Borderline is a 1930 film, written and directed by Kenneth Macpherson and produced by the Pool Group in Territet, Switzerland. The silent film, with English inter-titles, is primarily noted for its handling of the contentious issue of inter-racial relationships, using avant-garde experimental film-making techniques, and is today very much part of the curriculum of the study of modern cinematography.
The film, which features Paul Robeson, Bryher and HD, was originally believed to have been lost, but was discovered, by chance, in Switzerland in 1983. An original 16mm copy of this film is now held in the Donnell Media Center, New York City Public Library. In 2006, the British Film Institute sponsored the film’s restoration by The George Eastman House and eventual DVD release with a soundtrack, composed by Courtney Pine. Its premiere at the Tate Modern gallery in London attracted 2,000 people. In 2010, the film was released with a soundtrack composed by Mallory Johns, and performed by the Southern Connecticut State University Creative Music Orchestra.
The film revolves around an inter-racial love triangle and its effects on the local townsfolk. The story is based in a guesthouse occupied by a set of liberal, hedonistic young people sympathetic to the emerging black American culture. In what would have been completely frowned upon at the time, the manageress has let out a room to a black couple, Pete Marond and his wife, Adah. Adah has an affair with Thorne, a white man, much to the dismay of the prejudiced townsfolk and Thorne's wife, Astrid. Pete attempts a reconciliation with Adah, but she eventually decides to leave him and the town. Astrid confronts Thorne on the affair and attacks him with a knife. In the scuffle, Astrid is killed. The film concludes with the aftermath of Thorne’s trial for murder and the townsfolk’s resolution of the issue.
Macpherson was particularly influenced by the cinematic techniques of G.W. Pabst and Sergei Eisenstein, whom he first met in 1929. In Borderline, he uses avant-garde experimental film-making techniques, blending Eisenstein’s montage innovation and Pabst’s psycho-analytical approach, to identify the emotional and psychological states of the film’s characters. These techniques called for unconventional post-production editing, the use of light and shadow, and exaggerated movement on the part of the actors. "Macpherson’s brilliance lies in his ability to photograph small movements as nuanced, meaning-producing gestures".
"Taking heed from the Soviet montage school of thought, Macpherson incites action and reaction through a bravura demonstration of editing that wilfully distorts the viewer’s grasp of his visual rhetoric. The film bemuses with its expeditious cutting rates and its excisional framing – the latter’s reduction of human figures to dissected body parts powerfully accentuating the characters’ physical detachment from their internal desires. Together, these core tenets invoke an overwhelming tsunami of kineticism that obliterates the audience’s understanding of the film’s spacial [sic] and temporal dimensions until all that’s left for us to cling to is an immediate, raw visceralism; the ultimate purification of the cinematic experience."
"Judged on its own merits, Borderline is a ground-breaking work, dealing as it does with issues of race and sexuality at a time when such subject matter was still largely taboo and had only been previously tackled cinematically through oblique inference". It would be decades before the cinematic community would once again tackle the subject matter raised in Borderline. At the time of its release, Borderline was a film that confused and bewildered critics leading the London Evening Standard’s Clive MacManus to advise Macpherson "to spend a year in a commercial studio" before attempting something as difficult again. Deeply upset by its hostile reception, Macpherson archived his film and withdrew from film directing. Macpherson’s work would go on to influence future film-makers such as Nathaniel Dorsky and Robert Beavers.
For many years, Borderline was largely inaccessible to film scholars, with rare copies in a few archives around the world. It was seldom screened in public. Many film historians of avant garde and experimental film-making, feel that it represents one of the last examples of modernism of the 1920s, when many artists had hoped that artistic experimentation and commercial viability need not be mutually exclusive.
A booklet that Macpherson and HD wrote to accompany the film concentrated not on narrative coherence but on psychological metaphors. The booklet was later published in the Pool Group's literary journal, Close Up.