I'll start by saying I've been a PJ Harvey fan since the beginning, and I saw her on tour for the album this film documents. I really enjoyed seeing more of who she is, her image has always been a bit impenetrable, remote, curated. But I'm wrestling with this film. First, for the first time I really noticed that PJ exclusively surrounds herself with (mostly adoring, it seems) men as her collaborators. Not one woman in the film, except for those in burkas or in the margins of her "grief safari" as another reviewer put it, or those who paid to gaze upon her as she invited spectators in a one-way windowed studio to watch her adoringly. I admired what she was trying to do, but it really looked like she was putting herself in the frame with a lot of marginalized, poor people, then recreating their melodies and rhythms back in her warm, immaculate, white studio with invited spectators to watch. It was... odd. Troubling, even. One detail amused me: in the credits, near the end, there's a space left before and after the designer of PJ's wardrobe, a credit given great privilege. That's when it occurred to me: She had her hair and make-up done in every shot -- in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, in the poor neighborhoods of DC. She brought these gorgeous, witchy designer outfits from (I learned, thanks to the credit) a Belgian couture designer. Every shot of these poor communities pans across something, yes, fascinating to watch, but then there's Polly, perched in her outfit, gazing on and also there to be gazed upon, witnessed, admired by us. What are we to make of this? It certainly smacks of exploitation. At the same time, I've always admired PJ as an artist, so shouldn't I give her credit for connecting with so many people and creating something out of her impressions of these overlooked or oppressed people and the beautiful art they make? Well, when Paul Simon collaborated with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he was later rightly called out for exploitation and appropriation. Is this different? Perhaps only in that the Afghani men keening in their worship were probably neither credited nor compensated for the melody she specifically recreated in her recording. She came off looking like her own very special, arty brand of diva, with troublingly British aspects of artistic colonization. At the same time, I know she was trying to do something ambitious and risky. She sure looked great doing it.
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