(United States, 85 min.)
Dir. Zeshawn Ali
Program: World Showcase
Two Gods is an astonishing and powerful debut by Zeshawn Ali. Presented in black and white, the story unfolds in shades of moral grey as we witness powerful characters who rise and fall when subjected to difficult circumstances. The film exudes humanity through every frame. The patience and precision of Ali’s craft elevates this sentiment.
The film centers on Hanif, a lithe and fascinating character who has a wealth of experience and defines survival. We witness him building coffins and washing bodies in preparation for their burials. Ali’s film offers an intimate glimpse at the Muslim tradition in which one helps the deceased while washing away one’s own sins. Hanif wears his past like a scar, yet the film doesn’t focus on what came before. Ali instead follows Hanif’s present journey as he struggles with his spiritual rehabilitation by giving back to others.
Robbed of an early adulthood through his own weaknesses, Hanif becomes a big brother figure to two local kids. One is Furquan, a rotund and rambunctious lad whose sly smile belies real struggles at home. Then there’s Naz, newly turned 18, with strong maternal support at home but a hunger for the darker side of life on the streets. Hani also repairs a damaged relationship with his estranged son, who reconnects with him during adulthood. The two spar both pugilistically and conversationally, which allows them to be competitive and combative in a way that proves beneficial.
Newark, New Jersey is a microcosm of the greater African American experience, highlighting not only the rich traditions of faith and community but also the challenges that cause so many to come into conflict with the law. Rarely has this ecosystem of love and fear been so well documented. Ali’s gaze is firmly set on the people with all their dimensions and complexities on display, never straying towards being maudlin or polemical. Instead, we see individuals making decisions with genuine consequences, providing a balanced and profound look into their lives.
Ali’s choice to shoot the film in black and white, which could easily come across as arch, but it accentuates the poetic elements of the story without obscuring the aspects of rot and decay. The palate also provides a hint of Kurosawa. Hanif’s story is redolent of Yojimbo in which a coffin maker is one of the only shopkeepers to remain in business while his town is under siege. Newark, like the village in Kurosawa’s fictional film, is a city where death is an everyday occurrence, and those who work with the dead are always in demand. Hanif’s task of coffin making is almost Sisyphean in its scope. The pile of coffins speaks to the unending process of building and burying. As seen through Ali’s lens, there’s a quiet solemnity in these simple pine containers—vessels sized from the looming boxes for adults to the pathetic dimensions meant to hold a deceased child. An individual who uses every driven screw and sanded sideboard with care builds each box as a form of atonement.
Over its brisk 85 minute running time, Ali warmly brings audiences into this community that’s far too often simplified or ignored altogether, eschewing overt messaging to simply show a tale that’s rarely told to mainstream audiences. It’s this deft, gentle touch that proves the most effective aspect of the film, bringing to audiences raw emotions without any overt sense of manipulation.
On paper Two Gods may sound like a run-of-the-mill observational piece, but the end result is an astonishing and beautiful debut by a rising talent. The film provides a wonderful glimpse at a community, one rocked by violence and turmoil, but still able to navigate through hope. As an audience, we are blessed with both the craft and the documentation of sublime empathy that Ali brings to the film.
Two Gods screens at Hot Docs’ online festival.