Cypher @Nashville Film Festival
There are two types of films they screen at the Nashville Film Festival, and as such, there are two types of films I regularly review: narrative films and documentaries. In other words, there are films about real things that happened to real people (documentaries) and films about made-up stuff happening to made-up people (narrative).
And then there’s Chris Moukrabel’s Cypher.
Cypher, filmed as a documentary, tells us the story of the meteoric rise of Tierra Whack, an eccentric but highly skilled female rapper from Philadelphia. Here, I have to make a confession: because I had heard there was something different about this movie, and because I am a middle-aged white man (albeit a one time devotee of hip-hop), and also because I believed her name was spelled “Wack” as opposed to “Whack”, I believed I was watching a “mockumentary.” I thought there was no Tierra Whack–that she might belong on the same bill as Spinal Tap, or The Folksmen, or possibly Randy Watson & Sexual Chocolate.
Well, no. Tierra Whack is a very real hip-hop artist; her very real work includes this, and this, and this, and…you get the idea. Once I knew that–once I had checked my phone mid-screening to confirm she really existed, in other words, I was prepared to accept that I was watching a real documentary about a real person, who grew up in the very real Philadelphia. We learn, through words imposed on the screen, that this film’s title, “Cypher” is Philly slang for a group of freestyle rappers, like the ones Tierra approached one day as they were spitting rhymes, spat her own, and thus began her journey. That the screen also advises us of the word’s other meaning–a means of encrypting the contents of a secret message–just seems like a coincidence.
So I took in an unusually long scene after a Tierra Whack concert in Chicago in which Ms. Whack, her entourage, and the documentarians eat at an all-night diner. Tierra finally notices she’s being stared at by a random stranger. The stranger finally introduces herself as one Tina Johnson; she was at the show, she says, and is a huge fan of Whack. All well and good. But then Tina begins to try to warn Tierra that there are, more likely than not, sinister forces working to corrupt her music and influence her; occult elitists who want her to be part of the vast, global machine spreading their worldview, and will stop at nothing to make it so. Johnson explains that when her fellow rapper Gucci Mane wouldn’t comply, he was killed and replaced with a clone. Tina continues this spiel even as Tierra is trying (now with great haste) to leave the diner.
While I had not known that Tierra Whack was real, I did know that mindsets like Tina’s are in fact very real; there are those among us who believe that an elite are running the world, and use artists as puppets. During down times at the software company where I once worked, I would often visit a website called Vigilant Citizen, whose sole contributor–the titular Citizen, I reckon–sees The Elite around every corner, especially when the musician on that corner is minority and/or female. And, in all fairness, even a stopped tinfoil hat is right twice a day; there did exist for years (may still yet exist) the CIA’s concept of The Mighty Wurlitzer, wherein the media becomes little more than the jukebox referred to in the phrase–a whole selection of songs, but they were all picked by the same person. Bwahaha, I believe the phrase goes. At any rate, I knew there existed real nutjobs like Tina, so I was confident that I was still seeing a real documentary, in which real things were happening to real people.
That confidence began to weaken, though, as the events of Whack’s life continued to unfold, in ways that seemed to fall in line with Tina’s warning, like the “outside marketing company” who offer Whack a commercial jingle, but they have to help her write it, and won’t let the doc crew film their meetings. Then there’s Tierra’s invite to appear in a film with Beyonce`, who, as you’ll learn if you peruse Mr. Vigilant Citizen from earlier in this piece, is already a High Priestess Of The Illuminati or some such…and then, in Tierra’s dressing room on set, there’s a gift–a radio shaped like an owl, specifically the Greco-Roman Owl of Athena, a favorite icon among the tinfoil-hatted. This all begins to seem too good to be true; what’s the old saying about such things?
Then we’re introduced to two more characters–Marigold Johnson, Tina’s daughter, and “Warren” (whose name, we learn again onscreen, is also a name for a set of underground tunnels; make a note of that.) We never see “Warren”, only the Instagram posts thereof, most of which are video footage of Whack that “Warren” should not reasonably have access to–like footage from Whack’s hotel room in Dubai, where she’s slated to perform (and, upon seeing the footage, cancels). As for Marigold, she’s as concerned about Whack as her mother was; I say was because, as we learn, Tina has disappeared–and it seems to be “Warren’s” agenda to tell the world that Whack is responsible. Whack denies this, naturally, and there begins a contentious battle between Tierra’s documentarians and Marigold about sharing doc footage with her.
A big segment of the film, at this point, is a series of YouTube videos Marigold has posted, about a place called Malheur Cave; I ran a search for such a place, and found nothing. Per Marigold, however, Malheur was once a site for sinister Masonic rituals–and Whack is, after all, from Philadelphia, a city rife with Masonic symbolism (as a montage of that very thing demonstrates to us); why is this concerning? Because Tierra is scheduled to shoot a video at Malheur Cave (which, again, doesn’t seem to exist, although Freemasons certainly do).
The doc crew finally concede to meet with Marigold at her home, where two big reveals occur–both spoilers, so I’ll say nothing–and she lays out what she suspects is The Big Secret Plan for Tierra. It involves, apparently, a plan by The Oculists, a quasi-Masonic order of optometrists dating back to the Age Of Enlightenment, who realized that lenses (as in cameras, etc) were a key to the future, a key to power; as such, they devised a ritual wherein certain famous people would sit on a throne surrounded by magnifying glasses (lenses, dig?) and, to show their allegiance to their cause, they would…voluntarily pluck one hair from their eyebrows.
It’s all outlined, per Marigold, in a letter they left, as described in an article by Noah Schachtman in Wired Magazine. I found this delightful, and absolute proof that I was being had; what was this, after all, if not a spot-on parody of actual societies and actual Plans For World Domination? (And by “actual Plans”, I mean several docs, including the notorious Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which we’ve known for centuries was fake, at least those of us not talking to ourselves at the bus stop.) I even admired the detail of creating a fake article in a real magazine by a real author. How clever, I thought…until I found the actual article by the actual guy in the actual magazine.
I trust your literacy, dear reader, to infer where I’m going here, which is that Moukrabel has maybe created a companion piece to Orson’s classic F For Fake, which tells you what it’s about and what it’s going to do, and then still has you on for most of its runtime. The grand finale of the film is an extended set piece on the day of the video shoot; both the doc crew and Marigold make their way to that set, whether either are welcome or not. What happens? What if any of this is real, and what is just a put-on? That’s the journey you take in this film, and it’s worth taking yourself; I’ll just say that the biggest reveal comes from Whack herself, whose final moment onscreen is one you never see coming. I didn’t fully crack this Cypher. Will you?