High above the New York skyline, on the twenty first floor of a Harlem high-rise block, there is an apartment that is the true heart of the concrete jungle. High above the ground, above children playing basketball, above street hustlers, above retired men huddled around a game of dominos, something lurks in the narrow corridors of a confined apartment. They are all unaware of the predator above them. A king in his respected homeland, in the middle of Harlem, however, he is alone and frustrated.
In October of 2003 a bizarre news story swept the nation and captivated the people of New York City. After being admitted to a hospital for bite wounds which the victim, Antoine Yates, had claimed he had received from his pet pit bull – the medical staff grew suspicious. As police arrived at the apartment they too grew suspicious as loud noises emanated from inside. What they found shocked the entire city. Antoine had always been an animal lover. His five-bedroom apartment had become a menagerie in its own right but they could never have imagined what they would discover. Antoine had been harbouring a three-year-old tiger he named Ming. Ming wasn’t the only exotic creature to wander the corridors of his high-rise apartment, however. Along with Ming police also discovered Antoine’s other wild pet. Unsatisfied with one terrifyingly dangerous creature as a companion, police also found a six foot alligator living in a makeshift enclosure (splendidly) named Al.
Life wasn’t always perfect in his own private metropolitan zoo. Antoine recalls (with bravado) the difficulties of living with a tiger and an alligator as roommates in a narrow space. Passionate in his belief that despite the hardships of illegally owning two dangerous pets in New York, they all lived happily under the same roof in the Harlem ghetto high rise. Documentary filmmaker Phillip Warnel’s debut feature Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Stories in the Air is a fascinating and intimate portrait of loneliness in the big city.
His camera is restrained, subtle, artistic and not intrusive. Throughout the short documentary we see Antoine (ironically) confined to the backseat of a vehicle as he peers through the window at the world of Harlem that he no longer inhabits. This interesting approach mirrors the surreal other aspect of the film where Warnel recreates life in Antoine’s high-rise apartment. Narrow corridors, bland decorations, and static cameras illuminate the world Ming and Al inhabited. Outside, driving through the streets Antoine recounts his old neighbourhood he hid away from. Waving at passers by (he is somewhat notorious in the community by this point) and fondly looking back on the world he took for granted.
This juxtaposition between the life of Antoine – a human lost in a city filled with his own kind – and the life of his ‘best bud’ Ming – a wild animal confined to an environment without his own kind – speaks volumes to how Warnel perceives his subject. Never overtly judging Antoine for his actions but instead finding a subtler approach through his filmmaking style. The recreation sections where ‘Ming’ wanders the apartment do drive home the message of boredom the animal felt whilst adding a surreal element to the film. The unusual, static camera work possibly lingered a bit to long throughout the middle as the occasional poetry by Jean-Luc Nancy filter in voice over, but it was an intriguing aspect of the overall film.
Warnel’s approach may appear simplistic at first. He never digs into Antoine as a subject outside of the events that concern Ming. We never hear a sob story about a potential troubled upbringing or any excuses as to why he would keep two man-eaters knocking around. Warnel was looking for answers to the strange story that will one day fade into obscurity. Like the alligators that supposedly roam the New York sewers, Yate’s story may one day be dismissed as an urban legend. Warnel was there to document Antoine’s reasoning behind his actions, not find a way to contradict him. This is Antoine and Ming’s story. A story of friendship that turned sour. I don’t believe Antoine harboured any mental illness or naivety. I believe he was just a lonely guy in a big city.
Ming Of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys In The Air is in selected UK cinemas from July 22.