Like many films that depict a grand journey, Alfred and Jakobine, by first-time director Jonathan Howells and experienced filmmaker Tom Roberts, begins with an ending. In the opening scene we bear witness to the ultimate end, death, through the scattering of Alfred Hobbs’ ashes into the Rio Grande river by Niels, his son. After explaining how the river flushes out into the ocean, Niels remarks that, “by now, his remains are all over the world.” What follows is a film that evidences the poignancy, and complications, of this statement.
Alfred and Jakobine first met at Yokohama harbour, Japan, where Jakobine was studying art – the lure of the orient and its sculpture had drawn her there previously. Through a series of events that involved Jakobine’s search for work on the boat, two large bottles of saké and a mutual attraction for one another, Alfred Hobbs hid Jakobine Corbes as a stowaway on the boat he was working on. She was soon found with no consequence – but not before relieving herself: “I took a dump in…my little overnight bag. I mean, what could I do?” she recalls with comic abandon. During the voyage Alfred offers his only possession, a pen, to Jakobine as a birthday present and announces that he and she should have a child together (this, as it turns out, is precognitive). In this opening tale we glean a great deal about the eponymous characters. They were uninhibited in gesture, and by material belongings, and in possession of a deep care and physical attraction for each other. The scene is set.
Then: enter the dragon. In 1956 in Casablanca, Morocco, Alfred and Jakobine – on their honeymoon – purchased a London taxi from a few British travellers who had lost their nerve, fearing being killed by the Arabs. Niels later refers to the taxi as the dragon he was told about in fairy tales and calls it “the physical manifestation of [Alfred and Jakobine’s] great adventure.” From Morocco, the amorous couple travelled into Algeria and across Africa – where we are treated to footage of the couple mixing with pygmies – to Mombasa, Kenya, where they take a boat to Bombay. They continue their world expedition through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet. It is here they hoped to adopt a Tibetan child. But upon meeting the Dali Lama they were told it would be unlikely – “you have to be Tibetan,” laments Jakobine in her diary. Later, they cross the Bay of Bengal into Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before coasting the South and East China Seas back to Japan – ending seven years of travel.
This vast journey is told largely through photographs and film that the couple took themselves. Acting as their own documentarians, Alfred and Jakobine recorded many salient and beautiful moments, and they did so with an eye for filmmaking. They even accounted for continuity, providing reverse shots of the taxi. This is fortunate as it keeps the film fluid in its retelling of history; it doesn’t rely on talking-head accounts or commercial archive footage, which can often make for a stilted aesthetic.
Shortly after their return to the United States, Alfred abruptly leaves Jakobine. She is left heartbroken for years. Only the arrival of Niels eases her heartbreak. Niels, it transpires – after Alfred and Jakobine failed to have a child for many years while together – was the consequence of a pining Jakobine had at a party they were both at. “I said to Alfred, ‘hey, come to bed.’ And I got pregnant.”
Alongside, although technically after, Alfred and Jakobine’s epic adventure, the film depicts a different sort of journey: a pilgrimage. Alfred and Niels conspire to repair the now notorious taxi – which has been sitting on Alfred’s estate in Taos, New Mexico, for over 40 years – and drive it across Middle America to Jakobine’s house in New York. It represents a chance for a father, and son, to forge paternal bonds before it’s too late. It is also an act of atonement: the restored taxi, and its delivery, serves as a vehicle for Alfred’s contrition.
The film is plainly engineered toward the moment that Alfred pulls the jalopy up to Jakobine’s farmhouse in New York, which she now shares with Rusty, her husband of 30 years. At the screening, the filmmakers admitted to the foisted nature of this scene; they persuaded Jakobine to leave the house with the pretence of a walk. But it is key. They provide the circumstance and the environment for something unique to happen. The reaction garnered from Jakobine is perhaps the most important point in the film; she is hesitant, perhaps even suspicious, of her own emotions, only conveying a response to the indomitable machine (and the men inside it) through a repeated jerking of the hand and occasional expletive. The result is both the film’s funniest moment and distinctly plaintive. Co-director Tom Roberts noted that the scene was problematic because Jakobine’s reaction could only be comprehended if the complexities of her feelings toward Alfred were effectively conveyed beforehand. In this regard the filmmakers triumph. The scene acts as a vanishing point toward which the incongruent tales of love and pain are directed, distilled and then conveyed by the person most affected by those contradictions. It is transcendent.
What remains after watching the film is the absence of Alfred. He is clearly an interesting individual, but his persona is impenetrable. This is evidenced in the journey that he and Niels take together. Although it’s the last chance to get to know each other, the trip is marked by its lack of conversation – only brief commentary on power stations and wildlife colour the fortnight long journey. Jonathan Howells notes that what was essentially documented was two people who had very little in common. Niels repeatedly engaged Alfred to no avail; nothing was revealed.
The complications I refer to in the opening paragraph concern that of Alfred’s resting place, and his lasting effect on Jakobine. It is true, Alfred Hobbs is literally all over the world, like he was in life, but, like in life, he is not in a place accessible to Jakobine. She tells of how she would rather of had him buried – no doubt to fix him to a known location, both geographically and conceptually.
Beyond the auburn-coloured cinematography of Rollo Hollins – that so perfectly captures the muted solemnity of the land-locked American middle states – and the deteriorating footage of Alfred and Jakobine there is something threatening here, something that brings to the fore our own insecurities. Whether it is the need to practice freedom outside the constrictions of society, or the anxiety induced at the thought of an impromptu departure of a loved one, Alfred and Jakobine proves an affecting watch. Innocuous road movie this is not.