Contributor: George Amponsah
An Afternoon with Isaac Julien
1:00 pm. Monday. British Film Institute. Off Tottenham Court Road. Waiting to meet Isaac Julien, the Black British filmmaker, dubbed by misguided film critics as the British Spike Lee. Looking around, I can?t help but notice that the reception area is swamped with publicity for Julien?s latest offering:- ?Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks?, a visually beautiful and thought-provoking drama documentary about the ideas and influence of the Black intellectual Frantz Fanon. Julien has achieved an incisive portrait of the psychiatrist, writer, family man and freedom fighter by use of archive film, dramatic reconstruction and talking heads interviews.
With this in mind and by virtue of the fact that the B.F.I . put up the better part of ?300,000 for the film?s budget it is probably safe to assume that Isaac is regarded as something of a golden child in these parts.
A phone call comes through to the middle aged lady at the reception desk and she courteously informs me that that was Isaac ringing to say he?d meet me in 5-10 minutes time outside Hornes menswear store at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street.
?Right. Thanks? I say
?Isaac apologises for being late?
?That is I mean to say Mr Julien? She adds
Yeah. Sure. Whatever.
In person Mr Julien seems a tad shy, though business-like and friendly. During the interview, he chooses his words carefully, talking in the jargon of the academic film theorist. He seems to relish the words, often pausing mid-sentence for thought. For a moment I consider that this seeming obtuseness could be a deliberate strategy on his part - a way of deflecting the prying advances of journo-types... and then I consider that here is an art-school educated brother who has spent a distinguished career exploring new ways to give creative expression to difficult ideas.
It makes perfect sense therefore that Julien should make a film about the life and work of Frantz Fanon whose work also addressed enduring questions about Black identity. Unfortunately, his contribution has yet to cross over into popular lore in the same way as that of black activists such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King.
Tragically Fanon died young of cancer in 1961 having offered much of great significance in books such as Black Skin White Masks and The Wretched Of The Earth to people across the divisions: Black, White, Gay, Straight, Oppressed and Oppressor. Julien, for his part has contributed enormously to the cultural discourse with what is a stunning and intelligent study on the life and work of the (br)other man. Furthermore, he has progressed his own work as a filmmaker in fine style and I reckon there?s plenty more where that came from. Keep running Isaac.
BP: What attracted you to making a film about Franz Fanon?
IJ: Well I became interested in Fanon in 1983 when I did my thesis as a student at St. Martin?s School of Art, researching around questions to do with post coloniality and I?d come across Homni Bhabka?s essay The Unquestion in Screen magazine. I sort of put Homni Bhabka?s essay and his references and Robert Maplethorpe?s photography show at the ICA, and in a way turned to Fanon as a way of trying to explain the various sort of ways of looking that were taking place, in terms of how black male bodies were being perceived, and constructed and sort of fragmented. Fanon?s writing was very descriptive, it was quite philosophical and very political. It spoke about representation of the black male body in quite a different way from the way in which say sociologists had spoken about the black body.
BP: How did you initially conceive the project?
IJ: Well actually, I was approached by David A Bailey. He was going to be organising, at that time, a show on Frantz Fanon and it was called ?The Fact of Blackness? I think. He approached me and said ?You?ve really got to do a documentary about Fanon, Fanon?s life or legacy?. We approached the BBC and the Arts Council. The BBC music and arts editor was already interested in Fanon. Of course, there?s a whole generation of people who were familiar with Fanon from a sort of seventies perspective, who would have read Fanon, would have been at university etc. Originally it was going to be in a series on Africa. This was just after I?d made ?Darker Side of Black? for BBC2 in 1994, so basically she was very interested in the idea but she wasn?t able to commission a project until 18 months afterwards. I was teaching at Santa Cruz, in the Issues Of Consciousness programme, and so was Mark Nash. We formed a company together called Normal Films. We had to finish teaching halfway through, as we had to come back. We were told we had the money to make it, we were also trying to raise more money for the project, and we attended a couple of co-production seminars and finally we got some money from the Arts Council of England, which brought the budget up to about ?160,000. We were told we had to make it for this series, and it had to by finished by September, that is September 1995. Of course it was a completely impossible schedule. We started production and we finished it for a series called TX. So that was the first version. Mark Nash and I wrote the preliminary script, and then we developed the project. I would say the television version was like a work in progress, really, for the long version. Then we shot the long version the following year in 1996, this time last year, then finished it all in time for the New York film festival, in September 1996. So the process took from 1994 to 1996, then it was released here a couple of months ago.
BP: Why did you construct the film as a drama documentary?
IJ: That?s a very good question, because in a way the film is very much in the style of an earlier film I made, ?Looking for Langston?. This film also has, if you like, the talking heads sort of strategy, the interviewees. In fact, originally with ?Looking for Langston?, we were going to have interviews and the reason why we didn?t was because we couldn?t afford them, but in the Fanon film we could. Some people may say maybe it was a good thing that we didn?t have interviews in Langston and I think in the end it probably was. With the Fanon film however, I think in terms of actually constructing the film from a sort of backbone; because one was seeing political and philosophical ideas not just poetry, though I?m not trying to put poetry at a lower end of the scale. But you?re dealing with quite complicated ideas and you couldn?t really visualise those ideas without the help of people like Stuart Hall, Homni Bhabka; it?d be quite difficult really.
BP: So that decision was about making the work accessible?
IJ: I think as well, with someone like Fanon, because the ideas are quite complex and you need someone that?s able to interpret. He comes with a lot of baggage Fanon ? there?s Hegel, there?s Sartre. In a way, they unpack him. So the pedagogic imperative becomes important really, in a film like the Fanon film. Nonetheless I think the Fanon film is quite a personal film, and because it is a personal film it has both reconstruction and documentary.
BP: Do you have any plans to make another drama feature?
IJ: Yes I do. There?s a film which I?ve got to go down to South Africa for to really see what?s going on. Someone is writing a script for me called ?The Bartering of Souls? which takes place in Johannesburg. It?s a bit like ?My Beautiful Laundrette? gone wrong, gone quite wrong. It looks at the new South Africa through the eyes of this young protagonist from Zimbabwe who?s an outsider. He comes to Johannesburg, to the new South Africa, to look for work. We follow his journey as he meets with certain kind of people. It?s sort of like a romance, well, it?s a buddy movie of a certain kind I guess. But that?s very early days, in terms of script, but that?s the script I feel most excited about. There are some other scripts, and of course I still want to develop some sort of film idea around Windrush, which is ... it?s fifty years of Windrush next year. I?m interested in making some sort of film about that. Not a conventional film of course. The Windrush migration that took place was the first significant wave of Caribbean settlers and its fifty years now so there?s going to be quite a few things happening around it.
BP: We?ve talked a lot about identity. How would you define your own identity?
IJ: Obviously identity is important and I don?t think we can really live without it. At the same time I?m not really interested in living with it in a way that it?s prescriptively forced around one. The idea that there are these categorical imperatives, i.e. if you?re Black you should be making films about certain subject matters etc etc., we know what follows, I think is a problem, but I don?t know how you can escape those imperatives, in that laissez faire sort of way until conditions are such that, yes, you are Black and a part of society, and you can make a statement about it if you want or you can pass. Passing has been going on for a long time, I?m not particularly interested in passing I guess. For me then, I don?t want to be martialled by the categorical imperative, I don?t want to be told how I should make things, or necessarily the subjects I want to make things about. Nonetheless, I am interested in, and I do not think it belittling to make things about Black subject matter. I think it?s quite important.
BP: Do you feel the same sort of responsibility as a film-maker?
IJ: I think politically I do, and I think that puts me at quite odds with lots of different communities in fact. I feel a certain allegiance to certain political ideals. In terms of equality, I?m interested in those sorts of ideals. I don?t necessarily see these being resolved in a commensurable fashion, I think some of these things are incommensurable.... I?m interested in what could be perceived as outmoded questions. But questions which are important such as the question of a more egalitarian notion of looking at sexuality within the Black community, which I feel are all sort of Utopian, nonetheless I feel are very important to try to preserve.
BP: You aren?t in the Hollywood machine. Do you have a relationship with the American film industry?
IJ: I wouldn?t say that I do, it?s very tangential. I know the independent film-makers, who make films in Hollywood, or people who are trying to. But they?re all people who are completely on the margins, like Charles Burnet, Judy Dash, Gus Van Sant. Most people I know who live in L.A. who?re struggling to make films, have been struggling to make films in L.A. for a very long time.
BP: Do you actually have a target audience for your films?
IJ: No. Not really. I just try to make a good film, then think about the audience later. If you just work to audience expectation, you could just name it something else. You might want to work with a Hollywood type of film, which will work in an entertaining sort of narrative way. ?Bhajee on the Beach? could be such a film, that film was quite successful. With an Asian audience, a bit controversial, but also people enjoyed seeing it who were non Asian.
BP: So do you ever think about what it would be like to make a film that really targets a Black audience or speaks to a Black audience?
IJ: There?s a film that I want to make about growing up, and talking about my parents in some sort of way, and that would be very much a film that a Black audience would really understand and have sympathy with, or empathy with. The sort of ?Distant Voices, Still Lives? type film that I would like to make, it would be like a Black version of that sort of story. I?m interested in doing something like that.
BP: The personal political?
IJ: Probably, but I think it would have to be very personal, it would be my story. Some people might find it interesting, some might not.
BP: Do you consider yourself to be a role model?
IJ: No. (Laughs)
BP: Do you have any role models yourself?
IJ: I think I probably do.
IJ: No. Derek Jarman maybe.
BP: Any plans for a new project?
IJ: Yes, I mean the ones I?ve already talked about. At the moment I?m taking a bit of a break from working full on since 1994: ?Darker Side of Black?, a 4 part series for Channel Four, Rainbow, the Fanon film, the first and second version of a short film I?ve made, and I?ve been teaching as well to supplement my income. Its been quite nice not working, but come September I?ll be putting my ideas to everybody.
BP: But for now you?re taking a well earned rest?
IJ: Yes that?s right.