High Tar Babies, an Early Essay Film by Richard Misek

On March 19 (from 14:45), at Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square, London, the Essay Film Festival will present a free screening and discussion event featuring the work of Richard Misek, including his 2014 work Rohmer in Paris.

In connection with this event, we are delighted to be able to share, below, High Tar Babies, a previously unpublished essay film by Misek, along with his introduction to that film.


High Tar Babies was my first essay film, made in 2001/2, before I even knew what one was. It has almost nothing in common with my film Rohmer in Paris, being screened at the festival this year, apart from the fact that I made it. I look back at it as a strange and anomalous work, its strangeness largely explained by the fact that it was based around an exhibition by visual artist Marcus Wood that centred around a giant fabric sculpture of a slug.

The film started life as a documentation of performances around his exhibition ‘High Tar Babies’, at the Royal College of Art, but gradually the realisation that we were jointly creating a stand-alone film started to influence the performances – to the point where the final conflagration on Brighton beach was organised specifically for the film. In a sense, then, it is two films in parallel: a documentary made in the service of an art exhibition, and an essay film that plunders the exhibition for its own ends.


The film’s split-personality also extends to its theme: while Marcus, a world-leading slavery scholar as well as an artist, is deeply engaged in blackness as a metaphor, I’m far more interested in how blackness (together with whiteness) forms an aesthetic limit point. Though I didn’t yet appreciate it when we made High Tar Babies, blackness and whiteness have formed an on-going theme throughout my adult life: From a year spent wearing only black and white clothes; through my book Chromatic Cinema, which explored the role of black and white within a media landscape saturated with colour; to my current work-in-progress Black Box, a four-screen collage of cinematic blackness.


High Tar Babies was my first tentative exploration of how black, white, and colour interact. For many reasons, including the film’s flagrant appropriation of music by Os Mutantes, Yo-Yo Ma, and Max Roach, I’ve kept the film to myself for over a decade. Many thanks to Catherine Grant for encouraging me to give it an airing for the festival.


— Richard Misek