Gary Tarn’s film The Prophet is based on a book of prose poetry essays by the Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran, yet it opens with the following lines by a far more famous poet, William Blake, ‘To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour’, so that, as Tarn says, “one might find larger truths in the smallest of things” when watching the film.

While some of his edited travelogues correspond subserviently to Gibran’s text (read by Thandie Newton), without which there would be no film and around which opinions of it may hinge, there are also visual surprises that accentuate the ever-fragile relationship between narration and image, and the way that sometimes commentary, as Stella Bruzzi writes in her book New Documentary, “far from being a sign of omniscience and control, is the hysterical barrier erected against the spectre of ambivalence and uncertainty”.

Tarn’s intention that the three elements of image, music and spoken text engage in a counterpoint is therefore felt throughout the film’s more ambiguous connections, the uncertainty of which breaks the illusion of coherency within this mode of representation, and asks for imagination on behalf of the viewer. Roland Barthes’s argument in ‘The Photographic Message’, that “the closer the text is to the image, the less it seems to connote it”, therefore seems representative of the film’s better moments.

There are also sequences such as that of passers-by casually ignoring a disabled woman lying in the middle of the ground, when speaking of Giving, and that of an Eastern European flea-market with junk items laid out on a concrete floor, when speaking of wholesome trading, that occasionally add a detached irony (and one that wasn’t previously seen in Tarn’s Black Sun).

And then a scholar said, “Speak of Talking.”

The sequence ‘of Talking’ shows the voice-over no longer wanting to be separate from the footage, with Thandie Newton’s talking lips finding their way to numerous television screens in the film, merging image and sound together for the first time. As she reads “for thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words many indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly”, it is fitting that the three elements of the film cease to act as eachother’s counterpoints, and the words of the narrator are no longer in the disembodied cage off-screen.

Tarn argues that “it is for each viewer to make their own connections, and create their own interpretations,” so those willing to actively unravel the ideologies present in the mix, may find relevance in Blake’s opening lines.

The Prophet is screening in the UK from the 20th September. Visit the ICA website for more information

Kristina Tarasova

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