Malachi Leopold’s Alex and Ali is a documentary revolving around two lovers being reunited after a 35 year absence. By 2015, these stories have been done a hundred times over and the question of whether or not they excel beyond their contemporaries always comes down to the slight vicissitudes within the story. Malachi Leopold’s documentary focuses on two men, one from America – ‘Alex’ – and the other from Iran – ‘Ali’ – and their brief romance in the 1970s. The documentary has a premise that has been absolutely exhausted in cinema, however, there is an unexpected and tragic redemption that comes in Leopold’s unexpected journey away from the original plan – making much more unique and confronting picture. The pain and fear that emerge and consumes the documentary by its conclusion occurs by no volition of the director, but instead reveals the stark reality that sits at the core of the tale of unrequited love.
Alex is a former Peace Corps volunteer who met Ali while he was deployed in Iran. The relationship is something that Alex treasures, and although he was forced to leave Iran when the revolution began, it is established not long into the documentary that the relationship between the two continued on an emotional level through written letters and emails as well as the occasional phone call – all over the course of 35 years. From its commencement, Alex and Ali is an inherently special and intimate story – a documentary where two individuals have chosen to publicly air their greatest secrets, fears and loves. It’s not something that you get every day in documentary cinema, and something that seems to have emerged to such a degree as a result of new methods of funding in cinema today.
Alex and Ali is part of a continuation of the Kickstarter-funded documentaries, such as other films screening the same circuit like Out In The Night. It’s part of an overwhelmingly positive democratisation of cinema, but at the same time, there’s clear issues in simply allowing narrative to dictate funding. That is, the story of Alex and Ali is both fascinating, painful and lined with a fragile and temporal beauty – but its expression and progression as a documentary often feels like the cinematic side of things don’t do the story the justice it deserves – and it often feels like this occurs because this was never the story that Leopold thought he was going to be making. The benefit of Kickstarter-funded films is the layer of transparency added in the process. You can find out that the title of the film was originally I am the Water, You are the Sea, you can read pre-trip posts of excitement about the reunion, check out how the film was funded – from Chicago Pride fundraising to support from the blogosphere – but you can also see where the was going; you can place that against where it went. Alex and Ali is a personal film from the standpoint of the director, Malachi Leopold. Alex is his uncle. The story that Leopold was pursuing was that of Alex and his tale of unrequited love. From the start, from the Kickstarter, this feels like a documentary wanting to cover the two men and their relationship – their postponed love, the more private aspects of their lives, and whether their romance could be sustained over three decades – but that isn’t what happens.
The film feels almost voyeuristic at times to watch, because you’re seeing something so painful and claustrophobic unfold, but sharing that surprise and frustration with the filmmaker and Alex throughout. Ali has his documents that he was bringing for the film confiscated by Iranian authorities. He is allowed to travel to Turkey, but it is clear if he returns he may be imprisoned or tortured as a result of his identity. At this point, the romance drains from the documentary immediately, it becomes about oppression, identity and survival. The tonal shift is confusing and disorienting as much for Leopold as the audience, because this isn’t an expected turn. This is a film that falls apart, and honestly, it’s this brutal reality that redeems it. It’s difficult to view the original intention for this documentary as being anything other than saccharine and cliche. In the unexpected, a far more confronting and affecting documentary emerges. Alex and Ali is a tonally disorienting piece that often feels like the cinematic equivalent of accidentally letting go of a trolley at the top of a hill and frantically chasing after it in hope of regaining some kind of control. In Leopold’s film, that lack of expectation gives it its strongest moments.