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Ten experimental filmmakers tackling the world’s big topics

How can art and film take on the issues that are the most difficult for us to process?

The mass displacement of people because of war, bigotry, racism, hatred, discussions over whether people can use a fucking toilet, a continued transition of our lives from the “real” world online – these are the big issues confronting our societies today. People are now more obviously pitted against each other. And with these divisions, more pronounced artists are needed to create work that enables us to feel and see past differences. Below we’ve drawn together films by artists and activists which go some way to show the strength that’s still in the creative world to take a stand and explore complex and sensitive subjects which today’s politicians incessantly simplify.


Cyprien Clement-Delma's four-minute film enters you into the surreal atmosphere of Trump's inauguration day in Washington. With a camera that is never still and a texture and colour which instils discomfort by harking back to the 1950s, we are taken on a journey which sees us bombarded with aggressively contradictory and fantastical words and personalities. Trump lovers, and haters, propel us towards the confrontation that occurred on the 20th January 2017 between protestors and police marking the start of a year predicted to be filled with the plight of numerous conflicting groups to be heard. 


Described as “a three-part visual soliloquy”, Wainaina illustrates a journey of racial identity from his birthplace in Kenya, via England, to his life in New York, negotiating his own African heritage with the perceptions of those around him and dichotomies in the U.S. between African Americans and African immigrants to the country. Poetic and understated, in six succinct minutes, Clean Water manages to cover a wealth of weighty ideas, such as parental anxiety (albeit marked with a very real, racial worry, distinct among black communities), personhood and history.


Like a performance art installation that perhaps David Lynch or Terrence Malick would understand, director Aviv Maaravi has created a film in which the sinewy figure of dancer Shamel Pitts (whose freeform soliloquy serves as the film’s narration) contorts and stretches himself in the middle of the Negev Desert of Israel, with only craggy mountains for company. References to heritage, ancestry and struggle are elliptical at best, while the stark monochrome visuals leave you to connect the dots between Pitts’s movements and his poignant, figurative words. 


The conceit behind Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word is rib-tickling but almost significant. He takes mainstream movies and edits them down exclusively to the lines spoken by people of colour – almost none of Marron’s videos exceed a minute. It serves to underline the lack of substantial speaking roles for people of colour in Hollywood filmmaking, highlighting how diverse faces are being erased in a visibly homogenous industry. All the same, a rich seam of subversive, mischievous humour informs the project, agitating change through levity.


Based on the dissertation written by its leading man Kwame Edwin Otu at the Carter G. Woodson Institute, Reluctantly Queer tracks the life of young queer Ghanaian man struggling to reconcile same-sex desire and the love he has for his mother against the backdrop of raised tensions triggered by same-sex politics in Ghana. Winning the award for Best International Short at the Baltimore International Black Film Festival last year and collecting a Golden Bear nomination at the Berlinale, Reluctantly Queer has amassed much acclaim. Producer-director Akosua Adoma Owusu undertook the project in an effort to take “advantage of the cultural privilege I have of communicating, on a public platform, issues that are considered taboo in many parts of the world”.


Hala is 16, Muslim and an aspiring skater, living in a conservative, religious household. A veneer of normality hides quietly simmering tensions and divisions, which all come to a head when Hala takes her first steps in discovering and embracing her sexuality. Sensitively handled and steadily involving, writer-director Minhal Baig’s short feature has the depth, scope and feel of a mature indie movie (equal parts mumblecore and the work of Lynne Ramsay), condensed into 14 minutes of perfectly judged acting and story.


Coming-of-age films seldom concern young black girls, so Nikyatu Jusu and Yvonne Shirley have collaborated to produce Flowers, the story of two Brooklyn teens who hatch a revenge plot on their teacher – but the prank backfires.  “It’s definitely a work of art that asks a lot of questions, (and) doesn’t answer any questions,” says Shirley. The duo’s mission is to “contribute to the canon of coming-of-age films for black teen girls” amid a profusion of stories centred around young black boys. “(We wanted to) draw attention to what’s actually going on with black girls in education, and how interesting and dynamic they are,” said Jusu in an interview.


Uproariously funny, then wracked with self-hate and fear, the charming, unashamedly black female protagonist of Trim Lamba’s hugely affecting short film is one of the best examples of character development in perhaps the shortest amount of time. Stylised in the form of a series of Snapchat video stories, the life of one young woman (an astonishing, engaging performance from Chantelle Levene) radically changes after a horrific event. The film cleverly downplays an unprovoked racist attack, before progressing towards a harrowing and ambiguous ending.


The agony of being an asylum seeker in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is captured brilliantly and disturbingly in this moving piece from Jade Jackman. Essentially a reconstruction of the suffocating loneliness and desperation of life inside a detention centre, Jackman uses accounts from recorded phone calls with inmates to weave a horribly absorbing vignette. Vulnerable and isolated, caught in a despairing cycle of self-harm and acute paranoia: the women honestly recalling their experiences strike deep into the marrow of your bones.


Josh Virasami’s eloquent analogy of the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly is the thread that holds Alice Russell’s short film about political and social activism in the Trump/Brexit era together. A passionate, intelligent and funny individual, obviously concerned with ensuring a bright future amidst chaos and uncertainty, Visrami’s calming, London-accented tones narrate an inspiring mini-treatise on what people power really means.