A Dog Called Money
Ireland ,UK, 2019. 90 mins
At its heart, A Dog Called Money is a gentle observation of the creative process of English musician Polly Jean Harvey aka «PJ Harvey». The film documents Harvey’s long arc absorbing newfound material amongst people living hard lives in hard places – fragments of their experience along the spaces and lands they occupy, then transforming this into new music.
Accompanying veteran Irish photojournalist, Seamus Murphy, to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Washington D.C., Harvey remains the principle subject of his first documentary film. Narration is sparse, composed from Harvey’s extensive observational notes. Some of these words become lyrics, growing organically in collaboration with her band of musicians over an intensive five-week session. This session takes place strictly inside a small soundproof, purpose-built studio within a much grander room at Somerset House where the musicians cannot sense the small clusters of visitors watching through one-way mirrors. Though the film shows a great deal of give and take between the musicians – a balance suggesting respect and complicity – Harvey remains quietly in control.
The distance between visitor and artist
The formal distance between the outside visitors and the unaffected musicians inside mimics Harvey’s own position as an outsider – on the mangled, muddy roads of Kabul, walking through ruins of the Afghan Ministry of Defense, or in the pews of an Afro-American congregation. Throughout each and all, Harvey appears self-conscious and still as if becoming the blank ground where audiences are able to project their own readings of her emotion and intention. This part too is performance – it is what she does, this is her work.
«What is shown of her encounters evokes what we believe we already know.»
A Dog Called Money puts the locations and people Harvey comes into contact with at her service. The focus is not to learn about them but rather how she synthesises what she sees and hears into her music. At most, what is shown of her encounters evokes what we believe we already know. There is no attempt to give the floor to the dirt-speckled Afghan boy staring into the camera, his nose pressed against a car window; the old woman in Kosovo fiddling with her keys, slowly walking toward a crumbled wall on property she no longer inhabits; Afghan men chant prayers together, in a circle, to reach religious ecstasy.
There is no faking Harvey’s position as the foreigner passing through. Her search feels genuine. It is easy to recognise in her – as in any other sensitive traveller – the desire to absorb new textures, sounds, rituals, and voices. While in Kosovo, she gently lifts an artifact from a thick, accumulated mess of a ransacked house abandoned in the war two decades ago. She describes walking through the ruins of other people’s lives with her own «expensive» sandals with an air of embarrassment yet – clad in Ann-Demeulmeester black – she becomes something between archivist and shaman.
«There is no faking Harvey’s position as the foreigner passing through. »
No one here is invited to understand Harvey outside the evidence of her work – nor does Harvey ever explain herself in the film. There is no visit to her Dorset home and only selected moments in situ on her trips. The film gives audiences adequate room to interpret what is going on inside her as it sprinkles lovely details here and there – like second thoughts to round off a poem.
Perhaps because Harvey is already a well-known artist, audiences at the film’s Berlinale premier were palpably eager and receptive. I was not sure what to make of this at first as the film begs an emotional engagement seeking communion without voyeurism. Though I wondered if certain moments were «pretentious» or just Harvey’s response to gaze, as the outsider, as she breathes each location in and out before moving on.
Even if you know nothing about PJ Harvey’s work before seeing A Dog Called Money, watching her collaborative and creative process will pique curiosity for her musical history before this project.