jazz music now accompanies the images, which remain centered on an all-Black cast. A synthesized voice chants “Luv Is the Way,” the film’s mantra and the title of the main track from Ferr’s album “Trilogia do Amor” (“Trilogy of Love”). A young man and woman argue in a bar. As the woman (Ana Patrocinio) storms out, she brushes past another man (Silva, again) just entering the bar. They exchange a glance. Meanwhile, the first man (William Bechester) watches, his face transformed by a mirror into an ominous gold mask. The new arrival drinks alone until the woman returns and their courtship begins.
In the first few minutes of this 10-minute film, Ferr jumps effortlessly through time and space. The scenes reflect Ferr’s jazz soundtrack, which is urgent one moment and relaxed the next. The music provides the tempo, mood and vocals since there is no dialogue. As the film unfolds, I see echoes of other Black directors. There is noticeable synchronicity between “The Journey” and Julie Dash’s 2021 short film “Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky,” which also features rocky seashores and beautiful Black beings wearing masks and draped in metallic cloth. There are also resonances of early Spike Lee. When the lovers at the center of Ferr’s story sway together, I’m reminded of the outdoor dance scene in Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), where another attractive young Black couple moves in choreographed unison to jazz music.
“The Journey” is an homage to Black lives, Black love and Black music. The most arresting scenes are the sensual partner dances. The couple, Aiye and Ona (their names revealed in a love note), move as one, touching foreheads and gazing into each other’s eyes. Their naked dark-skinned bodies, covered in metallic paint, evoke the slogan “Black Is Beautiful.” The names in the film, all Yoruba, are important. “Iya” means “mother,” “Aiye” means “life,” and “Ona” means “way” but also “journey,” thus evoking the soundtrack and the film title. The name of the jilted lover (or stalker) is revealed in the credits to be Alaisan, which means “sick person.” Ferr is intentional here, framing his characters as allegorical. Ferr himself is an obvious but not overbearing presence in the film. When Aiye thumbs through vinyl records, including one by John Coltrane, she stops at Ferr’s album. And when Ona sends Aiye a gift box, it contains a cassette tape labeled “Luv Is the Way.”
The Afrofuturism of the film is subtle, and for me, that made it work. Ferr is not going for extravagant space opera or, from a musical perspective, p-funk. Presumably, Coltrane is a patron saint of this film. Perhaps also Sun Ra, another jazz great and Afrofuturist. And I was curious about the black-and-white close-up photograph of a young Black man that casually, and yet strategically, serves as a lampshade in the dimly lit bar. A young Miles Davis? Ferr has carefully curated each scene and captures the visual elements of science fiction in the costumes, the face and body paint, and the technology of record players, boomboxes and wireless headphones. In the opening scene, the woman’s disco-ball fabric and antenna-like tiara point to an Afrofuture that is superimposed over a 16th-century past. But in the final time jump of the film, Ferr transports the viewer more literally to the future: “2538 — Reino do Tundee” (“2538 — Tundee Kingdom”). Appropriately, “Tunde” in Yoruba means “returns.”
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To appreciate the finale, in which Ona once again appears, one must look at the climactic 2017 scene involving Ona and the jealous Alaisan. The latter broods over the narrative, the gray-toned scene of his high-rise apartment a stark contrast to the warm earth tones in which Ona and Aiye bask. The confrontation between the two men has an epic and theatrical feel to it, even in this modest short film. These are timeless and universal themes — love, hate, jealousy, revenge. The staging of their shared scene is like a play, and again, this minimalist approach works. Ferr avoids special effects and instead uses music, sound, body language and costuming, including Alaisan’s gold mask. Without giving everything away, I would argue that this powerful scene is a means of conveying hardship, struggle and loss in the Black diaspora. Had Ferr ended his film here, it would have had a very different and decidedly Afro-pessimist message. But the black screen after this narrative climax is temporary, a pause that signals an ending but not the ending.
It is critical, then, that the film returns the viewer to the ocean, surf and seagulls in the Tundee Kingdom. Visually and narratively, “The Journey” comes full circle, a “return” in every sense — from ending to beginning, from diaspora to motherland and from death to life. The regal mother figure of the Iya Kingdom reappears in a small boat. She groans and screams as she brings forth life. From beneath her silver skirts, she draws out a small, brown calabash, an obvious stand-in for a baby. The sound of a heartbeat resumes and is joined by the smooth voice of Alma Thomas, who croons that “love will remain.” The mother cradles the newborn, whom she carries onto land, where she finds Ona. The two marvel over the child, dancing gently as they hold the baby between them. Ona holds the infant up to the blue sky, where seagulls soar in an identical shot to the opening one, and the film cuts to black.
In this ending, Ferr affirms the Afro-optimism of the film. Without underplaying the significance of Alaisan and the “evil” he symbolizes, Ferr points to a beautiful Afrofuture where life and love transcend all. This message is simple and appropriate. The film does not pretend to be more than it is, and the message that “luv is the way” and “love will remain” is one we could use more of, especially where Black futures are concerned.
Top Image: Still from Jonathan Ferr's "The Journey."