Afilmmaker’s journey of personal and ethnic discovery, “Through the Door of No Return” reps a sometimes successful trek. While its historic footsteps lead to intriguing roots of the African-American experience, director Shirikiana Aina’s ambitions outpace her abilities; the film is a muddle of ideas in search of unity. Chiefly of note as a journal, pic should find some play on TV and in retros of black-American ethnographic pictures.
The catalyst for this film expedition is Aina’s quest to make sense of the life of her father, a Michigan man who died when she was a young girl. Tracing his ancestry, she find that he was part of the first wave of descendants of slaves who looked to Africa to make sense of the American experience. His decision to visit the continent branded him a radical and earned him a bulky FBI file.
The filmmaker goes to Ghana to find the so-called “door” of the title. In the port of Elmina she finds storytellers who provide the oral history of slavery. The town was a sort of warehouse in which captured Africans were imprisoned prior to being shipped to the New World. Her travels also reveal a colony of re-transplanted African-Americans who have chosen Ghana as a preferable environment for raising a family.
The challenge for Aina lay in translating the emotional import of her search to the screen. While she speaks eloquently about what she sees and hears, the images and situations presented remain static and flat. Helmer simply doesn’t put the viewer inside the experience, and the film remains a cold, intellectual observation.