While we don’t like to play to stereotype here at Den Of Geek, it’s easy to say that high fashion isn’t our strong suit. So when a documentary comes along that offers an intimate look into the life of designer Ozwald Boateng, our response is almost sickeningly predictable: “Who is Ozwald Boateng?”
You may not have heard of the man, but you certainly know the men he clothes. Boateng’s suits have been worn – and championed – by the likes of Will Smith, Laurence Fishburne and Jamie Foxx, and his designs have appeared in films ranging from The Matrix to Die Another Day.
However, with a title like A Man’s Story, the assumption would be that director Varon Bonicos’ thesis is that Boateng, despite his sharp suits and international renown, is a normal chap, with everyday problems and doubts. By going down this indefinite route – seriously, you can’t get a more non-specific title – the film effectively skips over the qualities that make this man so special.
To start with, Bonicos forgets to answer the question which faces any personality-led documentary: why should the audience care? Boateng’s work is distinctive, bold and colourful, and has filtered through into popular culture in very tangible ways. However, the director is more interested in Boateng the man.
Compiled from 12 years of shadowing his subject, A Man’s Story mostly consists of fly-on-the-wall footage and interviews, which results in a film that is both piecemeal and dull. The plodding, year-by-year structure is often devoid of context, reducing the grand sweep of Bonicos’ footage to an endless montage of fashion shows, meetings and soul-searching monologues.
At the top of the film, we find Boateng at a low point. He has had a disastrous year both financially and romantically, peaking with the separation from his first wife. By the end, he has not only conquered the fashion world, both as creative director of Givenchy and as a star of his own Hollywood reality TV show (curiously co-created by Bonicos), but he has also separated from his second wife, the Russian model Gyunel.
It is an undoubtedly eventful period of the man’s life. However, without more than a brief glimpse of where he came from – the supposed ‘rags to riches’ story which ends in Boateng being the youngest, and first black, designer to shack up on Saville Row – or even a wider look at the fashion world itself, there simply isn’t the foundation for a compelling bio-doc. Likewise, Boateng’s film work, both in the costume department and behind the camera, is reduced to side-glances. At one point, he enthuses about his love of cinema, and his ambition to direct, but what we’re shown – clips of a moody Russian art flick, a Chinese martial arts sequence, or a garish anime-style cartoon – comes off as over-funded and under-inspired.
Instead of giving depth to these ambitions, Bonicos seems content to pile on the handheld footage, and give over much of the narrative reins to Boateng himself, as he over-analyses, and self-mythologises his own recent past. It’s the significance of these interviews, along with the paucity of directorial comment, that starts to become a little troubling as the film trundles along.
One problem facing any documentary filmmaker is how, when building up an intimate portrait of a subject, to maintain a crucial, critical distance. Throughout A Man’s Story, there’s evidence that Bonicos might have got a little too close to Boateng, and that familiarity has drastically affected the film itself.
A key scene in this regard is when, after a slow slide from romance to antipathy, Boateng’s marriage to Gyunel ends before our eyes through that most voyeuristic of mediums, the loudspeaker mobile phone conversation. That Bonicos had this access, and that Boateng felt comfortable having this exchange filmed, casts suspicion over the whole enterprise. And once the camera turns its eye on Gyunel, as she is interrogated about her adultery, you wonder at which point the director turned into Boateng’s personal spin doctor.
Indeed, A Man’s Story isn’t so much a documentary about Boateng, but more of an apologia for his lifestyle. Throughout, as he travels the world, and stages larger fashion shows while leaving his family in London, there is the sense that the film isn’t interested in showing who this man is, and what makes him so special, as it is excusing him for over a decade of work-life imbalance.
It can’t help but show both Boateng and Bonicos in a bad light. While there is no doubt that the designer’s clothes are stunningly sharp, he is not half as eloquent as his immediate charisma would suggest. Likewise, Bonicos has neither the craft nor the backbone to truly get to the heart of his subject, and his questionable journalistic ethics suggest that, despite the unequalled access he was granted, perhaps he was not the best filmmaker to tell this man’s story, after all.