In an interview for Film Comment, French director Axelle Ropert said that as a director she made films that she felt were missing as a spectator- that she was filling gaps. Though Ropert wasn't talking about racial representation (or the lack thereof), it is the same impulse that prompted UK-based visual artist Cecile Emeke to create Strolling, a series of short documentaries in which the director herself goes on a walk with beautiful black Londoners to talk about various issues ranging from free tampons to European colonization. She took some of her time to answer our questions about this brilliant series and her upcoming short "Ackee & Saltfish." — interviewed by Fanta
BLACK GIRLS TALKING: Most black Europeans would identify with the frustrating experience of having to cling to a representation that always comes from an elsewhere (America, Africa, The Caribbean,) and never from the place they were born into. Their experience is never reflected completely. Strolling was a response and is also a consequence of that erasure of black British experience(s) at a cultural level. Can you trace back that moment when you first felt that erasure and the way it affected you?
I think I've always known I was erased and didn't exist by the way people looked at me. It's a look I still get all the time and I still find hard to articulate because it really is an odd thing to experience. It's a mixture of shock, fascination, fear and disgust. It's subtle but very obvious; it's enough to make me know that in their immediate world, I don't exist in the way they exist in mine. I remember being young, me and my sister would ask my mum why people were staring at all of us and of course she would just try to protect us by saying "oh don't worry, they're just jealous".
"The look" was usually followed by questions in more intimate settings, but sometimes strangers would actually stop me on the street to ask "Where are you from?", "Why is your hair like that?" and other invasive questions. I don't have to stop white people on the street to ask questions because I already know everything about them; what they look like, where they are from, how their hair works, what language they speak and so forth. White is default and they exist in books, in TV/film, on the radio, in plays, on the news, in history and every other sphere. But I didn't exist in any of the aforementioned and thus I was an alien to be stared at and my presence was to be questioned.
It makes me sad in hindsight because I was too young to realise that the way other people treated me reflected who they were and had absolutely nothing to do with me, but at the time I thought something was wrong with me and that it was my job to fix it and make everyone else feel comfortable. It made me become really self-conscious. It also irritates me now looking back because black people have been in Britain for hundreds of years, but I grew up feeling like we must be the first generation to have put foot here by the way people looked at me.
BGT: There seem to be some changes with emerging artists like you or the Lonely Londoners…
Yes, I think a lot of us are realising that despite Britain liking to think of itself as a "liberal" place, we seem to not be allowed into certain artistic spaces unless we conform to a certain ideal, and normally that ideal is one that will allow us to be brown as long as we never talk about it, or unless we fit into some sort of caricature or stereotype. To put it simply, we can't be us authentically; we have to be the idea or fantasy that british society has of us. So I think artists like myself and the Lonely Londoners are just not willing to do that and therefore we are creating our own spaces. And I think it's the same reason why actors and musicians like Idris Elba, Thandi Newton, Sampha and Marsha Ambrosisus went to the US and found huge success, because their talent simply wasn't being recognized in it's fullness here, and so they had to go elsewhere and create their own space. Only after international success does support from the UK that should have been nurturing homegrown talent from the beginning, seem to appear. It's a shame that people abroad recgonise us more and allow us space than the people in our own country, but I think people are fed up of having to water down their art in order to get a seat at the table. I am, at least.
BGT: I read that most of the people in your shorts are people you know personally. Can you talk about the whole process of shooting and editing? Do you know what you’re going to talk about before shooting?
EMEKE: I normally have a list of things I want to touch on in the interview, but often the conversation might go off on a tangent that I hadn't thought of previously which I really encourage - it's more organic.
BGT: Has black feminist thought influenced your work?
EMEKE: 100%. As a black woman that is my default framework I understand everything through.
[After asking her to expand on how black feminist thought influenced her work from a political and aesthetic point of view.]
It's hard to explain. I think I have always thought through a framework of black feminist thought but I haven't always navigated with it. Let me try to explain. Since I was a child, I always new that I was black and that I was a woman, and I knew that meant things were different for me. Things would happen in my little world and I had an innate sense of what was right and what was wrong but I had been conditioned to think I was imagining it and to repress those feelings. I felt a twitch when white people would give me "that" look. I would feel a twitch when people would worship my hair because it was "good" hair, but not my sisters hair. I felt a twitch when people would say that girls were supposed to stop playing sports after a certain age. I felt a twitch when people said "black girls don't listen to this"or "real black girls don't do that". I always felt the "twitches" but I had learnt to ignore them.
Now the older and more informed I became, the more I started to listen to myself and what these "twitches" were telling me. The more I read bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, for example, the more they encouraged me to listen to myself, as I read about how they listened to themselves. They articulated some of those twitches that I had but that I didn't understand. Eventually I understood that the voice, twitches or whatever you want to call them, that thing inside me that made me feel certain things, it was the most important voice and I should always listen to it. So for me personally black feminist thought influenced me as a person, in the sense that it taught me that my voice was the most important and it encouraged me to trust myself the most. In my experience, society had conditioned me to do the exact opposite; to always think of other peoples positions first and mine second. I think in that sense it's influenced my art both from an aesthetic and a political place, simply because I stopped thinking about what you are "supposed" to do and what "people" do, and I just started to do what I wanted to do. Now I listen to my voice. So for example, you're "supposed" to have objective documentaries, with really static, sharp shots, you're not meant to do it freehand, you can't just interview mostly black women, you can't ask the type of questions I'm asking and all the rest - but black feminist thought has taught me as a person to ignore all the tradition and dogma projected on to me and listen to myself and do whatever the hell I want, and that definitely translated into how I've decided to make strolling and all the rest of my work.
For me "black feminist" thought isn't abstract. It's me. I am black. I am a woman. I am the movement. I am the thought. Books, music and art helped me to realise that. Now I can't experience things through anything other than a black feminist framework, that is through me and my framework. I unlearnt all that self doubt & repression that most little black girls are taught. Now this is my default. I think we all experience it differently, but that has been my experience.
BGT: What draws you to the documentary form?
The genre of documentary was appealing to me because it allows full expression of that side of me with no restrictions; the more honest, the better. I like the fact that you share a piece of yourself and get vulnerable. In that vulnerability there is a sort of freedom, and your own freedom consequently free others, and alleviates the alienation that was silencing them. I think that's a powerful thing.
BGT: You’ve directed a few shorts now. Are you ready to transition from short to longer features?
EMEKE: Yes, though I love the format of shorts, I'd love to transition into full features. I'm excited to one day create a feature classic for London like "Do the right thing" & "Crooklyn" are classics for New Yorkers from Brooklyn.
BGT: There is a sense of place in this series, the people you follow are rooted in their environnement yet they sometimes talk of feeling out-of-place in the UK. Do you believe that, through arts, we can reclaim a space that has been denied to us?
EMEKE: I definitely think that art is one of the ways to create your own space, and in that sense reclaim the space that has been taken away from you. If arts were not important elements of cultural space, existence & identity, then there wouldn't be so many people and forces purposely trying to stop certain forms of artistic expression and deliberately only allowing stereotypical one story narratives to exist. We can see how devastating it is when you take away a people's artistic and cultural space by looking at how it has affected those descended from African slaves. To continue to deny people that space is another way of trying to continue the cultural genocide that began in the 1500's. Before we dismiss forms of art & culture as "just" art, it's important to remember that part of history. I'm a testament to how devastating it was, 500 years later. Creating artistic space is incredibly important and it is incredibly political. Like I said, if it wasn't it wouldn't be the first target when trying to destroy a community of people.
BGT: Strolling means having a leisurely or relaxed walk but the young men and women you film are sometimes burdened with existential issues. Is it important for you to film a youth that is conscious and in-touch with world issues?
EMEKE: I wouldn't say any of the people were "conscious" and I think it's important to note that. They are just ordinary people. And one of the biggest motivations for strolling was to show that ordinary Shane down the road and Becky around the corner is you're average Joe, but unlike what the TV or news might tell you, you're average Joe is not stupid; Average Joe understands and is interested in politics, social issues and the bigger picture.
I think when you label them as "conscious" or "in-touch" it can be dangerous because you inevitably feed in to the vicious, never ending circle of self-fulfilling prophecy and myth, which deems young black people as "disinterested" and "uninformed". This is clearly the complete opposite of the truth. For example, lets take a look at just one of the many expressions created by young black people for young black people: hip hop. Hip hop is probably the single most political and social informed genres of music to exist, ever. And then if we take a look at the parallel of expression of young white people: pop music. I mean there really is no comparison. That is not me inferring that all young white people are uninformed and disinterested, I don't believe that to be true at all. However what I am saying is that if we are going to stereotype one group of young people as political inept and "out of touch" with would issues, it could never be young black people. So for me I don't intentionally set out to find "informed" people, but rather young black people are simply collectively more intellectually and politically engaged on the whole and these people represent the "rule" not the exception like the media would have us believe.
BGT: This series creates a craving for this type of exploration of black britishness. For instance we'd love to see a film about that young black girl who experienced depression and struggled with competition during her time in college. There is fictional material right there. That’s one of the great things your work illuminates there are stories to be told, to be explored.
EMEKE: I definitely agree and think the best stories come from real life experience, and I'd love to see some of these stories being told. I plan to be a part of that.
BGT: Music has an important place in every short. How do you choose it according to each short?
EMEKE: I think each strolling episode evokes a set of emotions and I try to reflect that in the music I choose, depending on if the feel of the film is more playful, somber, contemplative and so forth.
BGT: Can you talk more about your next short “Ackee & Saltfish”? There is a mix of documentary and fiction with this one, it seems.
EMEKE: Ackee & Saltfish is purely fiction and scripted. It's not at all documentary. I think a lot of people think that Olivia and Rachel are people who exist in real life, but they are characters with great acting by the extremely talented actresses Vanessa Babirye and Michelle Tiwo who did an amazing job!
Basically Ackee & Saltfish is a short film about Olivia and Rachel who are best friends. They were both craving Ackee & Saltfish but Rachel forgot to soak the saltfish. They both have their heart set on it so they set out to get some takeaway instead. I don't want to give too much away but I can say that gentrification, race, religion and class all seem to come into play somehow on there seemingly mundane journey to their local Caribbean takeaway. The film is having several screenings, but it is still being decided whether the film will go online at all but I can confirm there will definitely be an Ackee & Saltfish web series which you can definitely look forward to very, very soon.