Those good people at the British Film Institute have just released a DVD of Borderline (1930). This little-known British avant garde silent (now’s there’s an unusual combination of words) was made by the POOL collective of intellectuals, including Kenneth Macpherson (the film’s director), Winifred Bryher, the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Robert Herring, who were also behind the influential film journal Close-up. But what is most interesting to us now about Borderline is that it stars Paul Robeson, who had just moved to Britain and would later star in several British films in the 1930s. The story revolves around an inter-racial love triangle, made up Robeson’s wife Eslanda, Gavin Arthur and H.D., but it is experimental method attempting to denote states of mind which is so distinctive. As Michael Brooke says in Sight and Sound:

Much of the film is invested with an often inexplicable tension, with regular explosions into rapidly cut torrents of images that reach a frenzy during the more emotionally charged scenes. But it also has quiter, lyrical moments, mostly invoving Robeson, shot from below against Swiss skies and lit as though sculpted in bronze. Whether the film ultimately ‘works’ depends on one’s individual perception, but it’s certainly a unique historical oddity.

Which is sort of how I remember it from a viewing many years ago now. The BFI release has a score by Courtney Pine, background documentaries on Macpherson and co., and booklet.

Borderline also turns up on a four-disc Robeson set from Criterion, released in America. Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist features Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1924), Borderline (which uses the BFI print and Courtney Pine score), The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), my great favourite among his films The Proud Valley (1940), and Native Land (1942). There are also clips from Big Fella, King Solomon’s Mines and Song of Freedom.

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