How to decolonise filmmaking

British-Jamaican director Cecile Emeke on skewering black stereotypes and the problems with microaggressions

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Still from Ackee & Saltfish
Still from Ackee & Saltfishvia ackeeandsaltfish.co.uk

Unless you’ve been living under an internet rock, by now you’ll already be au fait with British-Jamaican filmmaker Cecile Emeke and her hilarious web series Ackee & Saltfish. Following the refreshingly frank cultural interrogation of her international documentary series Strolling, the project and its protagonists – best friends Olivia and Rachel – began life as a short film conceived out of Emeke’s desire to explore themes of sexism and gentrification through lighter, more comedic material. Its success, both in the UK and the States, is thanks to the familiarity and honesty that resonates through her work. Emeke is a young creative building a discourse that aims to open up the cinematic conversation to the nuances of black voices and black experience, through her primary exploration of black culture in the diaspora of East London. Here, her ideas are further expounded upon following a sold out talk about decolonising filmmaking.

EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL

“I guess my work is art for arts sake but everything is political whether you want to call it that or not. Art is political, film is political; it’s a mixture. It’s just life and I want to create stuff that reflects life. I wouldn’t call myself an activist because I think that has certain connotations to certain spaces that I’m not a part of, things that are normally associated with academics – I don’t think I’m a part of those circles. My films do resonate with people. It’s something they haven’t seen before and I’m really glad that they are enjoying it. I can understand why people might label some of my work like Strolling as activism but I wouldn’t personally call it that.”

THE SYSTEM IS FUCKED

“The British film industry isn’t progressive, honestly it’s not, because my generation are complaining about what the generation before us complained about, and the generation before them complained about the same thing. I haven’t had a lot of support from filmmakers in Britain. Any (support) I have had has been black filmmakers, so I definitely don’t think the industry is as progressive as people want to say it is. I think the British film industry and the creative industries in general are failing young creatives as a consequence of the poor systems that run this society. Our society is run on patriarchy, it’s run on white supremacy, on heteronormativity, it’s run on all these different systems that oppress people and this is just one outcome. I feel like there needs to be a core change, and it’s not going to be simple but it needs to happen.”

COMPLETING THE PICTURE

“There’s nothing wrong with Love & Hip Hop, I’ve watched that. I think there’s nothing wrong with stereotypes but it’s just an incomplete representation and there’s nothing else. I don’t necessarily dislike stereotypes, I just want to see other experiences showcased. I don’t think I’m categorically moving away from themes like gun crime and drug culture, I’m sure one day they will be mentioned. I think I’m just telling other parts of the story and some of the people in the films don’t have those experiences so why would they talk about it? But if I interview someone who does have that experience, I’m not afraid to talk about gun crime or whatever it might be, but I think it’s important to tell the whole picture not just the partial one. My issue with stereotypes is not avoiding those topics because then I’m reacting and then I feel like I’m almost being controlled.”

“Our society is run on patriarchy, it’s run on white supremacy, on heteronormativity, it’s run on all these different systems that oppress people and this is just one outcome” – Cecile Emeke

MICROAGGRESSIONS AREN’T COOL

“I think microaggressions and competition amongst women exist as a consequence of patriarchy. I think for women it becomes a survival technique and it’s similar to the idea of Stockholm Syndrome in that, you identify with the oppressor to save your own ego and survive. I don’t blame or shame any women that do that because it’s just survival. Black women in particular are always being policed. It’s frustrating when people want to pick at one thing, like your hair.”

A SAVIOUR ISN’T THE ANSWER

I don’t think of myself as representative or anything like that. I feel that through my work I’m trying to deconstruct the need for that. That’s why in Strolling everyone has their own individual voice because I don’t think we need to look for a “saviour” or a leader to save us. But I’m definitely aware that if my name grows there is a certain responsibility attached to that. I’m trying to diffuse that through other people. That’s why it’s good that artists, like The Lonely Londoners and Sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, are connecting right now, so it’s not just one person doing stuff. I don’t really think we need representatives or leaders. People shouldn’t be scared to speak their truth and stay true to it.”

IT’S TOO EASY TO BE MYOPIC

“Experience is unique and should be shared. Strolling has helped shape my voice, filming in France and Amsterdam has been really eye-opening. It’s easy to just think about your experience, because I feel like a lot of black British people can be annoyed by African-American people who only see themselves but we can generalise our experience across Europe too, and it’s completely different in different places. But in this country specifically people talk about this exotic Black privilege. For example if you’re black and you’re British and you go to America, people are interested in your work but African-American people sometimes have trouble getting that same attention. But when African American or Black French people come here, British people are really interested in them. There’s this thing where, where you are from they don’t always recognise you. Like when Idris Elba went to America and did The Wire and now the BBC want him, but before that he was doing Family Affairs on Channel Five (laughs)

Cecile Emeke will be screening episodes of Strolling at Strive Festival at Southbank Centre, Sunday, 2:30pm

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