Updated: Aug 28, 2021
In our 'Notes from the Field' series, we speak with artists, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, programmers, writers, and thinkers working across the spectrum of art and film, hearing about the ways in which they are working towards creating new ecosystems for the creation, circulation, and consumption of moving images. For this edition, Matt speaks with programmer, writer, and researcher Jemma Desai. Jemma’s practice engages with film programming through research, writing, performance, as well as informally organised settings for deep study, and her work experience spans distribution, cinema exhibition and festival programming. Jemma was recently appointed Head of Programming at Berwick Film & Moving Image Arts Festival, and she has previously worked at BFI London Film Festival, British Council, and Independent Cinema Office. Her most recent body of work is This Work Isn’t For Us, which involves a document, a series of conversations, and a video piece, and which most of this conversation relates to. This Work Isn’t For Us draws attention to the human cost of attempting institutional reform while navigating ‘diversity’ policy rooted in white supremacy.
Sentient Art Film: Could you summarise the work that you did prior to This Work Isn’t For Us and explain how that contributed to the creation of this document?
Jemma Desai: I feel like it starts at university because it's the first piece of "academic" research I did since then and it kind of ties up some threads that were laying around since then. I did my undergraduate in Bristol which introduced me to the ways class privilege worked in ways that I hadn’t been exposed to before — I grew up in a much more working/lower middle class environment in London — and my masters at UCL in London, where I was introduced to postcolonial theory for the first time. Then my first job was at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. I worked there for two years as their program manager whilst they fundraised to develop the site where it is now and I started by just cataloging things in their collection. At the same time I was also working part time for a little production company in Notting Hill called Rice and Peas, so I got this very broken up — but very material — education on the communities in Brixton and Notting Hill, and access to this Black British history that I had never had before. I did my masters thesis on hip-hop, and for that, I spent time at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in the US, looking at the hip-hop archive there. So, I'd had these experiences, that framed Black culture, popular culture and organizing, but none of the political education that goes with this — only an understanding that there was more there than what I and many of us at the time were consuming through music, film, and fashion. In my two years at the Black Cultural Archives, I also learned a lot about under-resourced organizations and about the ways that boards function and don’t function.
Were these things you noticed at the time, or something you’ve realized retroactively?
I guess I noticed it through the extremes of the ways that I experienced it. I would have this really incredible richness of knowledge that no one else in my friend group at the time had access to, which was on one hand energizing, but also no one understood what I was talking about. Sometimes you need community to ascribe value to something that you have already experienced as valuable. After that, I went away for a year and travelled for a bit. When I came back, I moved back in with my parents in London and an archivist that I had worked with at the Black Cultural archives introduced me to Michael Blyth at the BFI. I had applied for a job at the BFI as an administrator and was not shortlisted, but when I was put in touch with Michael, he interviewed me for an unpaid internship. I joined the London Film Festival (LFF) as a guest coordinator, which was interesting because I later got a paid position and realized I had been doing a whole job as I was now being paid for doing the same sorts of things. That’s how I got into the film festival circuit.
I think one of the things that led me to This Work Isn't For Us was the 10 years I spent trying to get a full time programming position in a festival. For a while, I was just doing these two contracts with the BFI. I'd work on LFF, and then I would work on BFI Flare — which was called LLGFF at the time. I learned loads about film by working at the BFI because I would just watch films all the time. I had this self-generated film education that came from staying and watching things, using all the free tickets and access that you can get. I was building my skills as a programmer as I saw them. At the same time, I would be completely sidelined and therefore feel uncertain of my role and position. For instance, I wouldn’t be able to apply for internal positions and they would go to less experienced candidates who would then have more space in the program than me. There would be a withholding of skills to develop me as an institutionally recognized programmer — like not being invited to certain meetings or festivals — and then being told that I was less experienced than external candidates when jobs I could apply for came up. I don’t think this is something that is unique to me. I think festivals are full of people who are slightly out of reach of the thing that they want, and also questioning whether what they call themselves is actually what they do. Every year the same people in the industry would be like “oh I didn’t know you programmed for LFF” and I would feel so demoralized that I was giving so much time over to something that completely didn’t recognize me.
I continued to do all this work whilst also doing my own curatorial work in between, which was my way of trying to have something that showed me being a programmer, because in these other places, like the LFF, or at the Independent Cinema Office — where I later worked as a cinema programmer — there was always a skepticism of your skills, or at least I felt this all the time. I did my own thing almost as a way to be "allowed" to call myself a programmer. Sometimes when you're in an institution, there's so much work that you do that gets mixed in with everything else that it can be hard for you to show exactly what you have done. A lot of this was "diversity work," like paying attention to certain filmmakers, types of stories or questioning the authorship and politics of things. So I am Dora was really important for me to have some autonomy over my work and express what I cared about.
Can you explain what I Am Dora was? What was the organising principle for that project?
I always described it as exploring how women identify with female characters on film. It was rooted in how I was trying to articulate my experience of cinema. I didn't go to film school and I hadn't read a lot of film theory, but I was watching all these films because I was trying to understand myself better, and I was really interested in what happens when you talk about your experience in the cinema. When you're talking about your experience in the cinema, you're never really talking about the film, you’re always talking about yourself. That’s why I like cinema, and that's why I like talking to people. I actually really dislike talking to people who think that they are neutral or that they have a lot of knowledge about film, because often they never betray anything about themselves apart from their own arrogance. But when you talk to someone who thinks that they don’t really know a lot about film, you can have a really amazing conversation with them about themselves. This can be a beautiful way of getting to know someone and what they're thinking about.
I think I Am Dora was probably also rooted in this sense of working in a festival environment where my opinion wasn't valued unless I expressed it in a certain way. The reason why I was in that office in the first place was because I loved talking about films and because I thought it was a really life-altering, mind-altering experience to watch and talk about cinema. At the time I was interested in psychoanalysis and that kind of film theory, and that’s why it was called I Am Dora, after Freud’s first case study in hysteria, but now, I’m trying to get more comfortable with talking about things in a more spiritual way. I'm more interested in thinking about watching films almost as a ritual, or maybe even as a religious experience — though I'm not religious. One of the first film texts that anyone ever gave to me was Nathaniel Dorsky’s Devotional Cinema. Whatever you might think about Nathaniel Dorsky, I do really return to that text regularly because it is really evocative of my experience of the cinema and its potential. When I Am Dora was described by others, it was talked about as a feminist film series, which I found interesting.
Because that wasn’t a term you had used yourself?
It wasn’t how I described my motivations. It's terrifying for me to pretend that I know something. I find it much more comforting to admit that I actually don't know anything. So when I did these programs, the only thing that really scared me was that people would think that I didn’t know anything about film, so it's almost like I said that first by saying: “I don't know anything about film but this is what I feel, and this is why I like it, and this is how I've been feeling right now, and this is why I put these films together.” I would now describe the process as a mix of performance and programming. There was always this presentation at the beginning of the screenings which was just me reading out what I felt and thought, or my connection to the characters in the films. I did a screening about Sylvia Plath and what was happening in my life when I read The Bell Jar. I did that with Sandra Hebron, who had just qualified as a psychotherapist, and we had this conversation which was an interview but also I guess a therapy session. Every screening was also accompanied by an artist publication which was kind of an assemblage of fragments of research and personal reflection. As I didn't go to art school, I didn't have names for any of this. It was just stuff that I was doing. I couldn't do things any other way because I had no authority other than knowing how I felt.
This Work Isn't For Us is an articulation of my way of programming. I had done I Am Dora, I'd started working at the ICO, and then when I went to the British Council, I became pregnant. That was an interesting time because I had a really hard pregnancy and became depressed, but I also thought I was going crazy because there was all this energy around diversity and I felt like people were saying things that I had been saying for a really long time. Now that all these other people were saying them, people seemed to be listening. I really didn’t know what was going on. I also started remembering a lot of things related to my job at the Black Cultural Archives and wasn’t understanding why certain connections weren't being made, but also feeling that I wasn’t sure that I had the language to actually articulate what was going on. I had these really strange out of body feelings for a few months, and then I really didn’t want to go back to work after maternity leave. I'd had a really quite tough time the first year I was at the British Council, and it was just a really difficult place to work for lots of reasons. It was a really disempowering, confusing time.
So, I applied to do this leadership program with Clore. Clore has this reputation that if you do it, you get a good job — that is the promise. Some people describe it as a finishing school. You do it, get a senior job, and then you're really powerful and you've got enough money that you don't need to worry about anything. Or at least that's what it looked like to me. That's literally all I wanted — power, or perhaps autonomy. I just wanted to be in charge and to no longer have to beg people for a chance. When I started the course, I quickly understood that I was never going to get that, and that everything that was being taught at Clore didn't relate to what I was actually facing. A lot of management training is about containing emotion, or about switching off. You get taught how to manage people, which is essentially getting them to do what you need them to do by performing listening. Caring for people, really listening to them, is not productive, it's not profitable. If I spent all my days listening to all my employee’s problems, how would I get my job done?
Do they say it in this way, or do they say it in different terms?
Don't you feel that as well in the organizations that you have worked in?
So yeah, it's definitely unsaid, but it’s there. This became more apparent to me because there were two British South Asian women in my Clore programme, including me, and then there were two people from India, someone from Egypt, and someone from Mexico, and everyone else was white British. But really importantly, there was a form of diversity that really changed my life. There was a visually impaired person, two deaf fellows, and three neurodiverse people, which changed how we had to function as a group. It slows everything down, and it made us think about the group, and how it made you feel caring for the group, which was really important and rewired my brain. It made me realize that so much of what we were getting taught was ableist, or at least it didn't account for disability, and highlighted how it didn’t account for power differentials of any form really.
When we did presentation skills, the way that we were taught to take up space on stage was really interesting. The only question I wanted to ask was: “what if the person that you're interviewing doesn't actually want to talk to you, what do you do with that dynamic?” That was definitely something that would happen to me a lot in my work. I would interview someone famous and they just wouldn't care, or some film PR would just give me their coat because they hadn’t considered I could be the programmer. When these things happen, how do you recover from that? I wanted to know about that as these were the things I needed to learn, but when I brought these things up I felt a lot of confusion, like I was the first person ever to bring this up. I realized the only way that these skills could help me is if I try to make myself like all the people that marginalized me in the past. So, in that sense I realized that I was in an assimilation program.
With Clore, you're supposed to do a work placement and take loads of meetings with people. I ended up not doing the work placement part but when I started to have meetings with “powerful” people, I realized that they didn't really want to have a proper conversation with me. There was no connection. You're just supposed to have a meeting, get their business card, and then leave.
Did Clore dislike you deviating from this default path that they set out?
I have a lot of questions about the scheme, its history, and its ultimate intention but my experience wasn’t negative, there was no pressure on me to conform. The person that leads it [Hilary Carty] really let me do my own thing. When I shared my negative work experiences with her, she asked me something really useful: “How much do you want that to be part of your story?” It's an open question that I return to a lot.
I’ve been learning about different kinds of power recently. I had this idea of what power was and that it was a good job and a set of relationships with powerful people. But what I realized was that power was being in relation with people who saw who you were. That is a different kind of power. I ended up choosing to talk mostly to artists and only to people of color for that year, and I also changed my social media and muted people that were regurgitating all the same stuff. I had this whole other perspective on the world as a result. Now, when I look back on it, that was a period of political awakening. I had been looking to the center for approval and there was this moment where I realized that I wasn’t going to get approval from there so instead I should be looking in other places. What actually happened was that a lot of people just let me talk like we are talking now, and listened to me like you are, but unlike now, there was no real reason for them to listen apart from the human one of giving people time. Through being listened to, I was able to make quite a lot of connections that I'd never been able to make before, and that's basically what This Work Isn't For Us was. It was this freedom to look back at why I started doing this and then thinking about where I am now and why would that be, and then really thinking about those feelings I was having when I was pregnant. I was really confused because I sensed that this had all happened before, but I couldn’t articulate it. I read all this historical research on diversity policy and realized that's why it felt like this, because it is all repetition. That took me away from the unproductive complaint of “this has all been done before,” or that “this was a shit program,” and more into a space of thinking about this structural issue of why this keeps happening, and then just attending to why it felt so awful to experience that repetition continuously and have no voice. That's why This Work Isn’t For Us is written in the way that it is, because it started from a non-precise, embodied place, and that’s why it has all these different registers of voice in the text.
Yeah, that makes sense to me from reading it. It’s this private process that then takes on this material form when it is out in the public. I’m interested in that final part actually, the point when you realized that This Work Isn’t For Us should be published and be public. I wanted to hear about your experience sharing it and about the responses you received, and whether what you received matched the expectations you had or differed from them?
I finished the paper on 2nd March 2020, and then we obviously know what happened about 20 days later. Honestly, I didn't know what the document was and I didn't know if it was any good. I'd had some readers, but I literally had to hand it in on the 3rd March, and so I handed in whatever I had. I was still writing it the night before and it was never copy-edited, and still hasn't been copy-edited by anyone but me. I'm sure that it could be a much better piece of writing if it had been, but I sort of like how raw it is and how it is just what it was at the time that I hit send on it.
It wasn't public to begin with. It was just sent to Clore and I've never heard from them again on it, which I actually think is quite normal. I think that if it had been a shorter piece of work, then they might have added their Clore branding and put it onto their website, but I interpret that silence as a kind of space for me to just do what I want with it and so I have done that. It eventually made its way in the world after some conversations with Zarina Muhammad, who I had been having lots of chats with about the work. I felt like she gave me the closest to the experience of a "crit" that you would have in art school. Conversations with her made me think it was finished enough to send into the world, and also helped me to question my need for a "polished," legible piece of work. At that point, my head was being wrecked by lots of conversations with BC and BFI. and while I couldn’t convince my managers to read the piece or understand what I was saying, sending the paper into the world felt like some sort of call for witness on the issues that I was facing.
It was a Google Doc because that's what I was writing in. It’s like a record of the process of thinking, and that’s where the system of different colors actually came from. I wrote most of it at the Glasgow Women's Library. My friend Adele [Patrick], who founded the library, was also a fellow on Clore,and let me stay at hers and we worked together while we were there. She had written her research in a number of different registers as well and she'd written them in different colors, which I thought was a really good way to experiment with this reflective writing practice that I had started exploring. When I had my daughter Leena, I started writing letters to her, and I wanted to write this how I wrote those — as well as writing it like an academic paper.
A lot of the blue text that's in This Work Isn’t For Us were the first pieces that were written for the paper. I wrote them for this performance that I did at the ICA in January 2020. At that point, even though the paper was due on the 3rd March, I hadn’t written a word and I wondered whether I had been researching at all or if I had just been chilling with my friends. It had been so long since I had done my masters, I thought that maybe I didn’t know what research was anymore. When I was approached by LSFF to do something, I thought that I could use that as a way of doing some writing, so I wrote some pieces and then read them. I really didn't want to do it, so I ended up using my fee to buy most of the tickets in the cinema and then only inviting people that I trusted to come in. That was kind of a way of reclaiming space, creating a safe place where I could test ideas within a protective space. I read those pieces, and the poet So Mayer helped me a lot with that process. They really gave me such a generous set of eyes and ears. It all made me feel more confident about writing from that place inside the paper.
A couple of other conversations, with friends like Rabz Lansiquot and my family, gave me the beginnings and endings to the piece. It felt really important to talk about London where I have lived all my life but feel very alienated from sometimes, and also about my mum and dad's journey to the UK. The end section, which was written on a train, actually feels like a piece of sci-fi in a weird way to me now because it's written in motion, and it's talking about meeting a friend [filmmaker Rehana Zaman] at a bar after 9pm casually and in a way that feels like it could barely happen now. It feels strange but also brings together so many periods in my life and all sorts of different feelings.
What I've described to you seems like lots of different threads that are lacking in order, but when I look at them now I see what I see it to be: a form of absolute consciousness raising. I was teaching myself about colonialism and about immigration policy, and I was teaching myself about my own positionality with Empire. I was teaching myself about gentrification and the ways that that had impacted me psychologically. I was thinking about the future, and writing to the future in a way that I could liberate myself from the past. I was writing about the relational aspects of abolition, because it was all about relationships and conversations that I'd had. I was basically drawing attention to the things that I needed to invest in for the other thing not to matter, which is basically what I understand abolition to be about. Now I can see where it belongs, but at the time it was just this journey, which I now see as totally not unique, and I've talked to many people that have been on that same journey in their own way.
Did you think about a reader or recipient, whether that was a public readership or a friend who might find it useful? I guess what I'm asking is: did you think about who would be processing it, and how they would be processing it, or did you try and not think about that because you just needed to get it out?
I thought about it a lot actually, but I don't think I thought about the right people. I actually didn't think that people like me needed to read it. Alongside writing it, I was also writing a lot of emails to people that I worked with explaining to them the ways that things were unfair in the places that I worked, and not really getting very far with that. Then I thought that if it was written in a certain way, then they would be able to see. I was still thinking about the center. I remember having a conversation with someone and telling them that I needed Ben Roberts [CEO, BFI] to read This Work Isn’t For Us. When he reads it he'll understand that there are certain things that need to change. I talked to a lot of people about what kind of report it would need to be if he were to read it, but I don't think I actually cared enough about that because I still wrote what I wanted to write. I was definitely thinking about being listened to by certain people, and I've only just really let go of that recently actually.
But beautifully this other thing happened which was that it was useful to people that I never would have imagined that it would be useful to, I had really nice conversations with people as a result of it. It's got its own pace. There was obviously this flurry of attention around it around this time last year, but the response has also been quite ongoing, with people passing it on and telling me the ways that it makes sense to them. It is obviously rooted in the UK, but a lot of people in the US have found it useful too, and that's been heartening to me. I think who it is for has changed over time.
Part of the journey was really getting comfortable with saying things as they were, and not in ways that made other people feel comfortable. As time has passed, I understand it to be something that taught me about abolition, about white supremacy, and about the violence of imperialism and colonialism. I'm really comfortable talking about white supremacy, whiteness, and about white people, but I think I've forgotten that that still makes certain people feel uncomfortable. Now when I look at this text, I don't think of it as a particularly radical text in any way, but obviously it still is for some people. In a way, what I'm trying to say is that I don't think it's mine anymore.
Recently, I was asked to write a piece about care. There is this whole discourse around care now, which is quite a new thing in the film industry but not so much in the art world, where there's a whole sort of theory about care, and how you center care.
Yeah, care has become a really popular concept. What does it mean to you?
When I was asked to write that piece, I actually just searched for the word care in This Work Isn't For Us, and extracted every single passage that had the word “care” in it and then wrote a piece based on what I had said about it. I love theory and it has helped me so much, but I've used it to help me with my life rather than build my life around it, so it was interesting to me to reflect how I used this word without any understanding of any of the theory behind it. I just used the word based on what it meant to me, rather than based on what someone had said about it. For me, it was all about relationships and about how we treat each other, about how people don't treat each other well or don't think about other people when they act. As I said, I’ve been wondering more about being spiritual and ritualistic about the way that I talk about things, and so, when I return This Work Isn’t For Us it will have different things to teach me. It's no longer about diversity policy, or about my bad experiences in the industry. It has other things to teach me.
Sometimes it is a bit disorienting when people first read it and they get in touch with me, and they're like: “I’m so sorry, you had such a terrible time,” because for me that was over the moment I finished it. As soon as I finished writing it, I didn't really need to talk about that anymore. It was more than that. To me, it's about the structure around it, and about all the things that I didn't even realize I was teaching myself as I was writing. Sometimes I look at whole passages and I'm like, “I don't remember writing this.”
I guess I hadn't actually thought about it in that way, as like a tool for yourself or a resource for you. I had been thinking more about it being a resource for other people, or an instructional text, or a record of other people's stories.
You think it’s instructional?
I think it's lots of things at different points, and I think that's what is really good about it. It has all these different forms, and does not predominantly take the shape of one expected form. I guess instructional text is the wrong description, but maybe it is educational to some degree. The main thing I understood it as was a depository for you and your peers and friends, taking their experiences and stories and channeling that into forms that are comprehensible to others. One of the things we haven’t talked about is how readable and digestible it is. Inviting is the wrong word, but it isn’t alienating, which is arguably one of the hardest things to do with writing or with any kind of public facing activity. It's interesting to hear you talk about it as being useful to you, whereas I've thought of it — maybe wrongly — as more of a public record. You’ve been talking about it more as a therapeutic process that you can return to, I guess?
One of my friends, Aditi Jaganathan, said this thing that I always go back to. She was like: “oh, This Work Isn't For Us, it’s you teaching yourself to be yourself again.” That is a really good definition of political awakening: who are you when you strip away all the injustices of the world that you are subject to? Who are you then? Who are you permitted to be? Who is the liberated you? This is something that I had to go through and there's a record of that process, which I think is useful. Maybe that is instructional as it shows a way of doing what you feel that you need to do to come to yourself again. If you've had a similar experience, or you see yourself in that experience, maybe it can be instructional, in the same way that a piece of cinema can be instructional. I adore my experiences with cinema. Not all films are documentaries, but they were instructional to me because they guided me towards some sort of insight. I thought a lot about poetry and different registers of meaning because I realized that I could be as clear and as factual as I wanted to be but it still wouldn’t be understood by some people. I was somehow still writing some weird poem that no one could understand.
I've been thinking about this a lot because of Palestine actually. I'm not the only one thinking about this but it feels like the frontier that is being forged right now in people's understanding of Palestine is around narrative. We’ve all grown up in a media landscape that has always told us that the Middle East is complicated, and that's because certain words have been used — like “conflict”, or “both sides”. Whereas now, a few other words are being used like “settler colonialism” or “apartheid” that have made the whole issue seem clearer, and people are starting to mobilize around that. When you start reclaiming language that you have always been told is not rational or not neutral, by saying “yeah, it might not be neutral to you, but it does actually describe my experience well”, it is always going to alienate people. It does describe my experience of diversity policy to call it white supremacist, but that might not seem helpful or neutral to someone who works in an institution. Should you stop using words just because they alienate people if they are the right words to use? Language was really an interesting thing to think about because all of those different registers were kind of addressed to different people. People who have experiences that are different to mine will only understand the paper if they want to be changed by it. I don't think it's going to change anyone's mind, or that anyone will passively change as a result of reading it. At least that's not what I am hoping for any more, even if that is really what a previous me hoped for before.
Yeah, you are very right that people often stress that certain ways of speaking or writing are required for certain contexts, and others aren’t suitable. Like most things, it's all made up obviously, because it was useful to someone at some point to say that this is the way things are and have to be, and present that as the rational position when it's a subjective one that is beneficial to them in that particular instance.
I was on the Palestine march the other day and I was talking to my friend about why I feel like I finally understand Palestine in a really clear way. One of the reasons why I understand why we should all be like drawing attention to what's happening in Palestine is because of the process that I went through for This Work Isn’t For Us. Whilst writing it, I was reading loads of documents that claimed they were neutral whilst understanding that they absolutely were not neutral, and they all had an agenda of either being really difficult to read or hiding something in some way. At the same time, I was really rooting myself in people's actual experiences which contradicted these supposedly neutral documents. So, I know that there is no point in reading mainstream media coverage of Palestine, because I can just follow some organizers on the ground in Palestine and change my whole view of something. That's exactly what happened with This Work Isn’t For Us. I stopped reading these documents and just listened to the experiences of people and that taught me much more.
It made me think about my approaches to research, but it also made me think about media and criticism, and that the whole ecosystem of film that I was working in always listens to the top. It is imperialism, basically. We always listen to the most powerful, and we never listen to the people that are most impacted by it. There is never any real understanding of the people that are doing the work that enables the top to exist. It's just all sort of parcelled out. But if you listened to those experiences, you would change what happened at the top, because you would actually understand what was going on.
It will be good to hear a little about the video piece that you made to go alongside the paper? Were you thinking about that as an expansion on some ideas that were present in the paper or as something else entirely?
It was kind of just an accident. I wanted to recreate the performance that I did at the ICA and then I just posted it. I didn't have a proper camera, and I felt really self-conscious, I wanted to record something, and so I just ended up making that. I feel quite embarrassed about it.
Really, about the video?
Because I really respect the practice of filmmaking and I'm not a practiced filmmaker and I think that’s clear in the piece! I guess I also assess it as a programmer that has to switch off that part of themselves that has true empathy with what it takes to make anything. How could I ever pass on a film if I always honored that.
Maybe it is easier to think of This Work Isn’t For Us not as a film, or as a paper, or a conversation series, but that the whole thing is a cloud of ideas that cements into these different forms which use whatever tools are best. Sometimes this comes out as text, sometimes it comes out as speech, sometimes you need images to convey something, but you use whatever is the best language for each part?
It’s a process. It’s all what I was feeling at that time, and it was really important that it was recorded in some way. I'm really glad to have all of the things that were in my head out there in this piece because it sort of emerged after a psilocybin trip that was really meaningful to me and that still has a lot to teach me about the things I need to grieve and let go of. That video piece was also the basis of my PhD research proposal, so it was like this tunnel that I had to go through.
I really love it in so many ways, but I do feel very self-conscious about it because I wonder what it is. I felt the same way with the This Work isn't For Us paper actually, I couldn't read it for ages. I just hid it for months, and then felt really embarrassed about it. Maybe this is just what I do when I make something? I don't really know how I made that video, but I’m hoping that something else like it could be made another time as well, and I hope that I'll get to do more work like that as part of my PhD.
I think what you said is true though. What container can I put my thoughts in? I know that writing isn't enough, and programming isn't enough, and just having those conversations isn't enough, so how do you distill all those different things?
What is the PhD going to be about? What are you going to be looking into?
The time that this circulated in was the time of organizations posting black squares and talking about Black Lives Matter but not about white supremacy. I had been doing this research on how diversity policy was rooted in white supremacy, and I found it really interesting that whilst Black Lives Matter was this radical movement to address white supremacy, these organizations responded to this movement with diversity policy. I thought there was this inherent misunderstanding there and I'm not the only person that saw this. So, I want to research histories of liberatory practices, practices that don't hinge on schemes or permission, and practices that have taken an abolitionist value system where they have invested in the things that they need to make their work in their communities, rather than relying on those bigger agencies. I think abolitionist praxis provides a way forward for us all, because we're all in this system where we are taught that we have to compete with one. We've all internalized imperialism and colonialism in our thinking so that we treat each other in a certain way and we compete with each other over scarce resources. I will be thinking about how we could all operate in a more liberated way, by looking at what the models for that are. I'll be doing that in a practice based way, a little like with This Work Isn’t For Us.
One of the things I've been thinking a lot about is programming practice and how it upholds imperialism, and therefore how it becomes a really limiting and not liberating practice. Even if you want to behave ethically in a film festival, it's actually really hard. It is set up with a set of principles that are actually antithetical to liberation. The film industry more broadly is like that, too. At Berwick, we have been trying to spend some time thinking about the ways that we can disrupt that, and also how we talk about the films. What words do we use, and what words don't we use? How do we rate films? I think language is really important. Something that Peter [Taylor, Director of Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival] actually pointed out to me is this really mad colonial language of the film festival, like saying “submissions” for films sent to the festival. These films are the money that comes into the festival, but those submissions can often be the least regarded aspect, treated like supplicants. We have been really looking at that, and thinking about how we've all internalized the actual colonial endeavor. What would you say if I asked you: “what's your favorite thing about being a programmer?”
I guess finding new ways of making films and different approaches and ideas. Discovery was the word I was deliberately trying to not use there…
That's always the word that I am rooting for as well. I always talk about the thing that I loved about film programming was that I got to watch stuff first. I don't mean that like I got to it first, but that I saw it before it was written about. I had an experience that was my own experience. But when you really look at that, it’s really colonial, like this virgin new land that I was looking for. On the other hand, I do think it is political if a person of color from a working class background gets to be one of the first people to watch a film. I think that is a political thing, based on who is then going to write about and colonize the conversation around it. But at the same time, is that something that we should always be reaching for and thinking about? Shouldn’t we be thinking about changing it so that the whole ecosystem is different and not rooted in this colonial endeavour? The film festival also has a dedication to imperialism, and to the language of criminal justice. Why do we still have juries?
As part of my journey, I learned a lot about activism, about politics, about liberation, and as a result, I'm just really interested in how — or if — I can do this work and center collective liberation. Does the film festival just need to be abolished? I don't know how I feel about even saying that as a statement, because I know that will be something that people will like to quote and fetishize as a statement. What I mean when I talk about that is that if we invested in the things that we say we really cared about, like caring for each other, caring for the work we do and make, could the film festival even exist? Could it actually operate ethically, without compromising on operating ethically because the festival needs to happen? If you never compromise on ethics throughout the whole process, could you actually have a festival that would go ahead? I don't know if it would because everything that makes it possible is about urgencies and about speed. It’s about extraction.
It's interesting to think about the number of blockades you would meet to achieve that aim along the way. As you say, at each stage there's ethical compromise, whether large or small, and you keep pushing past it because of this urgency. Even if you were to say that maybe we'll accept the small compromises in order to skirt this larger one at the end, you wouldn't get very far along the lifecycle of the festival without hitting that first one. So yeah, I think those are really interesting questions, and also actually also something that unifies a lot of the people I've spoken to for this bulletin. They have had a similar realization, that there’s something that I want but is it really this? Is this thing that I'm currently doing even transferable to this format that I desire and deem ethical, rewarding, and responsible. Is it ultimately incongruous? Maybe the festival does need to be abolished, as it can never be this. It could be something else, but whatever that is probably doesn't start from the same skeleton? The only consistent elements with this new version of a festival would be the filmmakers, the films, and maybe the people watching them? Maybe all the other compromised elements need to be re-envisioned?
Yeah, I think it is that thing about dissonance, right? We're so good — especially in the parts of film that were talking about, not in the mainstream parts of film, but certainly in like documentary programming, or like artists moving image programming — about really talking about the ethics of a piece of work, but there's all these things that we accept about the ways that we operate while we're watching those films that is really dissonant with that. What if we just paid attention to those dissonances, to those things that don't make sense? Would it be desirable to do the things that we do? It's about self interest in a way. It's nice to go to film festivals. It’s fun, but your peers are working behind the scenes at film festivals and having a terrible time, and filmmakers aren't getting paid. Whole cities are getting gentrified, and only people from outside the city are getting to come to watch the films because they're so unaffordable and the people that are represented on screen are hardly ever represented in the cinema. If these things are true, then what does it mean, and why aren't we talking about it?
You said before that you were going to ask me whether I read criticism, and I just can't read criticism anymore. I don't just care about the film, I want to think about how we operate in the conditions in which it is shown. Film is this social art form. It's based on so many relationships, but we've managed to disconnect it from that when we show it, so I'm really interested in what the relationship was between the work and the context in which it's being shown, and I'm really interested by filmmakers that care about that as well and aren't just okay to hand that over. I think that's why I love what Zarina [Muhammad] writes about because she talks about that, and Abby [Sun] has been talking about that recently. It is a context that is always present, for me at least. If it was the thrill of sitting in a cinema in Cannes, talk about how important you felt when you watched it because that's part of why you liked it. If you felt really insignificant, and you're in a really uncomfortable seat, and that might be part of why you didn't like it or whatever. I think that the context of how things are presented to you is important, and I wish people would make that more visible.
Yeah, definitely. I guess that maybe not enough filmmakers care about their film once they've made it, and they sort of just throw it into the world and don't always think about the best ways for it to meet people?
I think filmmakers are taught that they shouldn't care, and again, it comes back to power. You're in this imperial system that disempowers so many people. I think that's how the film industry works. You tell the filmmaker that they don't have a choice. We’ve bought the film. We’re the distributor. We get to decide how it's presented now. What if you didn't do that? What if you didn't disempower people? If people were more empowered, would more people care about those things? That's how artists can control how their films are shown to a certain extent, but the bigger something gets, the less control the filmmaker eventually has over it.
One thing that we didn't really cover was this idea that came to me initially when I wanted to speak to you which was about exiting spaces and re-entering them. You've been talking about this year-long rupture or break which involved the creation of space, but I wanted to ask how, having made that conscious decision to create an absence or distance, you’ve been working out how to re-enter certain spaces and how you're assessing their viability for you? I also wanted to ask how other people can do the same, especially people who might have been burned or hurt through their working experiences? How would you advise them to assess that a new situation that has been presented to them isn't going to do the same thing?
I think that institutions are made up of organizational behaviors, and organizational behaviors are rooted in a culture of ableism and urgency culture, and white supremacy, and it shows up in really unexpected and sometimes very banal weird ways. I don't think any organization is perfect, and I see these behaviors everywhere because they reflect wider society. If I now end up working with someone that, when something goes wrong, is really deeply defensive and blames me, then I'm out. I'm probably not going to stay, because I know where that leads to. It might take me a minute, but I'm pretty certain that that will happen. I'm trying to not give up on people because the world hasn't changed. Just because my view of it might have, these behaviors remain. You can't change everything immediately, but I don't want to work with people that can’t acknowledge that things are unfair when they're unfair, or at least self-examine when you bring it to them. I think that that sounds really simple, but it's super hard. Because when you do an interview for a job, you can't tell that there is every chance that you might end up in a situation that isn't what you imagined it to be. I'm also up for making that visible. That's not the same as calling out, it's more that I don't think that anyone has to suffer in silence. I think there is enough language out there to be like, actually, this is unfair. This is unethical. I don't want to do this. I say this with the caveat that I know that I'm in this huge position of privilege in the sense that I know that I'm going into this funded PhD and that I have that. The more precarious you are, the less choices you have. So I do understand that as well, but I think that everybody needs to find places where they feel understood and heard. If it's not in the place that you work, then you have to find that somewhere else. If you do have to stay in those spaces where you're not heard or understood, then maybe they don't hurt or feel as harmful as if you just had no one. A piece of advice that someone gave me once was that you can withstand whatever is going on at work, if you know that when you come home, you have your people, and that's fine. For me, I was starting to realize that I didn't have that, and that I needed something to change.
A few years ago I interviewed someone who talked about divesting from whiteness, and they said that they had stopped following certain people. I went home that night, and I did that. I didn’t completely stop following white people, but every time I saw something online that annoyed me, I hit unfollow. Instead of being made enraged by how much you hate something, what happens when you just get rid of the things that you hate? It relates to what adrienne maree brown says, “what you pay attention to grows.” That was a really important moment to me.
I feel like a good indicator of a harmful situation is that these places often function around everybody bonding around people that they don't like, or things that they don't like, or the films that they don't like, or the festivals that they don't like. We all do it. We're flawed people. But what happens when you do less of that, and you do more of just being around people that you just really love and are really inspired by? That was really transformative for me, not putting myself in those spaces where I felt diminished and therefore resentful, and like everyone else had it better than me, but more in the places where I was really listened to and celebrated for being sensitive and for having too many questions and overthinking things. Somehow, instead of being an over-thinker and being oversensitive, I was suddenly now seen as a thinking, curious person, which was purely a reframing based on how someone listened to me. What that can do for you, just through call and response? If you're feeling like that, then what is one small thing you can do? Social media is a huge one, because we spend a lot of time on it, right? We're all internalizing it. So that's one really good way to change what you're seeing and thinking. Also, with my daughter being born, I just had to stop being friends with some people because they didn't understand what I was facing because having Leena made me reconsider my whole relationship with whiteness. I had a really specific relationship with motherhood that was to do with race, which a lot of my white friends didn't really understand and couldn't help me with. I could either sink into this feeling of being misunderstood, and therefore feel unhappiness too, or just get myself out of this and find someone that can help me. I know it’s easier said than done but it is about going out and finding your people. They are out there. I had this incredible experience going to Blackstar in Philadelphia, a year after I'd had Leena, and just being at a film festival and only seeing Black and Brown people for five days. That altered my brain. I could talk about the things that I was thinking about around Leena and everybody understood what I meant — not a single blank face the whole time. That was so amazing to me, so I was like:”oh, my god, my life could be like this." I really wish for that realization for everyone.