Filmed over 12 years, Varon Bonicos’s A Man’s Story is more than a bio-doc on Ozwald Boateng, it’s a sharp look at the essence of the man.
The Man In The White Suit By Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Fashion and film make an inconvenient two-piece. Especially when it comes to documentary. While fashion is elegance, glamour and surface, the documentary seeks to find the raw and the naked. As such, Varon Bonicos’ A Man’s Story is like a corrida between the bull and the matador, the well-dressed tailor with a knife and the put-upon animal with an unhealthy thirst for a goring. Shot over 12 years, two marriages and one long friendship, it’s uncertain whether Bonicos’ film has the objectivity to expose this sartorial Siegfried’s mark of vulnerability. But with a hero as frank and agreeable as Ozwald Boateng, A Man’s Story doesn’t need a killer cut to make its mark.
Film and fashion have a checkered history, having influenced each other since Marlene Dietrich’s turn in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. Cinema has always been susceptible to the gaudy excesses of fashion photography, while as Bonicos’ film clearly shows, the great couturiers of London, Paris and Milan are more reliant than ever on the moving image to hawk their threads. Boateng himself is an occasional film-maker, marking the divorce from his first wife Pascale with an underwater short on breathlessness. His desert footage for his Boateng show in Milan with its slow-mo pathos, and his Chinese wu-fu extravaganza for Givenchy, are perhaps marketing campaigns rather than short films, but it’s a line both industries have an interest in blurring.
Boateng though is all about the line. His unique bespoke menswear suits enrobe their wearers in elegant lines, sharp shapes and bold colours. He’s a Savile Row tailor with a glitterati appointment book, including Paul Bettany, Jamie Foxx, Laurence Fishburne and Sir Richard Branson. Bonicos’ very human story though is more interested in the man than the maker, which doesn’t do justice really to Boateng’s genius. His tailored suits are designed to make the man, swaddle him in elegance and confidence and make him feel like a million dollars. But Bonicos’ refusal to engage with Boateng’s contribution to fashion leaves us wondering whether all the swagger and hyperbole isn’t just a trunk full of emperor’s new clothes. Instead, with his lens firmly focused on the man, Bonicos’ documentary is an almost Dickensian tale of one man’s rise, over 12 years, from the pit of despair to the pinnacle of his career.
A Man’s Story begins chronologically with Boateng’s disastrous catwalk show in Paris in 1998. Thwarted by a lack of liquidity and an under performing air-con, he returns to London to find a divorce writ on the table and his studio stripped bare by thieves. But Boateng is the very essence of irrepressible positivity, playing to the camera with an energy and a vibrancy that even threatens to eclipse the director’s own rather lacklustre voiceover. It’s an attempt at directorial control the confidence-oozing charm machine Boateng easily sidesteps. After all, in the words of one of his acolytes, herding Ozwald Boateng is like herding a fleet of cat gazelles. The man never sleeps, and with a potent mix of intuition and swagger, soon finds himself back at the top; swept into the US reality show House of Boateng, Creative Director at Givenchy, remarried to Russian model Gyunel and father to Emilia and Oscar and with a new flagship store on Savile Row.
The powerhouse that is Boateng doesn’t have time for much else beyond Ozwald Boateng, and thus the camera starts to function as a sort of confessional, offering brief moments of self-reflection and clarity. And the argument between him and Gyunel that opens the film and her reproach to him to “Be a man!” hangs over the 98 minute runtime like a gaping wound, just as much as it haunts Ozwald. What it is to be a man lies at the heart of A Man’s Story; Boateng’s suits encourage people to dress like men not kids, and his whole ethos hangs on the shoulders of male elegance. He’s an ambitious go-getter, and, given the chance, man enough to confront his second wife’s lover. But all the same, the reproach hits a nerve, forcing him to question not so much his stature as a man, but rather his presence as a husband and father.
But it’s not all broad shoulders and tapered waistlines, there’s also colour. And with his African colour palette, the Ghanaian-born couturier decides to mark Ghana’s fifty years of independence and the bicentennial of the end of the slave trade with a catwalk show in Accra. It’s a risky, ill-timed move and a homage to his father, but despite the drain on his energy and financial resources, he lobbies prominent African-Americans tirelessly, such as Mos Def, Isaiah Washington, Chris Tucker and Herbie Hancock, to get behind Africa and to change American perspectives on the homeland. It’s here too that Boateng hits his lowest ebb, robbed of his usual upbeat self-belief when visiting the slave chambers at Cape Coast, and cast into cultural confusion. But as the Brit tries to put Africa into the hearts and minds of African-Americans, the journey they begin to reclaim their heritage echoes his own.
Catching rare glimpses of the emotional reality beneath the surface of Ozwald Boateng’s daily existence, Varon Bonicos’ documentary is a kaleidoscope of impressions, events and emotions. Friendship and a 12-year familiarity allow the director to get dangerously close to his subject, and perhaps the upshot for Bonicos isn’t so much A Man’s Story but the making thereof. It’s an ethos shared with Boateng; don’t get hung up on detail, life’s all about the experience. And Bonicos’ distillation of over 420 hours of footage certainly crystallises the experience of an existence. A Man’s Story is more a collage than an existential quest, but still, it does a fine line in taste and colour.
A Man’s Story is released in the UK on 9th March 2012